In an interview with Politico's Brussels Playbook, former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has expressed his disappointment over the discord that emerged between euro zone countries in their attempts to come up with a joint response to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We've learnt nothing," Juncker said. “The way the Dutch finance minister expressed himself in the direction of Italy is again fueling the conflict between North and South," he said, referring Wopke Hoekstra last month reportedly calling on the European Union to probe why some countries didn't have the financial buffers to cope better with the economic shock. “Now we have let the North-South conflict flare up again without any need," Juncker said.
Juncker declined to speculate on whether the size of the financial package agreed by EU finance ministers is adequate, saying he preferred to “wait until the dust settles.” But an agreement “on a relatively ambitious package after difficult attempts to come together,” he said, “can only be welcomed.” Yet another failure “would have been a setback for the European idea.”
The former EC chief was particularly critical about the EU's tepid response to the Hungarian parliament voting to allow the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree without a set time limit.
“We have not been able to straighten out the East-West conflict, because the Hungarians act outside of any reasonable zone,” Juncker said. “I thought to myself that now that the new legislation has come into force in Hungary, governments and the [European] Commission will call a spade a spade,” he said, apparently nodding to the fact that neither his successor as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen nor EU governments explicitly called out Budapest when they expressed concerns about the impacts of coronavirus measures on the rule of law.
Juncker said he now expects a “much higher” 2021-2027 EU budget, which he insisted is the right instrument to deal with the economic fallout. “It is now urgent that the European budget be increased ... We need a budget that rises to the challenges of the future."
Corona bonds — a joint debt instrument which all EU member countries would guarantee — “are not an answer to the current crisis” as it would “take months” to prepare to use them, Juncker said. But he added that he was not against the idea in principle. “I am just against pretending there is no other answer to the crisis than corona bonds. But one should hold on to the idea. It’s not a crazy idea. There is no question that the instrument will be needed" in a future crisis like the current one.
Juncker also praised the speed with which the EU reacted to the pandemic, and his successor's role in marshalling the response. A great deal has been achieved in just a few weeks. Decisions were taken within a month,” Juncker said, referring to lockdown measures that were widely introduced across the EU in March. “That was a quick reaction ... Criticizing von der Leyen for that is cheap. She’s doing a good job.”