THIS WEEK THE European Commission (EC) President Jean Claude Juncker comes to Dublin. Juncker retires next year after 5 years at the helm of the EU and 18 years previous to that as Premier of Luxembourg.
Among his engagements, he will be meeting with An Taoiseach as well as receiving an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. The temptation is for his visit to be used as a backslapping, swansong exercise. It should be about more than that.
The visit gives us an opportunity for some meaningful engagement with the EU’s top dog. I’m glad that Juncker is also taking time to attend and engage with our national parliament. Apart from providing some national democratic oversight on his term as President of the Union, members of the Oireachtas can ask him about how he feels his tenure has gone and quiz him on his plans for his final year in office.
It’s fair to say that whoever led the EU after the two-term presidency of Jose Manuel Barroso was always going to find a comparison tough. Barroso achieved much during his ten-year stint at the helm. The agenda of climate change was significantly progressed and of course he oversaw an almost doubling in membership, with the EU growing from 15 countries to 28 by the time he finished up.
At the outset of his presidency Juncker set himself some key priorities. There has been some advances, for instance, on deepening Economic and Monetary Union, and we have seen firm progress on Banking Union.
More remains to be done on the Capital Markets Union and on strengthening oversight of the institutions. There has also been progress on the Digital Single Market. Other priorities, such as the Energy Union, have fared less so; we are still highly dependent on Russian gas and the hoped for initiative of working better together was shown for what it is during a recent cold spell, when countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Greece stopped supplies to their neighbours so that they could keep the home fires burning.
A few of his key priorities completely bit the dust. TTIP was thrown out, and we all know how he fared with his aim to negotiate a deal to keep the UK in the EU. A fair conclusion would be that the results are a mixed bag.
Charm and style
What he can’t be charged with is a lack of affability or warmness. He’s not without a certain charm and personal style. A smoker and drinker, the UK’s Telegraph tried to paint these habits as worrying in the lead up to his appointment as President.
The rest of us cut him some slack. Some of his performances such as patting a colleague’s overweight belly, kissing the Belgian PM on his bald spot, and calling the Hungarian PM his “favourite dictator” have made him more human and for some are quite endearing. But there have been problems.
His past caught up with him in relation to taxation, with suggestions that he had presided over a system of tax avoidance whilst holding the premiership of Luxembourg. He has also presided over the lack of transparency and accountability that surrounded the appointment of the new EC Secretary General Martin Selmayr.
But he has had his successes too. One of Juncker’s major legacies will be the €315 billion European Strategic Investment Fund, which is now almost fully committed. In Ireland alone the €1.2 billion seed funding from the scheme has led to a total investment of €5.2bn in projects such as new Primary Care centres, the National Broadband Plan, as well as the new 1,880 passenger cruise ferry for Irish Continental Lines.
His plans for the future, launched during his State of the Union address last year, recalled the vision of the Union’s founders of 60 years previously. Identifying the issues of migration, globalisation, technological change and unemployment in an ageing Union he set out five different scenarios for how the Union might develop, ranging from “stay the same” to “do much more together”.
He will spend the remainder of his term flushing out these scenarios and is seeking views on how the Union should develop. It’s on issues such as this that he needs to hear the views of our parliamentarians.
We need to deepen the social dimension of the European Project and it would be good to hear Juncker’s view on how he sees this developing. He needs to tell us how the Union can help to fight discrimination and social exclusion, in the process making our citizens fit for the labour market and able to lead fulfilling lives.
Lots to talk about
We have lots to talk to him about. The coming storm in Italy suggests that his final year will be a difficult one. His visit to Ireland should be viewed with that in mind. It is also an opportunity to copper-fasten his understanding of our interests on Brexit.
Furthermore, having just returned from the G7 Summit in Quebec, it would be useful to get his take on the US-EU trade and tariff debate.
Juncker’s visit provides us with an opportunity for serious business and public engagement. The onus is on our Government and Oireachtas to insist that his visit is productive. It should not be just about talks behind closed doors in an echo chamber. As citizens of Ireland and the European Union, we deserve more than that.
Dominic Hannigan was the Chairman of the Oireachtas EU Affairs Committee from 2012-2016.
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