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As the Commission gives in to Member States, new cracks appear in EU foundations

Two years have gone by since the European Commission came to power. At first its president, the former prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, was eager to open a new chapter. European Union integration was necessary in his eyes to avoid a slow disintegration as the EU was hit by a debt-driven financial crisis and the first signs of a humanitarian refugee crisis at its shores. He thought federalism was the name in town. Over the last few months, he has had to backtrack and the European Commission is now very much in tune with the governments’ wishes, less federalist than it was earlier, more attentive to domestic political sensitivities. There are three files that show this new trend: migration policy, trade policy and fiscal policy. In all three cases, the EU executive’s attitude has become much more confederal, in fact abiding by  the national will. The goal is to preserve the EU and to reduce strain among members states, but behind a facade of unity disruptive tensions are building up. Regarding the EU’s migration policy, the European Commission has decided not to start  infringement procedures against those governments which so far have disregarded the decision to relocate across the EU refugees from Italy and Greece, as was decided by the Council in 2015. Although many Eastern European governments are blatantly refusing to apply the measures, the EC is not going after them, accepting the status quo to avoid opening a dispute with countries where public opinion is deeply opposed to immigration. The same applies after all with trade. The economic agreement negotiated with Canada (CETA) could have been considered a European agreement, for approval by the European Parliament and the European Council. In July, however, the European Commission decided to consider it a mixed agreement, requiring therefore national ratification by member countries. The choice was made as a way to assuage growing popular protests against free trade agreements and globalization. Even here, in fact, the EU executive has given the last word to member countries. Finally, the third file is the fiscal one. In this case the jury is still out, but it seems clear that the Juncker Commission won’t apply the rules strictly. The Italian 2017 budget is in clear violation of the Stability and Growth Pact. Instead of aiming for a reduction in the structural deficit of 0.6% of GDP, its objective is to increase it by 0.4% of GDP. In a letter sent this past week and seeking clarifications, the European Commission merely noted “substantial” deviations between previous commitments and current targets. As in the cases of migration and trade, the EU executive is expected to let national governments off the hook as it is increasingly worried of provoking euroscepticism in member states. At this stage, Brussels is paying particular attention to national sensitivities and to the desire to maintain a semblance of unity among member states. While it came to power with pro-federalist policies, it is now backtracking, letting members states having the last word on many issues. Earlier this month, in Paris, Mr Juncker was adamant: “I think we should stop talking about the United States of Europe. People do not want them.” The European Commission’s attitude is understandable, as in many countries euroscepticism has become a threat to political stability. However, the risk is that behind the facade deep cracks are putting at risk the EU’s foundations, the same foundations that paradoxically the Brussels establishment is seeking to preserve by giving in to member states. Regarding migration, the attitude of Eastern European member countries is still a source of serious irritation among their partners in the West and in the South. On the trade front, the amazingly difficult signature of the CETA–after Belgium’s successful attempt to seek further assurances on agriculture issues and other legal files before giving its green-light–is calling into question the credibility of the EU as a trade negotiator on world markets and in the wider field of international relations. Finally, regarding national budgets, the role of the Stability and Growth Pact is increasingly watered down, while rules are blatantly disregarded. Are we witnessing the slow disintegration of the EU or just a temporary backtrack? Those who still believe in the need of more European integration to avoid a violent disruption must hope that–as the French say–the European Commission has decided to reculer pour mieux sauter, i.e. to take a step back to better jump the next time farther.