History will judge Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech more kindly than I can. Partly, that is because what will go down in history will be the text that he was supposed to deliver, rather than the messy reality of what he actually said. The importance of the content will soon transcend the detail of its delivery — the Commission’s proposal for distributing refugees between member states will be argued over for months and possibly years to come and that is what will be remembered.
The stage was set for something special: the EU begins a new political semester with an unenviable hand. Juncker could take his pick from the unfolding migration drama; Greece going back to the polls; Ukraine on the edge; make-or-break climate-change talks; the possibility of a British exit from the EU. For once, it seemed that the borrowed grandiose title of State of the Union might even match up to its American antecedents.
The Commission president had the opportunity and the attention of an audience well beyond Strasbourg. He admitted as much himself afterwards, saying that he had felt obliged — despite the recent death of his mother and the illness of his father — to come to the Parliament at one of the EU’s “monumental moments.”
The verdict of Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, was: “I think we have heard a great speech today that rose to the occasion.” Schulz has an awe-inspiring ability (perhaps useful in a politician) to declare that black is white, or white black. Precisely what Juncker did not do was rise to the occasion.
There were moments in the speech that the professional part of his audience — the journalists, spin-doctors and politicians — were able to re-process into soundbites and Tweets. But the occasional rhetorical flourish could not rescue something that was basically lacking in coherence.
Juncker started off by saying that his annual speeches to the Luxembourg national parliament had been criticized as too long. He then proceeded to live up to this warning in the most astoundingly inept fashion. He might have staked his claim to be the Fidel Castro of European politics and gone, unapologetically, for a marathon speech. Or he might have complied with the Parliament’s time restrictions and limited his speech to the one, burning issue of migration.
Instead, he spoke at enormous length, but, after the migration section, started leaving out passages of the speech as he was delivering it, claiming at the end that it had been “brutally shortened.” The result was uneven and disjointed — and long before the end he had lost his audience, at least in the parliamentary chamber.
There were two surprising ways in which he added to his own difficulties. The first was that he chose to deliver the section of the speech on migration in English, the weakest of the three languages that he used. He was slower and less forceful than he might otherwise have been. For what was the longest and most important section, he should have used French or German.
Secondly, he responded quite early on to heckling from Euroskeptic MEPs sitting close to him at the front of the chamber, most notably Nigel Farage. He lost both time and focus — and encouraged them to heckle him further. When Gianluca Buonanno, an Italian Lega Nord MEP, waltzed down the aisle wearing an Angela Merkel mask and shook Juncker by the hand, it was an indication not just that Schulz did not have control of the chamber, but also that Juncker had lost their attention. It was the political equivalent of a streaker running naked onto a sportsfield, in a desperate bid to liven up proceedings.
What those mistakes confirmed is that Juncker, for all his length of service as finance minister and prime minister, is not at his best in a parliamentary chamber. The Luxembourg parliament was probably not the most testing. Tony Blair writes of going to Strasbourg in June 2005, the day after Juncker had appeared before MEPs. (The presidency of the Council of Ministers was passing from Luxembourg to the U.K..) Juncker had berated the British government for having scuppered a deal on the EU’s budget at that month’s EU summit — and the MEPs had loved it.
Blair immodestly recalls how he turned the mood of the Parliament round. In doing so, he observes that compared with the prime minister’s questions at the House of Commons, the European Parliament was like going to a girls’ school playground after a long stretch in a high security prison. Juncker had no such training ground.
But Juncker’s problems were greater than the hecklers. There was a fundamental imbalance at the heart of his presentation of proposals for refugees: it was long on rhetoric but short on explanation.
The rhetoric was about how many Europeans are of refugee stock; about how the history of Europe has been full of refugees fleeing persecution or tyranny; about how Europe had erred in the past by seeking to select by religion or philosophy. But where Juncker skimped was in explaining why Europe should not, as he put it, take fright.
At a press conference after the speech, Juncker was asked by a (possibly despairing) television journalist to sum up his message for the people of Europe. Given this second chance, he responded: “In Europe, what we really need is solidarity and courage … Europeans should not be afraid.”
But there will have been some in his audience — even those not wearing Angela Merkel masks — who know that many Europeans are already afraid. A different style of politician would have offered an explanation of why his proposals were the best way to ensure that those fears are not realized. A different politician would recognize that not every European has been brought up in a corporatist tradition of solidarity.
In the coming days and weeks, Juncker’s lieutenants — with Frans Timmermans no doubt to the fore — will be making the case for a compulsory quota scheme. What Juncker should have addressed better in the Parliament, was an explanation for why, as he put it, “This must be done in a compulsory way.” But he preferred assertion — and made no acknowledgement of the concerns of the central European states, which perceive that the Commission (as ever) is attempting to impose the will of Germany and France.
From the outset, the Juncker-style of Commission-leadership — at least in public — has been one of declaration and assertion. (The chosen path — Juncker’s 10 points — will be pursued.) But with the Juncker Commission fast approaching its first birthday, the risks inherent in that style are emerging: assertions can wear thin over time; and they are unlikely to win over the non-believers. Juncker still has some explaining to do.
Tim King is a contributing writer at POLITICO.
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