Juncker survives motion of censure in European Parliament

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has survived a motion of censure in the European Parliament that required him to step down after only three weeks in office.

The outcome of the vote was with  461-101 (with 88 abstentions) not exactly narrow, nor did it come as a surprise. Only the far-right EFDD group voted en bloc for the censure. The extreme left had tried to initiate their own motion – but when they failed to muster sufficient support for it, they nevertheless did not want to vote in favour of a motion initiated by EFDD and thus abstained. The two biggest groups in the parliament European People’s Party (EPP) and Social Democrats (S&D) have a majority of seats in the EP; they would never, even in view of more severe allegations than Mr. Juncker is currently facing, have allowed the Commission in which they hold a majority of the top jobs to be overthrown. Indeed, the experience made with the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999 was hardly encouraging: at the time it took nearly one year to set up a new Commission with new faces, and to get it operational – a year during which the EU was nearly paralyzed. Thus what actually protects Mr. Juncker (and would protect nearly everybody else in his place) is not the great trust people have in him, but simply the pains and difficulties in getting a new Commission. In other words, if we want a system in which political responsibility is not merely theoretical, it would need rules that allow the Commission (or individual Commissioners) not only to be voted out of office, but also to be replaced very expediently. This is currently not the case.

While we at AGENDA EUROPE are not enthusiastic about Mr. Juncker’s appointment as the Commission’s new President, we do believe he is by far the least bad choice among those who officially put themselves forward as candidates for the EU’s top job. Nevertheless, his record on issues related to human rights and dignity during his long-lasting tenure as Prime Minister in Luxembourg was pretty terrible: in just a few years, he legalized abortion, introduced homosexual “marriages”, and made Luxembourg one of the first countries in the world to legalize euthanasia (which, en passant, he recklessly used to create a constitutional crisis that might have set an end to the monarchy). On the European scene, he is known for a very cynical attitude towards politics: he once openly stated that “telling lies is part of a politician’s business”, and on another occasion – referring to the introduction of the EU’s single currency, which subsequently has become one of the major reasons for Europe’s economic and political problems – he said that “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back…”.

Mr. Juncker is thus not only a person whose truthfulness one may doubt, but he is, due to his long tenure both as a Head of Government and as head of the Euro-Group, indeed one of the decision-makers with a clear personal responsibility for the EU’s current crisis. His appointment reminds one of the old bonmot of a Serbian dissident: “Who shall lead us in the future? Of course those who have led us into this mess – they are the ones who best know the terrain…”

Also, precisely due to these involvements, Mr. Juncker certainly is not the symbol of a fresh start of the EU. He is, by contrast, one of the most experienced politicians in the EU environ ment, knowing the institutional jungle better than any of his peers. Thus what speaks against him is also what speaks, at least to some extent, in his favour.

But what has occasioned this week’s motion of censure was something more complex: the more-than-generous tax arrangements negotiated between Luxembourg’s Government and some multinational companies, which brought considerable tax revenue to the Grand Duchy whilst (of course) causing far greater loss of tax revenue in other EU countries.

It is understandable that those other countries are angry about those tax deals they apparently were not aware of until very recently. The legal issue, however is more complex: there is no harmonisation of corporate tax in Europe, hence every Member State can tax companies as it likes. The choice to have low taxes is, in principle, a perfectly legitimate one. The problem with Luxembourg’s tax deals is that, if not every company has been able to benefit from them in exactly the same way, they might be seen as a form of state aids, for which (contrary to taxation) the EU has a very rigorous regime.

Facing criticism over his former role in turning Luxembourg into a tax haven, Mr. Juncker has affirmed that the whole matter would be thoroughly and impartially investigated – not by himself, of course, but by Danish Commissioner Margreth Verstager, who is responsible for Competition and State Aids. But how independent can that investigation be, given that Mrs. Verstager is Mr. Juncker’s sub-ordinate? It is routine for the Commission to investigate alleged breaches of EU laws by Member States, including the one Member State of which the Commission President happens to be a national. But this is not just one investigation among thousand others – it is one in which the current President is directly implicated.

The public will follow Mrs. Verstager’s handling of this sensitive file very closely, and if she finds something embarrassing the pressure on the President will again increase. If she finds nothing, people will begin to question whether the investigation was handled with due care. Thus, despite the outcome of this week’s vote, the Commission’s troubles may be far from over.