The European Union loses its face

Analyse tirée d’un entretien donné au Mainichi Shinbun, quotidien japonais, parue le 1er décembre 2019. Propos recueillis par Annika Wolle. Traduction rapide [EN] de l’article ci-dessous .

The European Union loses its face

The farewell of Jean-Claude Juncker is the goodbye of a monument of European politics. He was in the game for decades.

From the Barroso to the Juncker Commission, there has almost been a shift of paradigm: Juncker said from day one that he wanted the commission to be more political, almost like a governing body, but also to rationalise communication and to speak with one voice only. Barroso was keen to listen to the heads of state rather than to demonstrate leadership and authority. Juncker, by contrast, eventually succeeded in the attempt to embody the Commission’s policy amongst public opinion, the latter, so far described as “faceless administration”. As such, Juncker did a better job in “humanising” the function than Barroso and prior other predecessors.

But whilst his renowned easy-going attitude with several EU leaders facilitated negotiations with member states, the latter might have been too reluctant facing certain scandals and attacks: He did not firmly react on the scapegoat campaign in Hungary, that was targeting his own persona directly.

And the Commission did not get involved in the Brexit campaign either, treating this as a UK internal matter. The Commission thereby almost became a sparring partner for Nigel Farage and other Eurosceptic leaders. Juncker did not come across as sufficiently severe, appearing “perhaps a bit too smooth and forgiving, or simply put: too “human” in his relationship with his enemies.”

“If you first announce that the Commission ought to be more political and then overstate the concern to keep a safe (political) distance away in such a decisive institutional debate, you end up displaying a cognitive dissonance, especially for European citizens not understanding this mutism.”

While Juncker is from a generation that looks at the US as a friend and a partner, he did not fail in profiling the Commission against some attacks from the Trump administration, supported by top EU leaders like Vestager and Timmermans. Traditional alliances, such as the transatlantic relationship are fading. Young leaders, among who Emmanuel Macron, have understood this.

Under Juncker the Commission’s communication became a responsibility of the President. And, although is not always easy to comprehend who has the final say in a tricephalic Union Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, seemed to be on the same page, with respect and solidarity between them. Juncker’s laid-back attitude was complemented by Tusk’s boldness. After all the crises the European Union has been through, this must be highlighted.

The White Paper on the Future of Europe (2017) represented another symbolic initiative in this context. Through the outlining of different possible scenarios for the EU (in particular after Brexit), Juncker clearly indicated that there is room for change and deliberation. Moreover, in presenting the White Paper, Juncker even suggested to merge the two top jobs at EU level: the European Council and Commission Presidencies.

But by times, the centralised, almost jacobine model of governance in Brussels did not take into account some realities: in the midst of the migration crisis, Juncker should have given greater consideration to the lack of unanimity, taking into account the philosophical gap among member states about this sensitive issue in a context of increasing cultural insecurity. Juncker was perhaps stuck in the “business as usual” mode, not caring enough about conflicting political worldviews in the Union. In fact, the very idea of European integration, that is to complete the harmonious incorporation and ensure a positive involvement of the newest MSs in the European project, still constitutes as a remaining challenge. If the EU wants to present itself as a pluralistic democratic body, its commanding centre needs to be ready to apprehend to opposing voices instead of tagging them solely as populist renegades.

Nevertheless, as “political brand” at the service of the EU, Juncker appeared extraordinarily likable. We want our leaders to be trustworthy but even so authentic and empathetic. You can say a lot against Jean-Claude Juncker, but in this specific field, he managed to perform. After his 2017 State of the Union Speech, observers stated: “Finally we were moved”.

Leading the continent’s ultimate technocratic organisation and succeeding in accompanying the institution’s cold decision-making process requires emotions and concerns that go beyond politics. The fact that he became aware of this remains one of Juncker’s main successes as regards EU communication.

VDL needs to find her own style. She could be of great help in, for instance, bridging the gap with central and eastern European countries, because, so far, they respect her. She seems to want to invest more in storytelling, as shown by the performative titles of the new commissioners’ portfolios. But she will need to prove strong leadership. This is what the European Union needs right now.


Nicolas BAYGERT holds a PhD in Information and Communication at CELSA (Paris IV-Sorbonne) and at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL). Visiting lecturer at the University of Kent (BSIS) and Sciences Po Paris, he also teaches at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and at the Institute for Higher Social Communication Studies (IHECS), where he leads PROTAGORAS, a Think Tank dedicated to political and public communication. Dr. Nicolas Baygert has a broad experience in EU public affairs: after working for a Think Tank (CEPS) and for a communication and PA agency, he joined the European Commission as communication and press officer. Since 2012, Dr. Baygert has been working as an external consultant, providing strategic advice on political communication and PA.


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