Jean-Claude Juncker has announced that he will not seek a second five-year term as EU Commission President when his current mandate ends. Following the departure of Martin Schulz as European Parliament President last month, the announcement gives the EU an opportunity to reform, free of the arch-federalist pair.
The announcement of Mr Junker on German radio comes as no surprise to EU insiders. He was never the first choice of the 28 Heads of State and Government in 2014, and was openly opposed by some, notably UK Prime Minister David Cameron. But following the 2014 European Parliament elections, that institution virtually hijacked the appointment procedure for the European Commission President, imposing the so-called Spitzenkandidat from the winners of the elections, the centre-right EPP Group.
From day one Juncker has been a flawed President. Shortly after being confirmed in office, the Luxleaks scandal broke, pointing to very dubious tax-avoidance deals done between multi-national corporations and Luxembourg, when he was Prime Minister of that country. He managed to avoid a vote of no confidence by the European Parliament because then-President Martin Schulz pressganged the centre-left S&D Group into backing him as part of a “Grand Coalition” deal. This deal was later revealed to be a shoddy self-preservation exercise where Schulz and Juncker promised to keep each other in their jobs, the latter by using his contacts with EPP Prime Ministers.
Juncker and Schulz are two of a kind, unreconstructed federalists whose basic instinct is to respond to every crisis with calls for “More Europe!” They rail against so-called “populist forces” and thereby conveniently ignore what citizens are actually saying they want from Europe. This tone deaf attitude has actually worsened each crisis in Europe, from the Eurozone austerity crisis, to the migration question, to Brexit.
Epitomising the EU elite, Juncker and Schulz repeatedly refused to take any personal responsibility for the assorted catastrophes which befell the continent. So after the UK voted in a referendum last June to leave the EU, rather than jointly resign from office to take their share of the blame for failing to breach the gap between the EU and the citizen, the pair called for the introduction of a European Army as the solution.
Now that his protector-in-chief Schulz has departed the EU stage, Juncker is in a far more vulnerable position. The “Grand Coalition” has already crumbled as the EPP claimed the EP Presidency for Antonio Tajani, booted Schulz out, and formed a new alliance with Liberals (ALDE) and Conservatives (ECR). The S&D were furious and, together with the other groups on the left, will seek the right moment to get revenge, probably on the easy target Juncker.
Sensing the mood change, Juncker has now announced that he will step down by 2019 anyway. As the pressure builds, we should not be surprised to hear a fresh announcement from Juncker that he has decided to step down earlier “for health reasons” or perhaps “to pave the way for his successor”. The most likely person to take over as EU Commission President, according to Brussels insiders, is current Commission First Vice President, Frans Timmermans.