Juncker: “We are facing old problems, new problems”
Ruling out any concessions on free movement in forthcoming negotiations with the UK, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker marked the official start of Slovakia’s Presidency of the European Council in Bratislava, with the Commissioners College present. He and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico outlined the problems and challenges the bloc will need to address over the next six months.
“We are facing a certain number of problems, old problems, new problems. The most recent one is the outcome of the British referendum and the so called Brexit,” said Juncker, refusing to hide from the main problem that the Slovakian Presidency will face during its turn at the helm.
“As far as the Commission and also the EU Council, I consent there will be no negotiation whatsoever before notification and we are inviting the British authorities to make this intention clear. We have no time to lose and we wouldn’t want to add uncertainty to uncertainty, so we would like to know where we are heading at,” he added.
It is worth noting Juncker’s lapsus linguae: he referred to the “British Presidency” instead of the Slovakian Presidency. He quickly corrected himself by saying that this was the “joke of the day”.
As regards, Slovakia’s presidency programme, Juncker suggested that it is mostly in absolute harmony with what the EU Commission has underlined in its own working programme.
“We are happy that Slovakia takes the EU Presidency, this is a historic moment for Slovakia but also for the other Europeans,” Juncker said, suggesting also that this is an opportunity for Europeans to learn more about Slovakia in the coming months.
“The serious problem we are facing is the lack of investment to all countries and talking to the Slovak Prime Minister, I insisted to prolong the investment plan which is developing in a great success,” Juncker added. He also said that for the first nine months of the programme, €100bn have been mobilised with 26 member states and 150,000 SMEs benefiting. He said this is why it makes sense to prolong it.
In turn, Fico said that even though Slovakia is a small country, he hopes to prove that it is well-prepared for the presidency. He thanked Juncker “not just for his excellent cooperation and friendship,” but also for the support Slovakia has always received and felt “sometimes in very difficult times”.
Conversations between Juncker and Fico focused on the upcoming EU summit slated to be held on September 16. Migration is the issue that tops the agenda, but it also includes the UK’s vote to leave the EU. These two issues are expected to play a heavy role during the presidency, even if Slovakia has its own programme, as he admitted.
“We wanted to react immediately to the results” of the recent EU Council, so the Slovak presidency programme was just voted on June 30, just one day before the opening of the presidency semester.
On migration, Fico said the Slovak presidency wants to be a “serious broker” on the issue, but above all to concentrate on the positive agenda. The issues include “Back to Schengen”, smart borders, the new European Border and Coastal Guard and the Blue Card initiative.
“The obligation of our presidency is to put pressure, so that an agreement is reached,” Fico said, adding that the aim is to create enough scope for discussion and not to exacerbate the differences between member states.
“We wish to create a space for discussion, as much space as necessary,” he said. “We need more flexibility from the states in this situation.”
As regards the September 16 summit, Fico said the informal meeting of the 27 member states will be an opportunity for leaders to “openly talk about how we want to reshape the European Project”. He also expressed his desire for an open and honest discussion.
“We want to prepare this summit as thoroughly as possible with the EU Commission,” as the expectations are high.
“We agree very clearly that there cannot be any negotiations, even informal negotiations with the UK before notification [of the activation of the Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)].”
As per the attitudes of the 27 member states, Fico said that “we know what we want, we know how to proceed” since this has been made clear at the EU Council.
“These are turbulent times, so we have to ensure that the next six months are indeed successful,” concluded Fico.
“We are not going to change that,” added Juncker on the free movement of labour when asked by reporters in Bratislava why a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the EU. Juncker also appeared determined to protect all four freedoms for all countries that wish to remain part of the Single Market.
“I will not say we do not want change, but things moving to the right direction will not change,” he said.
Slovakian Presidency Programme
As for the presidency programme, Slovakia aims to produce tangible results for citizens in four areas: an economically strong Europe, the modernisation of the single market, a sustainable migration and asylum policy and a globally engaged Europe.
According to the presidency’s programme, the European economy “needs a significant investment incentive that will support sustainable economic growth and the creation of new job opportunities”. This will be realised by making full use of and multiplying investment instruments, pursuing structural reforms and promoting a responsible approach to public finances. These are at the heart of an economically strong Europe Progress in building the Capital Markets Union and in completing the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The Slovak Presidency aims to contribute to the improved performance and stability of the European economy in a positive way.
When it comes to the Single Market, “there are still shortcomings and barriers preventing it from realising its full potential Modernisation of the single market also requires continuous technological development and new opportunities.”
“The Energy Union can contribute to secure supplies of clean energy at affordable prices for industry and households The digital single market, including e-commerce, has the unique potential to remove barriers and create new opportunities for businesses and citizens,” according to the programme.
On efforts to manage migration effectively via a sustainable migration and asylum policy that will allow the EU to return to a fully functioning Schengen area, the programme proposes the use of modern technology at the external borders and closer cooperation between member states in the field of internal security. The aim is to make the EU more resilient to current security threats.
“Strengthening external relations will reinforce the global role of the EU, as active engagement on the global scene means strong trade.
“A credible enlargement policy remains an effective tool of political and economic transformation in Europe,” together with the correct policy to secure neighbourhood stability, prosperity and democracy.
“The Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU is confident that achieving progress in these priority areas will contribute to the coherence of the EU and will help restore the trust of citizens in the EU.”