Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg politician who has been serving as the President of the European Commission since 2014, delivered his valedictory “State of the Union” speech to the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday.
Debates on the legacy of his premiership mainly seem to begin and end with Brexit, which is understandable up to a point.
Much of his tenure was inevitably consumed by the relatively mundane and routine matters familiar to his predecessors. It is Brexit which weighs heavy on his time in office.
No Commission president would want to see the European Union fragment under their watch, and Juncker is no different. The UK being one of the biggest member states, breaking away from the Union was sure to leave a storm in its wake.
Much responsibility for Brexit has fallen on Juncker’s shoulders and he has been criticised by some for being too stubborn in pre-referendum negotiations with former British prime minister David Cameron. Had Cameron managed to secure a better deal for Britain from Brussels, so the theory goes, the UK Remain campaign would have prevailed.
That fateful referendum of 2016 has since set off a chain reaction, creating a whirlpool which engulfed London and Brussels alike.
Brexit, however, manages to overshadow many of Juncker’s achievements, particularly how he maintained the Economic stability of the eurozone and handled numerous economic crises efficiently.
The way Juncker dealt with the Greek crisis was commendable, virtually bringing them back from the brink of the abyss its debt levels would have pushed its economy into. While the raging taxes on citizens, the increasing percentage of unemployed youth, high suicide rates and illegal immigrants are still a matter of much concern for the Greeks, the satisfaction that the debt crisis has been averted is a significant achievement.
And as far as the eurozone is concerned, Juncker’s plan for the economic development of the EU has exceeded expectations and delivered more than €300 billion worth of investment across Europe, which is much more than the initial targets.
Juncker is leaving his successor a mixed legacy – on balance his multiple achievements outweigh his failures
We are seeing this first hand in Malta, the eurozone’s fastest growing economy. Juncker deserves his share of credit for presiding over stable growth in the EU economy at a time of global uncertainty.
Juncker’s team in Brussels, led by the formidable and combative Martin Selmayer, works with extreme vigour to reform the operations of the European Commission towards making it more responsive and engaging. Over the past five years, even though he has seemingly had more fallouts than agreements with his colleagues, he has indeed managed to effectively modernise the political institutions in Brussels, led by result-oriented reforms.
He has not just stayed true to his plans as he announced them at the time of taking his office – extending the digital single market industry, and a fairer internal market (which in itself is a lot more than certain other leaders do) – but he has gone an extra mile with his commitment and has negotiated new trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand in record time.
Juncker has been often criticised from many quarters. The effectiveness of his achievements have been questioned and his priorities challenged, but that has never deterred him from continuing on his task of bringing change and reform in the society that he works for.
He has often been attacked on personal grounds – for engaging in a bon vivant lifestyle. Videos of him stumbling on important political events, being unable to stand straight without support have gone viral with degrading captions.
The truth of the matter can, however, not be ascertained.
As someone who spends much of my life following European politics, I have developed great respect for Juncker, even when I don’t agree with him.
He is least concerned about popularity, and focuses only on his clear agendas, and on following them to get things done effectively and efficiently.
This is not to say that he has enjoyed a bump-free ride. It’s not an easy job to keep 27 countries together in a Union and not have fallouts.
Migration being a very obvious, recent and pertinent example.
Of course Juncker is leaving his successor a mixed legacy – on balance his multiple achievements outweigh his failures. He has been a successful president to the European Commission. It has been a commendable tenure, one to which he can raise a glass of his favourite Bordeaux red to.
Aaron Farrugia is Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds and Social Dialogue.