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The end of October marks the conclusion of the term of office of Jean-Claude Juncker as
President of the European Commission. His legacy to his successor Ursula von der Leyen is largely a heap of dust and ashes. Five years ago he came to power with a fanfare for the future. The European Union was to be given a new burst of vitality, become closer to its citizens, at last put an end to its constant preoccupation with itself, and work towards solving the real problems of our times. None of these good intentions have been transformed into reality, not even notionally. Instead, the situation has become worse – a whole lot worse.

This is due not least to the fact that the United Kingdom is on the verge of leaving the European Union. Brussels has been putting obstacles in the path of London every step of the way, whenever and wherever possible. The intention was deliberately not to allow an orderly exit under fair conditions. The primary goal was to make an example, to scare other Member States from taking a similar step. This calculation may have paid off. The timorous debates which had been flickering in The Netherlands, Austria and Italy about a possible departure from the EU have died down again. But the price which Brussels is paying for its no-comprise stance is a high one. Whether outside the EU, or even continuing within it, the UK is going to be difficult to live with for a long time to come. The lack of gratitude for all the services rendered to the Union during the decades of membership are not going to be easily or quickly forgotten.

But Brexit chaos is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problems facing the EU are much more serious, and they have been unresolved for so long that the public at large appear to have become accustomed to them. Eastern Europeans may feel memories stirring of the years before the collapse of socialist economic mismanagement. They were aware of the fatality of the situation, but regarded it as a fate that was inevitable. In a similar way, EU Europeans today seem to have got used to their continent stagnating economically, and the threat of losing touch with the global centres of innovation. If it were not for the growth powerhouses of Eastern and Central Europe, such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary, Europe’s economic performance would be looking much more depleted than it does already. At some point the question will have to be raised as to whether it really is rational to expect growth incentives from Brussels, or whether the core of the problem is actually to be sought in the over-regulating and the bad spirit of uniformity which prevails there. It is not without reason that a number of Member States, and also the States of the western Balkans, which are still waiting for a reliable prospect of accessing membership, see their interests as better served in the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.

Not resolved, but likewise escaping the general public’s awareness, is the Euro crisis. Negative interest rates, the purchasing of state bonds by the European Central Bank, and inflated Target 2 balances are signs of financial economic rejection, which inherently incur misallocations in terms of the real economy, imperil private assets, and set at risk the old-age provisions of millions of Europeans. Every new rescue measure which has so far seen the light of day to sustain the Community currency has simply made a bad situation worse. Magnanimous promises which two decades ago prompted citizens of the Euro Zone to allow their national currencies to be abandoned have been broken. The crisis of confidence and trust is not restricted to the European level, and in many Member States has led to populist movements of the most widely differing political orientations and radicality being able to gain influence.

Jean-Claude Juncker is not to be held responsible for all these crises, but all too often he has presented a poor image in how they are being managed. Ursula von der Leyen should be afforded a better fate in this respect. Nobody should underestimate her simply because, to everyone’s surprise, and like the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, she has been produced as a compromise candidate.

In Germany, she held her own for six years as Minister of Defence in an office which is generally regarded as an ejector seat. Among her strengths is the ability to win political support well beyond the bounds of her own parties, the German Christian Democrats at national level and the European People’s Party. As well as that, she is almost the only member of the Berlin Government who in the Trump era has succeeded in gaining a hearing on the other side of the Atlantic. With this transatlantic background she might be able to advance the security and defence policy of the EU in a way which will be understood not as an alternative to NATO, but rather as a necessary strengthening of its European pillar.

PB