As Jean-Claude Juncker enters his last full year in office, he’ll be thinking about his legacy.
Will he be remembered as the European Commission president who saw the European Union shrink, rather than grow, as Britain leaves the bloc?
The widening divisions between North and South, East and West — prompted by the refugee and euro crises — are also potential blemishes on his record. The fault lines created by these crises have weakened the relevance of the Brussels-based institutions, and have put his legacy in jeopardy.
To be sure, Juncker is not personally responsible for any of these calamities. If anything, the Luxembourgish politician — and the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier — deserve a lot of credit for using the Brexit crisis to “take back control” and for keeping the EU27 united.
But if Juncker wants to leave office with an eye to his place in the history books, 2018 will have to be the year he does more than muddle through.
Juncker should use his last 12 months to make a real difference in the three policy areas that matter most to the bloc’s future: security, trade and technology.
In his State of the Union speech last year, Juncker lifted his eyes from crisis management to outline a personal vision for a united, Commission-led Union rather than the multispeed, flexible union put forward by Emmanuel Macron.
He called for an EU finance minister, for opening up the eurozone and Schengen to all Eastern member countries, and for a real European president — who would head the Commission and the Council — elected by the people.
These are all interesting ideas, but they would involve institutional reforms that would be impossible to push through in a year. They are virtue-signalling rather than a real plan for action.
So, what can he actually accomplish?
Rather than trying to change the treaties, Juncker should use his last 12 months to make a real difference in the three policy areas that matter most to the bloc’s future: security, trade and technology.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gestures as he delivers a speech in Strasbourg to present the Bulgarian Presidency priorities for the incoming Council of the EU | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images
His first target should be to deliver on the idea of a “Europe that protects.” As populist and far-right parties continue to gain traction across the bloc, it’s crucial that the EU show its citizens it can protect and empower them, rather than make them feel vulnerable and lacking in agency.
Europe’s citizens care less about spreading universal values and enlarging the Union than they do about feeling protected. That will only become more true as the threats of terrorism and cyberwarfare become more acute and authoritarian powers continue to agitate outside the EU’s borders. The EU needs to become a more muscular union in response to these threats.
Juncker has already moved the dial in this direction by pushing for the development of a European defense fund and making the case for greater defense integration.
But the early signs of the Permanent Structured Cooperation agreement (PESCO) are worrying. Rather than push ahead with a few determined members countries, PESCO includes an unworkably high number of countries — 25 so far — including spoiler nations such as Cyprus, whose main goal is to block EU-NATO relations. This will cripple the agreement’s effectiveness.
In its current state, PESCO will not help the EU to lead. Unless it is changed, the danger is that serious member countries will work around the EU institutions rather than see them as allies.
When it comes to trade, the EU needs to establish itself not only as a promoter of free trade, but as a guarantor of fair trade. One of the striking features of Juncker’s State of the Union speech was the emphasis on advancing trade deals with countries that are struggling from the effects of American protectionism.
It’s a step in the right direction, but to ratify these deals, the Commission will have to persuade citizens that the EU is not a force for uncontrolled globalization but their best hope of taming it.
To do so, Juncker will have to pay specific attention to upholding environmental and labor standards in deals with external powers. He will also have to ensure citizens are protected from fiscal and social dumping within the single market.
The world’s tech giants, like Google, listen to what Brussels has to say | Leon Neal/Getty Images
A revolution in Europe’s attitude to trade also implies protecting Europeans from foreign investments in strategic assets. This is something the Commission has tried to push forward with its ambitious proposals on screening of foreign direct investment, especially to prevent Chinese state companies from investing in sectors that are critical to European wealth.
That leaves technology. Perhaps the best way for Juncker to secure his legacy is to fully throw his weight behind Brussels’ efforts to become a regulatory superpower in the digital age.
Companies the size of countries — Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook — have been central to many of the economic and social advances of the last two decades. But they have also changed our political and media landscapes and the nature of our societies, and turned our tax rules upside down.
The Commission has emerged as the only regulatory power willing and capable of defending our values and societies in the face of this massive technological change. Regulatory firepower is one of the few areas in which the EU is taken seriously around the world.
The next Commission president will face a much steeper uphill climb.
The world’s tech giants listen to what Brussels has to say, because they know a Commission decision could change their regulatory environment worldwide. This is especially true after the Commission hit Apple and Google with extraordinary fines in antitrust cases. If Europe challenges the way tech giants do business, so might other regulators who lack the economic weight to take them on by themselves.
The chances for European renewal are better in 2018 than they were at the beginning of Juncker’s term. Once Berlin forms a government that can provide an answer to France’s reform proposals, the economy will be much stronger than at any other point in Juncker’s term.
But this window of opportunity will close after 2018, when the European Parliament election could embolden populists and economic growth is projected to slow. The next Commission president will face a much steeper uphill climb.
Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.