At a time when Europe needs to be inspired, the 2018 State of the Union speech disappointed, writes Dick Roche.
Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union in 2008 and 2009.
Key themes in the speech EU economy the divisions within the EU on migration, concerns about rule of law issues, European Union’s ‘place in the world’, a defensive piece on programme delivery and Brexit were formulaic and predictable.
The most interesting departure was an undertaking to reset Europe’s relationship with the nations of Africa.
Overall the speech was weak, lacking in content and short on ideas: it was, in a word, ‘dismal’.
Addressing Parliament 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, President Junker said Europe has ‘largely turned the page’ on the global collapse, its economy has grown for 21 consecutive quarters, 239 million people now held jobs in Europe, the largest ever jobs figure and that 14 million new jobs had been created since 2014. These are positives worth noting.
EU youth unemployment received a one line mention. Mr Junker celebrated the fact that at 14.8% youth unemployment is at its lowest since 2000. He acknowledged that this “is still far too high”. A 14.8% unemployment rate amongst Europe’s young people – more than 50% higher than the comparative US figure is not just ‘too high’ it is an obscenity.
Another positive development recorded in the speech was the emergence of Greece from its ESM programme. Tribute was rightly paid to the Greek people.
On migration, Mr Juncker called for “leadership and compromise” stressed the need to develop EU asylum policy, spoke of the need to strengthen Europe’s Border and Coast Guard as a means of strengthening the EU’s external borders and demanded that “where (internal) borders have been reinstated, they must be reopened”.
The tone of the comments on youth unemployment, on the economic collapse, on the migration crisis and elsewhere in the speech is exculpatory: just once it would be good to see an acknowledgement of the share of failures in EU policy in the various crises that assail the Union.
The deteriorating relationship between the EU and a number of member states on ‘rule of law issues’ came in for a caution that “the Commission will not stand by while the rule of law is attacked” and a warning that Article 7 must be applied when the rule of law is threatened.
Hours later the speech Parliament voted for Article 7 action against Hungary. Mr Junker didn’t even mention Hungary in his speech, passing the buck for sorting the issue to the Austrian Council Presidency.
With the US clearly in mind, the point was made that “old alliances may not look the same tomorrow” as they have in the past and that the “external challenges facing our continent are multiplying by the day”.
To face these challenges he suggested Europe must become a “global player”. Rather optimistically he suggested the shifting geopolitical position “makes this Europe’s hour”.
On taking office in 2014 President Juncker promised to deliver a more innovative digital single market, a deeper economic and monetary Union, a full banking union, a capital markets union, a fairer single market, an energy union, a comprehensive migration agenda, and a security union: an ambitious programme.
The 12 September speech, Mr Junker’s last state of the union speech to this Parliament, was the occasion to objectively take stock: it failed to do that.
The Commission, Mr Junker argued, put proposals and initiatives aimed at achieving the key objectives. Half of the proposals have “already been agreed by Parliament and Council, 20% are well on the way and 30% are still under discussion”: not a disaster but not a stellar performance – particularly when one drills down on what has actually been achieved.
Accepting that there have been gaps in delivery the President went on the defensive: “I cannot accept that the blame for every failure – is laid solely at the Commission’s door. There are scapegoats to be found in all three institutions – with the fewest in the Commission and Parliament”.
Again the exculpatory tone: the main blame for the failure to achieve ‘progress’ lies with the member states, not with the policy architects.
The future of relations between Europe and Africa was, perhaps, the most interesting part of the speech. A policy that ensures that Europe’s relationship with the nations of Africa will no longer be seen “through the sole prism of development aid” is put forward – a positive step. Turning existing EU – African Trade Agreements into “a continent to continent free trade agreement, as an economic partnership between equals” is well worth developing.
On Brexit, the ever president pachyderm in the room, the President confined himself to reiterating the principles on which the Commission approach is based, to warning that when the UK leaves there will be no cherry picking, to reiterating “solidarity with Ireland when it comes to the Irish border” and to recommitting the Commission to working ‘day and night’ to reach an amicable arrangement with the UK.
While the strong commitment on the Irish border is welcome in Dublin it is a pity that the address was not used to explore possible solutions to the conundrum.
In his 2017 state of the EU address reference was made to Europe having “the wind in our sails” that optimism was missing from the 2018 address.
As mentioned already, the speech was weak, lacking in content and short on ideas. It failed to provide any detailed insight into why the European Union is experiencing challenges on so many fronts. Perhaps most importantly of all the address failed to identify why so many European citizens are becoming disenchanted with ‘the European project’.
There is a story doing the rounds in Brussels that the speech was flat because the President was forced to drop a lot of material: it would be interesting to see the edits.