State of the Union: Juncker snubs Poland, overwhelms Romania, Bulgaria

Jean-Claude Juncker and Boyko Borissov on 7 March 2016. [European Council]

Pro-European EU members Bulgaria and Romania were overwhelmed with attention in Commission President’s Jean-Claude Juncker State of the Union speech today (13 September). In contrast, Poland, l‘enfant terrible of the EU, was not mentioned a single time.

Bulgaria and Romania have many reasons to be satisfied with Juncker’s speech. Firstly, Juncker said he was presenting a “sixth scenario” for the future of the EU, which builds on the idea that Europe should be a union of equality.

Just as other members from Eastern Europe, both Sofia and Bucharest didn’t particularly like the “five scenarios” he presented in March, with the undisclosed detail that his preference was then scenario number 3 – a multi-speed Europe.

‘Juncker’s real scenario’ is multi-speed Europe

Of all five scenarios proposed by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the way forward after Brexit, the real scenario is Number 3: “Those who want more do more,” which is another way of saying that the EU will be multi-speed, was told.

This time Juncker announced his “own” scenario, number 6, based on three principles: freedom, equality and the rule of law.

“Europe must be a Union of equality. Equality between its members, big and small, East and West, North and South. Make no mistake, Europe extends from Vigo to [the Bulgarian port of] Varna. From Spain to Bulgaria,” Juncker said.

The Commission President mentioned Bulgaria three times in his speech, and Romania five times. In comparison, he didn’t mention Poland a single time.

The “rule of law” mention, however, hits at Warsaw, Poland being the only EU country under the so-called “rule of law” mechanism, as the erosion of the independence of its judiciary is deemed to represent a “systemic threat” to the EU.

Poland snubs EU over controversial court reforms

Poland’s rightwing government on Monday (28 August) rejected EU concerns over controversial court reforms that Brussels fears will erode judicial independence, insisting that they are “in line with European standards”.

Bulgaria and Romania are the two poorest EU member states and have a limited capacity to fight for their interests in the EU. It’s not surprising that the two countries are particularly concerned that a reform of the Union could relegate them to second-class members.

Two- or multi-speed Europe is a dangerous idea

Europe needs a plan for its future but it should be proposed by a new Commission president, writes MEP Victor Negrescu.

Both Romania and Bulgaria are willing to join the euro, Bulgaria being close to entering the eurozone ante-chamber, the so-called Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2).

Bulgaria seeks access to the euro waiting room

Bulgaria has a long way to go before it is ready to adopt the euro but allowing Sofia into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2) will be an acknowledgment of the Balkan country’s reform efforts, its finance minister said today (2 June).

Unlike the Visegrad Four, Bulgaria and Romania have not been tempted by seeking separate ways to tackle the refugee crisis, and have never opposed EU policies, such as relocation.

Visegrád group calls migration mini-summit, seeks plan B

Prague will host an extraordinary summit of the Visegrad group, three days ahead of the February EU summit, to discuss the migration crisis and a possible “plan B” in case of a widening divide with the older Schengen members.

Both Bulgaria and Romania have been considered fit by the Commission to join the borderless Schengen space since 2010. However, as admission requires unanimity, they have been blocked by member states such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, mainly due to electoral concerns in the older EU members.

France blocks Romania, Bulgaria's Schengen bids

France produced new arguments yesterday (8 December) to support its position that Romania and Bulgaria are not ready to the join Europe's visa-free Schengen travel zone, citing poor border and immigration controls.

At the same time, the contribution of Bulgaria for securing the EU external border with Turkey is generally recognised.

“If we want to strengthen the protection of our external borders, then we need to open the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania immediately. We should also allow Croatia to become a full Schengen member once it meets all the criteria,” Juncker said.

Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007. Croatia, who joined in 2013, is progressing toward Schengen accession but has not yet received the Commission’s green light.

Croatia inches closer to Schengen membership

The European Commission on Wednesday (18 January) proposed the gradual integration of Croatia into the Schengen Information System (SIS), bringing the newest EU member state slightly closer to full membership of the EU borderless area.

Bulgaria will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January 2018. Romania will assume its stint from 1 January 2019, when the UK is expected to leave the EU.

Juncker said he was calling on Romania, the country holding the presidency in the first half of 2019, to organise a Special Summit on 30 March 2019. (The UK will officially leave the Union on 29 March 2019.)

“My wish is that this summit be held in the beautiful ancient city of Sibiu, or Hermannstadt as I know it. It should be the moment we come together to take the decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe,” the Commission president said.

Juncker has previously made jokes about the language spoken by the German minority in Romania (Transylvanian Saxons), saying that it was in fact Luxembourgish.

Speaking about the need for a debate about the future of Europe, Juncker mentioned Romania one more time, together with the three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

“As the debate gathers pace, I will personally pay particular attention to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania in 2018. This is the year they will celebrate their 100th anniversary. Those who want to shape the future of our continent should well understand and honour our common history. This includes these four countries – Europe would not be whole without them,” he said.

This mention could perhaps be less to the taste of Bucharest, as Romania was not founded in 2018. In fact, modern Romania was formed in 1859 through a personal union of the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. The new state, officially named Romania since 1866, gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877.

Last but not least is the news that Juncker will fight against double standards in food quality. Consumer groups have complained that popular brands use poorer-quality ingredients in products sold in Central and Eastern Europe than in countries like Germany and Austria. Several leaders from Eastern Europe, including Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, have taken the issue very seriously.

Borissov accuses EU of ‘apartheid’ over lower quality food in Eastern Europe

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on Saturday (27 May) called an extraordinary cabinet meeting over two issues, one of them being the practice of big companies to market the same brands of products with big differences in quality between Eastern and Western Europe.

“I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical. Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers. Hungarians less meat in their meals. Czechs less cacao in their chocolate,” Juncker said.

He added, “EU law outlaws such practices already.” This, however, is questionable. So far, the Commission services have always said that the EU executive has competence in the field of food safety, not of differences in ingredients, which may suit the local taste.

'No second class consumers': Juncker slams double food quality in the EU

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticised double standards of food quality in his address to Parliament on Wednesday morning (13 September), saying that there should be no “second class consumers” in the single market.

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