Europeans will never accept its citizens being “harassed, beaten up or even murdered” in the streets of Brexit Britain, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said today (14 September) in his flagship State of the Union speech in Strasbourg.
Arkadiusz Jóźwik died after he was attacked in Harlow, Essex after the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU. It was reported he was targeted after speaking Polish on 27 August.
The 40-year-old factory worker’s death had lived in Britain for four years. There was a rise in racially aggravated crimes in Britain after the 23 June Brexit vote, which was blamed on a bitter campaign based on fears about immigration.
“Europeans can never, never, accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered in the streets of Essex,” Junker told MEPs in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“The free movement of workers is as much a common European value as our fight against discrimination and racism.”
“Our friends and partners worldwide deeply regret Brexit and wonder if Brexit is the beginning of the disintegration of the EU,” said Juncker.
“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis,” but he added, “The EU, as such, is not at risk.”
EU leaders, with the exception of Britain, will meet in Bratislava this week to discuss the future path of the bloc. The speech is the Commission’s opening salvo in those talks.
Free movement or hard Brexit
He said that he “regretted but respected” the referendum vote, but warned that Britain would only have access to the single market if it continued to allow the free movement of people.
“Only those will get unlimited access to internal markets, who accept there will be free movement of persons and goods. There will be no al la carte access to the single market,” Juncker said to applause.
There are splits in the British government over whether accepting the free movement of citizens would be ignoring a plebiscite dominated by calls to take back control of the UK’s borders.
Those advocating a “hard Brexit” are willing to sacrifice the single market, if necessary, for tighter immigration controls.
Nigel Farage, speaking in the Parliament after Juncker, warned that leaving the single market and trading under WTO rules would hurt Europe more than Britain.
British Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to Warsaw on Thursday (28 July) in a bid to reassure the Polish government that the hundreds of thousands of Poles living in Britain still had a post-Brexit future there.
Juncker called yet again on Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50, the legal process to take the UK out of the EU.
“We would be happy if the request for Brexit could happen as quickly as possible so we can take specific steps that need to be taken. So that relations to the UK, which must remain on a friendly basis, can take a new shape,” he said.
Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group, said that three months after the Brexit vote, Theresa May was “still holding the Union in checkmate”.
Unless Article 50 is triggered by the British, the Brexit process cannot begin. The Commission has taken a hardline stance of no negotiation on Brexit, without notification of Article 50.
EU President Donald Tusk called for Brexit talks to start as soon as possible as he met British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Thursday (8 September), following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator and leader of the Liberal ALDE group said, “Brexit is not a liability. I see it more as an opportunity.”
“Brexit is not a matter of banishment, it’s not a matter of revenge… It’s in my opinion, the question of a sound relation between Britain and Europe, and moreover it’s about how we want Europe,” Verhofstadt said.
“We need to seize the opportunity not to kill Europe, as some of you want, but to reinvent Europe,” he said after calling for an end to the “collective depression” over Brexit.
“You’ve got a lot more referendums to look forward to,” said Farage, the UK Independence Party leader, and head of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group.
“It’s clear that no lessons have been learnt from Brexit. Indeed it is the usual recipe, more Europe, and in this particular case, more military Europe, a European army, a common defence,” he added.
Juncker had earlier told MEPs that the Lisbon Treaty enabled member states to pool their “defence capabilities in the form of a permanent structured cooperation”. He also proposed setting up a European defence fund for research and innovation.
In the State of the Union speech he delivered today (14 September), Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed new powers for the EU foreign affairs chief, and the start of a real defence effort, compatible with NATO.
Farage said that the appointment of Verhofstadt as Brexit point man for the Parliament was a “declaration of war” on sensible negotiations.
“There is only one real nationalist in the room and it is you,” Farage told the former prime minister of Belgium. “You want flags, you want anthems, you want army – you are an EU nationalist.”
Verhofstadt had earlier said that Europe “was the cure for the cancer of nationalism we have in Europe today”.
But Farage, who did more than any other politician to force former UK Prime Minister David Cameron to call the referendum, agreed with Verhoftstadt and Juncker that Article 50 needed to be triggered as soon as possible.
“You are right to be critical of the British government,” he said, “who I agree should be getting on with it.”
National Front leader Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom group, said the speech was like a “funeral for the European Union”. She said she would call for a “Frexit” referendum in France, if elected president in next year’s elections.
Division and populism
Juncker said that the next twelve months were vital. “The next twelve months will decide if we want to reunite our Europe,” he said before mentioning divisions between East and West Europe over the migration crisis.
“Far too often national interests are brought to the foreground. We shouldn’t misunderstand; this European integration cannot bow to interests of individual member states,” he stated.
“The Commission doesn’t intend to get rid of nation states. We don’t destroy, we don’t want to undermine, we want to construct, we want a better Europe.”
But the UK’s Syed Kamall, the leader of the Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists group, said the voices of discontent with Europe reached far beyond the English Channel.
“Our fear is that project Europe has been set to cruise control and its drivers are unwilling to apply the brakes,” said Kamall who voted for Brexit.
“The more Europe you build, the more detached its citizens feel,” he said, before warning that ignoring Euroscepticism drove people into the arms of a President Le Pen or Prime Minster Geert Wilders.
Juncker said divisions between member states were a fertile breeding ground for “galloping populism”, he said.
“Populism doesn’t solve but create problems, and we need to be aware of that and protect ourselves from it,” Juncker said in a possible nod to the Brexit vote.
But he took a swipe at national politicians, who, he said, often blamed Brussels for unpopular rules they had supported.
“We need to speak in committed terms about Europe in our national parliaments,” he said, “The citizens of Europe cannot be fooled any longer.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker kicked off his State of the European Union address at the European Parliament at 9am today (14 Wednesday). EurActiv’s live feed brought breaking news, live video and analysis of the speech.
War and refugees
In an echo of one of the most repeated arguments of the defeated British Remain campaign, Juncker said, “I have an impression than many have forgotten what being European means.”
“Above all Europe means peace,” he said, mentioning his father being forced to fight for the Nazis in World War Two. “It is no coincidence that longest period of peace in Europe started with formation of the EU communities.”
“Sometimes we fight but we fight with words. We settle our conflicts around the table, not in the trenches.”
The other major crisis facing Europe is its handling of the refugee crisis that has seen border controls reintroduced in the passport-free Schengen zone.
Deep divisions exist about the resettlement of refugees across the EU from countries such as Italy and Greece, which are bearing the burden of unprecedented migration flows. Juncker admitted he could not force member states to take their fair share of people forced to flee countries such as Syria.
“When it comes to managing the refugee crisis we are starting to see solidarity. I am convinced that more solidarity is needed and also know it must be voluntary. It must come from the heart,” he said.
The European Union’s response to the surge in migrant arrivals has been “lamentable”, a committee of British lawmakers said Wednesday (3 August), slamming the bloc as unprepared to deal with the crisis.
Luxleaks and climate
Juncker called for an extension of the Juncker Investment Plan and measures to fight social dumping and youth unemployment.
He reiterated a commitment to fighting tax evasion, which has been a hot political issue since his implication in the Luxleaks scandal.
“I was promising that my Commission would fight against tax evasion and many of you didn’t believe me but that is what we are doing,” he said. “Every company no matter how big or how small has to pay its taxes where it makes its profits.”
He urged national governments to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, which they signed in December last year. The US and China have ratified the landmark deal.
“Dragging our feet on ratification undermines our international credibility,” he said, “It makes us look ridiculous.”
The inability of the EU’s member states to agree on an effort-sharing deal could delay the ratification of the Paris Agreement until late 2017. This would see the climate deal enter into force without the world’s biggest economic bloc. EurActiv France reports.
He also covered telecoms and data privacy and the economy in the flagship speech, which was enthusiastically welcomed by Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party.
The EPP is the largest group in the Parliament, and is part of the same political family as Juncker.