Speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg for the last time before his term expires in May 2019, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the bloc’s MEPs to no longer take their international alliances for granted while assuring that the EU would become a global player by making the euro the international trade currency.
“Europe has to embrace its destiny,” said Juncker during the opening of his final State of the Union address, adding “By pooling sovereignty where necessary, we strengthen all our component nations and regions. That’s part and parcel of belonging to the European Union. European sovereignty will never be directed against others. Europe must remain a tolerant open continent and it will remain so. Europe will never become a fortress turning its back to the world; in particular to the suffering part of the world. Europe must and will remain a multilateral continent because the world belongs to everyone and not just the few.”
Europe’s global role
Juncker stressed that the European Union remains “a force to be reckoned with” on the international stage, saying, “Europe has the capacity to influence world affairs. Europe must increasingly be a sovereign player in international relations. European sovereignty derives from the national sovereignty of our Member States. It does not replace what properly lies within the national purview.”
Boosting the role of the euro as a reserve currency would also put Brussels on equal footing diplomatically with the United States and give the EU much-needed leverage when pushing back against the worst impulses of US President Donald J. Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Washington’s traditional Western allies both in Europe and NATO and has even gone so far as to call the EU ‘an enemy’. Trump infuriated most of the US’ partners by unilaterally imposing harsh economic sanctions on Iran after hundreds of European countries had invested in the Iranian market following the signing of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
Trump’s open hostility to the European Union and his embrace of authoritarian leaders including, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, led Juncker to conclude that Europe is at a “critical” moment in its post-World War II histroy as it must prepare for a world in which Trump’s United States is an unreliable foreign policy partner and a protectionist trade rival – facts that influenced the EU’s Commission president to use the State of the Nation address as a platform to call on Europe to stand up for the international order human rights by pushing back against the “trade and currency wars” that have been perpetuated by Trump’s openly hostile and isolationist policies.
Bolstering Europe’s institutions
Strengthening the European Monetary Union will help boost the bloc’s standing in the world, according to Juncker, which can be done through the creation of a Banking Union and Capital Markets Association. He then tasked the 28 Member States and the European Council, along with the European Parliament, to finalise the legislative proposals that the Commission has already tabled.
Weighing in on the future of the European election process, Juncker expressed his support for the lead-candidate, or Spitzenkandidaten, system and asked the European Parliament to reconsider the possibility of putting together transnational lists for the 2024 European Elections.
Pan-European patriotism for all
Amid the rise of populist far-right parties in several of the EU Member States, Juncker spoke of the need for a distinctly European ‘enlightened patriotism’ that does not exclude or turn against any single individual and stressed that “poisonous nationalism” has nothing but hatred and destruction to offer European citizens in their future. Juncker insisted, instead, that both pan-European and national patriotism are not antithetical and stressed that anyone who loves their own country also loves Europe at the same time.
“Let us show the EU a bit more respect and stop dragging its name through the mud. Let us embrace patriotism and reject exaggerated nationalism that projects nothing but hate,” said Juncker as he warned EU citizens not to grow complacent with peace and progress while also reminding the public of the terrible fate that the Continent experienced during the First World War after several decades of relative calm. “We must restore the art of compromise,” Juncker stated in reference to the manner in which the Member States conduct inter-European affairs.
Rejection of illiberal governing models
In what was likely a reference to the hardline conservative governments in Hungary and Poland, both of which have come under intense scrutiny for their anti-democratic attacks on the rule-of-law Juncker expressed his support for invoking Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union to strip the voting rights of Member States that flagrantly violate the founding democratic principles of the bloc.
“The Commission will resist all attacks on the rule of law,” Juncker said,” adding, “We continue to be very concerned by the developments in some of our Member States. Article 7 must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened,”
The European Parliament voted on Wednesday to start the Article 7 process against Budapest, a move that Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban said would severely call into question the unity of the European Union.
The end of unanimity
According to the proposals tabled during his State of the Union speech, Juncker suggested that EU counties should no longer be able to veto the bloc’s foreign policy. The Commission president proposes qualified majority voting to decide on some areas instead. This will not only apply to foreign policy vote, but also to some tax matters, avoiding member states from blocking progress unilaterally. The European Commission should be expected to download a proposal to that effect.
The Polish government’s recent attacks on what Brussels views as a core tenant of EU membership, the independence of the judiciary, did not go unnoticed by Juncker during his address.
“We need to be very clear on one point: judgments from the (European) Court of Justice must be respected and implemented. This is vital. The European Union is a community of law. Respecting the rule of law and abiding by Court decisions are not optional,” Juncker said in reference to remarks by Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin who said if a ruling by the EU’s highest court on the Polish government’s changes to the judiciary was unfavourable to Warsaw, his government would ignore the Court of Justice’s recommendations.
Legal migration routes
Since his mandate began in 2014, the crisis over migration into the EU has been at the forefront on Juncker’s agenda as the flow of mostly refugees and illegal migrants have fulled the rise of populist, Eurosceptic political parties in Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, and Sweden.
While acknowledging that the migrant crises are a major social and economic strain on many of the EU Member States, Juncker reiterated, however, that Europe would not seal its border or turn its back on those in need, saying he was committed to further developing the European Asylum Agency to offer more support to member states processing asylum seekers and stressed the need for establishing legal migrations routes into Europe as part of an effort to attract skilled immigrants.
He did, however, declare that Brussels plans to send 10,000 more border guards to the areas most heavily burdened by the flow of migrants that are mostly from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. The move to bolster the manpower of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is part of Juncker’s plan to promote more solidarity amongst EU members when dealing with the migrant issue, saying, “We cannot continue to squabble to find ad-hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives.”
Europe should speed up the return of illegal immigrants, Juncker said, while the Member States need to find a compromise solution to dealing with new arrivals in order to guarantee the future of the 19-member Schengen Zone.
Plans for Africa
Europe must forge a new alliance with the countries of Africa, according to Juncker, but it must stop seeing its relations with Africa through the narrow prism of a donor/recipient partnership. Juncker urged the EU’s lawmakers to sign a new agreement with Africa, one that would respect Africa’s role in Europe and one that looks towards a strategic investment deal between the two sides as well as a comprehensive free trade agreement.
“Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnership,” said Juncker before adding, “We Europeans need this partnership just as much. Today, we are proposing a new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa. This Alliance, as we envision it, would help create up to 10 million jobs in Africa in the next five years alone. I believe we should develop the numerous EU-African trade agreements into a continent-to-continent free trade agreement, as an economic partnership between equals.”
Measured optimism for the Balkans and Brexit
Though tensions have been rising in the Western Balkans in recent months, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the region as both a potential land-for-peace swap between long-time rivals Serbia and Kosovo and a resolution to the 27-year-old name dispute between Greece and FYROM/Macedonia remain up in the air.
In his keynote address, Juncker hinted that he remains cautiously optimistic about Europe’s eventual integration of the Western Balkans. “We need a forthright attitude towards the accession of the Western Balkans. Otherwise, our immediate neighbourhood will be shaped by other actors,” Juncker said in a thinly-veiled reference to Russia’s growing influence in South-East Europe.
Turning to the issue of Brexit, Juncker said he lamented the UK’s decision to voluntarily quit the bloc and warned British Prime Minister Theresa May that the EU will not allow Britain to participate only in some parts of the single market after Brexit, but only after it demonstrates that it will follow a new set of rules. While refusing to endorse May’s plan to keep Britain in the single market for goods after Brexit, Juncker said the so-called Chequers proposals could be a “starting point” for a future relationship and that the UK would “never be an ordinary” country for the EU.
“We respect the British decision to leave our Union, even though we continue to regret it deeply,” he told MEPs. “But we also ask the British government to understand that someone who leaves the Union cannot be in the same privileged position as a Member State.