In a much anticipated State of the Union speech, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appealed for the preservation of the traditional values of solidarity on which the European Union is built, at a time when national egoisms prevail in many countries, faced with the unprecedented refugee crisis.
Juncker delivered the State of the Union speech as planned before the MEPs in Strasbourg, despite the passing away of his mother on Sunday night, and of the poor health of his father, in his native Luxembourg.
He departed many times from the written text, and was interrupted several times by UKIP’s Nigel Farage, to whom he replied with firmness and humour.
The State of the Union speech was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, and this fifth speech was the first delivered by a Commission President elected by the European Parliament after having led a European campaign as leading candidate of his political force.
As Parliament President Martin Schulz said, never has a State of the Union speech been more anticipated. The main reason, of course, is the refugee crisis that is overwhelming Europe, and the fact that the EU was also severely shaken by the recent eurozone crisis, and the Greek crisis.
“Our European Union is not in a good state”
Juncker, who had said on the occasion of his appointment that this Commission was “the Commission of the last chance”, made it plain that the European project was under threat.
“It is time to speak frankly about the big issues facing the European Union. Because our European Union is not in a good state. There is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union. We have to change this. And we have to change this now,” Juncker said. He was interrupted many time by applause.
Indeed, the Commission President, who says he leads a “political” Commission, is more at ease in the European Parliament than in the Council, where he has been reproached by the heads of state and government precisely on the issue of how to deal with the unprecedented migrant crisis.
Several EU countries reject the mandatory migrant quotas and a permanent relocation system, as the Commission has been proposing since early this year. But this obviously didn’t discourage Juncker from presenting even more ambitious proposals, based on the community approach.
While the Commission initially proposed to relocate 40,000 people seeking international protection from Italy and Greece, now Juncker announced a second emergency mechanism to relocate a further 120,000 from Italy, Greece and Hungary.
“I call on member states to adopt the Commission proposals on the emergency relocation of altogether 160,000 refugees at the Extraordinary Council of Interior Ministers on 14 September. We now need immediate action. We cannot leave Italy, Greece and Hungary to fare alone. Just as we would not leave any other EU member state alone. For if it is Syria and Libya people are fleeing from today, it could just as easily be Ukraine tomorrow,” Juncker said.
A continent of refugees
Juncker took the time to remind lawmakers that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. He listed a series of episodes that saw millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from the Huguenots fleeing from France in the 17th century, to Czech and Slovak citizens seeking exile in other European countries after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, in 1968.
“Have we forgotten that 20 million people of Polish ancestry live outside Poland, as a result of political and economic emigration after the many border shifts, forced expulsions and resettlements during Poland’s often painful history?”, Juncker asked, in an obvious message to Poland, which is among the most reluctant countries in the EU to accept refugees.
He also warned member states against making religious distinctions when deciding to admit refugees.
Slovakia, for one, has said it would only welcome Christian refugees.
During Greek crisis, ‘We looked into the abyss’
Juncker spoke in an open way about the Greek crisis that tested the EU’s patience in the first half of the year.
“Since the start of the year, the talks on Greece have tested all our patience. A lot of time and a lot of trust was lost. Bridges were burnt. Words were said that cannot easily be taken back,” Juncker stated, in a clear reference to the government of Alexis Tsipras, who has in the meantime resigned and is campaigning for the 20 September elections.
“We saw democracies in the Eurozone being played against each other. […] Collectively, we looked into the abyss”, Juncker said.
Juncker also related how he had told Tsipras never to admit the possibility of a “Grexit”. He said he told him that he would help him, but warned that he was not a “wizard” and that he should not take for granted that Grexit is unavoidable.
The Commission President also insisted that the agreed bailout package should be respected by any Greek government.
‘The crisis is not over’
Regarding Europe’s economic situation, Juncker said the crisis was not over, and that it had only been put on “pause”.
“We need more Union in our Europe,” Juncker said, explaining that this means two things: first, investing in Europe’s sources of jobs and growth, notably in the Single Market; and secondly, completing the EU’s Economic and Monetary Union to creating the conditions for a lasting recovery.
“Europe needs an economic government,” Juncker said, adding that he had been advocating this since 1991, when he was a young minister.
Juncker mentioned the birth of the €315 billion Investment Plan for Europe, which carries his name, joking that this was in case of responsibility if it fails.
Regarding EU reform, the Commission President stressed that “the European Parliament is and must remain the Parliament of the euro area”. He also said that the Union needed a common system to ensure that citizens’ bank savings are always protected up to a limit of €100,000 per person and account. This is the missing part of the EU’s Banking Union, he said.
Juncker also stated that the country-specific recommendations the Commission makes to member states should be reduced to three reforms, but that those should be taken seriously by each country.
To the UK, Juncker remarked that he is confident that a fair deal can be agreed, on the basis of reducing EU regulations, which will help keep the country in the Union.
On Ukraine, the Commission President said that he would do his utmost so that Ukrainian citizens could enjoy visa-free travel to the EU by the end of the year. To Russia, he said that the EU must show the cost of confrontation, but it must also make clear it is prepared to engage.
On climate change, Juncker said that the EU is was on track and that had made a clear pledge back in March: a binding, economy-wide emissions reduction target of at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
This is the most ambitious contribution presented to date, he stressed, but added, in a message to international partner not willing to engage, that the EU would not sign just any deal.
Regarding development, Juncker said that the Commission will establish a €1.8 billion “Trust fund” for Africa. EurActiv has obtained the details in advance.
Juncker also warned member countries of the need to increase their development budgets, and not decrease them, as some have done recently.
Proud of his Commission
Juncker said he his was proud of his Commission, which, during the first months of its mandate, sent to the two legislative institutions the big legislative projects based on the 10 priorities on the base of which he was elected by the parliament.
“The world would be better if we were better. So this is what we need to do. I know the weaknesses of Europe. But I also know the enormous weakness of our continent if the EU didn’t exist,” Juncker concluded.