European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was a target of criticism in the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, with some national politicians saying he was the wrong man at the wrong time as the EU heads into an uncertain future.
But in recent days Juncker has shown the political street smarts that got him the Commission job in the first place. Long known as the EU insider’s insider, the Commission president has managed to deflect calls for his resignation, win support from his sometime rival at the European Council, Donald Tusk, subdue his integrationist, more-Europe reflex, and make a case for stability and solidarity in the Union. He’s even been traveling more, looking presidential at EU summits in Warsaw and in Beijing.
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Is he outthinking everyone? Here’s a look at eight reasons why Juncker is not likely to be shoved aside anytime soon.
It’s inconvenient for Angela Merkel
The German chancellor is the only individual European leader with the soft power to force Juncker from office. But she has no interest in doing so at a time when she has electoral worries of her own, including such domestic challenges as mending ties to her coalition partner the CSU party, and keeping a lid on the surging Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the lead-up to 2017 elections. A Juncker departure would be another crisis Merkel could do without. In any case, a relatively weak Commission president suits Germany, leaving Merkel essentially unchallenged on major issues.
France wants Juncker to stay, too
The biggest concern of the François Hollande administration and French diplomats is the need to avoid fueling support for Marine Le Pen and the National Front. That means fending off budget clampdowns by Brussels, and being able to visibly claim victories in the EU system. The country’s powerful European commissioner Pierre Moscovici, who saw more responsibility for the euro added to his portfolio in the wake of the Brexit vote, is well positioned to do this. France is also satisfied with the status quo.
Most national governments like a part-time president
Governments are happy to see a relatively inactive Commission compared to those of Juncker’s predecessors, with legislative output more than halved. Juncker made sure after the Brexit outcome to remind everyone that his Commission was going to keep its promise of doing more by doing less. Pro-EU MEPs may be bored, but national governments are relieved. Juncker’s plan for a “European Pillar of Social Rights” is still nowhere to be seen, plans for a eurozone treasury are gathering dust, and dreams of a new EU treaty are just that … dreams.
The federalist rhetoric has been dialed way down
In his 2015 State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Juncker said “there is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union.” Fast-forward to the Brexit campaign and Juncker was shifting tack. In an April 2016 speech Juncker said, “The Commission is doing less. I think that one of the reasons that European citizens are stepping away from the European project is that we are interfering in too many domains of their private lives.” Speaking to reporters from the German magazine Spiegel in June 2016, Juncker sounded almost proud of his new Euro-realist tone: “I am not an advocate of the ‘United States of Europe,’ nor am I an integration fanatic. You can’t deepen the European Union against the wishes of the European countries.”
He plays well with Socialists
There are many in Brussels who think the notionally center-right Juncker sits to the left of his notionally Socialist first vice president, Frans Timmermans. Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz brag in interviews about being a “proven team.” This sort of canny positioning helps keep the second-biggest political force in Brussels on-side. The Commission’s recent moves to give some economic wiggle room to Portugal and Spain also play well with anti-austerity Socialists. Combined with Juncker’s personal touch, honed during three decades working the backrooms and phone lists of Europe’s political elite, the Commission president has a safety net that crosses borders and the political aisle. It worked well during his two most recent scrapes: an intelligence services mismanagement scandal that saw him resign as Luxembourg prime minister but bounce back within a year to lead the Commission, and a no-confidence vote in the European Parliament over the Luxleaks tax avoidance scandal.
He (mostly) plays well with Parliament
Despite making waves with his endorsement of Schulz to stay on as Parliament president, Juncker has strong support in the assembly, and MEPs are unlikely to push to remove him. That’s especially so because the Parliament has no legal powers to unseat Juncker on his own: They would have to remove all 28 commissioners together, as nearly happened in 1999. Then, the entire Santer Commission resigned en masse, to avoid the humiliation of being sacked by the Parliament for mismanagement.
Juncker is a creation of the 2014 European elections Spitzenkandidaten process and meets regularly for dinner with a “G5” of the Parliament’s top leaders. Many MEPs see Juncker as symbolizing through his means of election and his policies, an emerging European democracy. In this thinking, to hurt Juncker is to hurt that overall project, and to lose access personally and institutionally to that sort of Commission leader. The wish by national leaders for more “inter-governmental” processes, rather than decisions involving the Commission and Parliament, would become reality in a post-Juncker world.
There’s a need for party balance
In 2014, center-right and center-left heads of state, party leaders, and senior MEPs agreed to share out the top EU jobs between themselves based on ideology and nationality. Removing Juncker upsets that balance. It also opens up a political Pandora’s Box. Which other small, reliable country could supply a candidate that satisfies the Franco-German engine at the heart of Europe? How would leaders take account of the rising number of liberal heads of government now at the EU summit table? Spain remains annoyed that it lacks a top position. Any shuffling of Poles in top EU jobs such as Council President Donald Tusk or Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska could lead to a right-wing figure from the Law and Justice party being sent to Brussels. These are just several of 28 or more possible difficulties.
There’s no consensus on a replacement
Assuming that Merkel-led negotiations could create a balance of interests elsewhere, there is no consensus on who could replace Juncker. Timmermans does little to hide his interest in being a European statesman, but his ascension to the top Commission job would require a European People’s Party candidate to replace Martin Schulz as Parliament president, as well as support from foes such as the Polish government. Herman Van Rompuy served as a compromise candidate before but hardly suggests fresh thinking or a fresh face. Valdis Dombrovskis has had his wings clipped in the post-Brexit Commission settlement. The celebrity options, Christine Lagarde (now tied into a second IMF term) and Tony Blair (wrong nationality and politically wounded by the Iraq war and coverage of his business interests) are non-starters.