John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Jean-Claude Juncker

THE STATE OF THE EUROPEAN UNION

President Juncker made a good speech to the European Parliament last week.

He stressed what he called European values.

He singled out three….the Rule of Law, Equality, and the Freedom to Voice your opinion as a citizen or a journalist.

The stress on the rule of law is important in light of what is happening in Poland. The EU is facing a long and difficult confrontation with Poland and the Polish government will whip up nationalist sentiment. But the EU must not back down.

In this context, he also stressed how important it is that the rulings of the ECJ are accepted as final, and implemented, by all member states. Without this, the EU would wither away. This being called in to question in Poland and Hungary in respect of accepting refugees.

On Equality, he stressed that there should be equal pay for equal work in the same countries. This is a concern of the French President.

I am glad that freedom of speech was stressed.

Freedom of speech is important if we are not to see democracy turned into the tyranny of the majority.

Prevailing opinions must be open to challenge, and sometimes that may give offence or be misconstrued.

Those who are offended have the right of reply, and if someone is libelled they can go to court. Apologies for mistakes in the use of free speech should, in general, be accepted.

Journalists should not be forced out of their jobs, to serve the commercial interests of advertisers, who have come under pressure from social media. That is happening in Ireland at the moment can be just as much a threat to free speech today, as state censorship was in the past.

I am glad that President Juncker mentioned a European Deposit insurance scheme to help make banks safe, but there should also be a limit placed on banks buying too many bonds of their own government, which can lead to dangerous concentration of risks.

He stressed the strengthening of Europe’s defences against cyber attacks. Apparently, 4000 ransomware attacks are made every day in the EU.

He also stressed the need for better defence against state inspired and organised cyber attacks, of the kind suffered by Ukraine and Estonia. Ireland should play its part, through the EU and the NATO Partnership for peace, of which it is a member, in working to strengthen Europe’s cyber defences. In the cyber world, the fact that Ireland is an island is no defence, and will be even less so when the UK leaves the EU.

I agree with his support for having some MEPs elected on a EU wide list. That would be a small step , through the debate it would engender, towards creating a Europe wide informed public opinion

As I pointed out in a recent speech in Cahirciveen, there are huge differences between EU states voters in their views on what the EU should prioritise, and little understanding of other countries needs and fears. An election campaign in which every voter would choose between different European parties, on the basis of their programmes, would help build a sense of ownership of the EU by all the voters of Europe, and a better understanding of what the EU is, and is not, capable of doing.

But I am not keen on his idea of merging the roles of President of the European Council, and that of President of the Commission.

The Commission is the guardian of the Treaties, whose provisions it must uphold without fear or political bias.

The Council is a political body, which, with the Parliament, must make political judgements on Commission proposals. That separation should not be changed.

Some division of powers is appropriate to a confederal Union, like the EU. The EU is not a state and is not going to become one. The fact that the UK can leave it proves that the EU is a voluntary union, unlike the USA.

I was surprised to hear him propose to move policy making on tax matters to majority voting. This would mean that big countries could set the tax policies of small countries, which is not acceptable. It would alter the balance of the EU fundamentally.

On the face of it, this would seem to require an amendment of the EU Treaties.

President Juncker seemed to suggest that majority voting on tax policy could be achieved by using a “passarelle” provision in the Lisbon Treaty, which allows some issues, currently decided by unanimity, to be moved to majority voting, by the unanimous agreement of all EU Heads of Government(without actually amending the Treaties).

I am satisfied that this unanimous agreement will not be forthcoming and that the proposal to move tax policy to QMV will not go far. In light of the 1986 Crotty judgement on the constitutionality of the  Single European Act, it is likely that demands would be made for a referendum in Ireland on a move to majority voting on tax policy.

The European Council gave the following assurance about the interpretation of the effect of the Lisbon Treaty to the Irish people in June 2009;

“TAXATION

Nothing in the Treaty of Lisbon makes any change of any kind, for any Member State, to the extent or operation of the competence of the European Union in relation to taxation.  “

The Commission would be prudent to take special note of this in pursuing this aspect of President Juncker’s agenda

 

 

 

 

 

THE EU IS A UNION OF RULES…NOT A UNION OF FORCE

CHANGE THE EU TREATY RULES ON DEBTS AND DEFICITS, IF NECESSARY…. BUT DO NOT BEND THEM 

The European Union is a union of sovereign states, who are sovereign in that they are entirely  free to leave the EU. This freedom to leave means that the EU is not a “super state”. There is no coercive force, no EU army, to force Britain or any other country to remain in the EU. Britain enjoys a freedom, within the EU, that colonies did not enjoy within the British or other European Empires.
 
Britain is thus entirely within its rights in considering the option of leaving the EU, although that does not mean that such a course would be wise.

The EU does not exist on the basis of coercion. It exists on the basis of common rules, or Treaties, applicable to all, interpreted independently by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice,  that EU have so far countries freely abided by, even when particular decisions were not  to their liking. If countries started systematically ignoring EU decisions, the EU would  soon disappear.

One set of particularly important set of EU rules are the ones that apply to budget deficits and debts of EU countries within the euro zone. These rules have been incorporated in EU Treaties and in Treaties between Euro area states. One of the provisions is that if a country has an excessive deficit, it must reduce that deficit by an amount equivalent to 0.5% of GDP each year until it gets its deficit below 3%.

France and Italy, big states that were founder members of the EU, have both produced budgets for 2015 that do not comply with the rules.

Initially the European Commission objected, and both countries have adjusted their budgets a little.  But, even after these revisions, the budgets are still in breach of the EU rules.

Some will argue that it is the rules that are at fault, not France and Italy. Inflation is negative, so debts increase in value, while prices are falling.

Countries are caught in a debt deflation trap of a kind that was not envisaged when the rules were drawn up.  But that is an argument for changing the rules, not an argument for ignoring them or pretending they have been complied with when they have not been.

But changing the rules would require EU Treaty change, and nobody wants to change the Treaties, because a Treaty change would have to be unanimously agreed among all 28 EU states. Other states fear that would be an opportunity for Britain to use the lever of blocking  a Treaty change to revise the fiscal rules, with  which it might otherwise agree,  simply as a means of getting  a concession of British demands for

+  a restriction of free movement of people within the EU,  
+  vetoes for a minority of national parliaments on EU legislation and
+  the  scrapping the goal of “ever closer union” within the EU.

This is a form of blackmail, but it has happened before in EU affairs.

But if the EU is unable to change its Treaties, because of blockages like this, the EU will eventually die. Necessary EU Treaty change cannot be dodged indefinitely. The EU will atrophy if it cannot change its Treaties, in the same way that states would wither, if they could not change their constitutions from time to time.
 
In a recent commentary, Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies has criticised the European Commission of Jean Claude Juncker for failing to either 

a.) Insist that France and Italy stick by the existing fiscal rules or, if not
b.) Call for a revision of the rules to take account of the exceptional deflationary conditions that exist

He  is right .

THE CASE FOR JEAN CLAUDE JUNCKER

It is difficult to understand why David Cameron has decided to expend so much of the UK’s limited political capital in the EU on a bid to stop Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission. The timing of his campaign, at this late stage when in the European Parliament  elections are over, is disastrous. 

All the major political parties represented in the European Parliament selected their proposed lead candidates for President of the Commission,  ahead of that election, on the supposition that the lead candidate selected by the party that subsequently won the largest number of seats in the Parliament, would be the one who would be supported for President of the Commission. 

The Heads of almost all EU Governments participated in the selection process of their European party’s candidate. For example, Angela Merkel took part in the selection of Juncker as the EPP candidate at the EPP Convention in Dublin a few months ago.  
If the Heads of Government, who are almost all the leaders of their national parties, had wanted to stop thisprocess, they could have done so……several months ago.  They did not do so. It is too late now. 

They let the campaign go ahead on the basis that the lead candidate was to be the preferred nominee for President of the Commission. They allowed TV debates between the lead candidates to take place, on the assumption that each were the candidates for Commission President.

Personally, I would have preferred if the President was selected by a direct vote of the European people, rather than by this convoluted and indirect method. This would have been better for the independence of the Commission, from both the Parliament and Heads of Government.   But that battle was lost long ago.

I fought for direct election in the Convention, but got no support from any major figure except George Papandreou, then Greek Foreign Minister. Although they constantly complain that the EU is “undemocratic”, no British representative gave direct election any support in the Convention.

David Cameron should remember that this is the third time that a British Government has tried, in a very personalised way, to veto candidates for President of the Commission, the late Jean Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt were both victims of previous British vetoes, simply because they were people of strong pro European conviction. 

David Cameron’s foolish confrontational tactics will be less successful this time, because now the issue will be decided by qualified majority rather than unanimity, and a veto by a single country is no longer possible.

Cameron says he want to keep Britain in the EU, but his tactics are so divisive that, if he wins it will be at the price of huge ill will in Europe, or if he loses,  it will be at the price of increased anti EU sentiment in his own party and in British society more widely. Either way, he is serving neither his own, his party’s, or his country’s interests.

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