During the European election campaign, I’ve seen a Jean-Claude Juncker who seemed tired, who did not seem up to speed during the debates with his contenders and who seemed to be disconnected from the party that supported him – the European People’s Party. But the speech (video, extracts from the text) he delivered yesterday let appear a different Jean-Claude Juncker.
The speech of the now-President-elect Juncker (elected yesterday by 422 votes in favour in a European Parliament of 751 deputies) that he gave in front of the European Parliament’s plenary is linked via the picture below if you want to (re)watch it yourself.
Below, I will present a few observations on this speech and what makes it seem different to the past.
The first observation is that Juncker presented himself as somebody who understands the political nature of his position. He said this quite literally during the speech, but more than just saying it he showed it in the the way in which he addressed the diversity of concerns – EU bureaucracy, free movement, EU-US trade negotiations, the Troika, the “social” in social market economy, to name a few – of the different political groups on whose votes he was counting to be elected. It was obvious from the issues that he talked about that he needed the support of the centre-left, counting on the majority of his own group but not giving in too much to alienate his own party too much.
The second observation is that Juncker showed that he is not just addressing the concerns of those groups he tried to appeal to but that he is able to listen to their discourse and to appropriate their discourse into his own discourse without sounding fake. This may appear trivial, but in the words he used to address issues such as migration, external border protection, the role of small and medium size enterprises or to state that the internal market is not more important than social values underlines that he is willing to construct a narrative that builds on the often quite divergent narratives of different political forces on the European scene in a humanly understandable and non-contradictory way. He makes it sounds as if he actually listened to the arguments of the different political forces and tried to combine them into common themes.
A third observation is that the way he talks does not (yet) sound poisoned by the language of EU bureaucracy, by the terms and terminologies and endless lists of EU nightmare keywords that one would get for example in Barroso’s State of the European Union addresses, speeches polluted by interservice fights about having the right EU jargon term in the speech. Sure, his address sounded like a political speech from an EU insider and a convinced European, but not like a speech from a puppet of intra-Commission turf wars or like a speech of diplomatic nothingness we are used to hearing from rotating Council Presidencies or from people like van Rompuy.
A fourth observation is that the speech transported the refreshing hint of a political vision, a vision also written down in Juncker’s Political Guidelines that he published yesterday. For Barroso, “vision” often meant saying “Europe 2020”, a term that doesn’t mean anything, that is and remains empty and behind which anyone could and can understand everything and nothing. Juncker committed to concrete things, from transparent lobby regulation to fostering concrete investments in to economic and industrial development, and he did so in plain language, not totally abstract terms. I doubt he will be able to implement all these, and sometimes his reconciling speech was hiding that some issues may not be able to be reconciled with the easiness of him talking about them. But political vision also means the ability to fail with that vision and by being at least direct about some of his concrete goals we can, if we disagree with the vision or if he fails to get it done, get rid of him with the next European elections.
A fifth observation concerns the speech itself. Unlike Barroso, who seemed to be a good speaker in free speech but who had catastrophic speech writers who were not able to write long speeches that fit to his style (or he was not able to deliver, who knows), Juncker delivered a speech that seemed to fit his style and personality. Sure, there where passages that were clearly written for him and not by him (like the part on energy security) where he seemed to be discovering the arguments as he was reading the text of the speech, but in general the speech was a healthy mix of his genuine own words and thoughts, and drafted speech needed to deliver on substance that addressed the most important concerns of MEPs. Not sure whether his Chef de Cabinet Martin Selmayr or someone else is responsible for the drafting of this and other speeches, but you could can see how satisfied Selmayr looked when Juncker sat down next to him after he had finished, knowing that a good speech had been well delivered. Definitely quite an improvement to Barroso’s times.
A sixth observation is that his reaction to the trolling of some MEPs towards the end of the speech showed what might be Juncker’s tactics of the years to come vis-à-vis non-constructive eurosceptics: Ignore them at first and let them shout, shout back at them shortly when they get really annoying, let them shout again and enjoy (without showing it) the applause from the majority for a good quote or side-intervention (as by European Parliament President Schulz in this case) that drowns the shouting of the extremes. Different to the TV debates during the campaign, he seemed to be up to speed to face his opponents without giving them too much space, something which he did on TV and that made him look weak.
A seventh and last observation is something that I wouldn’t have noticed myself but that Jean-Seb pointed out on Twitter and that also found its way into EUobserver: Juncker managed to hold his speech without ever mentioning the current President, José Manuel Barroso. Not a single reference or word of curtesy. That is remarkable, because even though Barroso was as much the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the past as Juncker was this time, the way Juncker ignored him in the speech shows how he wants the coming period to be a change from the old period, from a bureaucratic Commission to a political Commission, from a Commission of Brussels to a Commission of Europe, from a Commission solely legitimised by output to a Commission legitimised by votes and input, from a Commission without vision à la Barroso to a Commission guided by clearly expressed guidelines.
All these observations – and I’ve gone against my instincts and just covered everything I find positive interpreted in the most friendly way – don’t mean Juncker will be a good or better European Commission President. They don’t mean this will be remembered as a historic speech. And it doesn’t mean it would make me vote for him.
All this doesn’t mean either that Juncker will be able to deliver on his promises, that he will be able to put together a good team around himself and in the College of 28 EU Commissioners. It doesn’t mean he won’t be drawn into bureaucratic turf wars and that he will support policies or practices that many of us will find unlikeable and that soon we won’t get more of the same old Brussels shit that has made many convinced Europeans become Euro-cynicals over the years.
Still, it was a speech I liked listening to, a speech that shows that the head of the European Commission can talk policy without sounding technocratic, that he can hold a European discourse without making it sound removed from the many realities “on the ground” and that he can be cross-party without sounding arbitrary.
Maybe 10 years of Barroso have lowered expectations, but at least this was a speech worth listening to a second time, a speech that raises expectations about what comes next, a speech that sounded like a piece of political craft of an experienced politician with people around him who can help him deliver (at least a speech).
Maybe expectations are low indeed, but this speech makes me at least a little hopeful for the time to come. I’m looking forward being disappointed.