Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stayed away from major legislative proposals in his annual address to Parliament and barely touched on the rule of law in Poland or Hungary, preferring to focus on the “big picture” of how the EU can assert its power in a hostile international environment.
Juncker, who looked tired and older than his 63 years, delivered his fourth State of the Union speech on Wednesday (12 September) in a Parliament that is without a doubt much friendlier than the one likely to be elected next year.
He did not mention Hungary, but after his speech, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger punitive Article 7 proceedings against the country for a serious breach of the EU’s core values under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Juncker has been chided by member states over his stance on migration, and this resulted in him scrapping a major highlight of his speech – a plan to give new federal powers to the European Border and Coast Guard service, held until now only by national authorities.
Instead, Juncker said merely that this force would be strengthened with an additional 10,000 border guards.
Strengthening sovereignty and the euro
The core of the speech moved to the less controversial issue of the EU’s place in the world. Juncker, who is undeniably a promoter of EU coherence in international affairs, defended his record of high-level meetings, including the recent deal with Donald Trump, which restored some normalcy following unprecedented tensions in transatlantic relations.
“I showed Europe to be an open continent. But not a naïve one. The strength of a united Europe, both in principle and in practice, gave me the clout I needed to get tangible results for citizens and businesses alike,” Juncker said.
It is not by chance that the speech was titled “The Hour of European Sovereignty”.
“The geopolitical situation makes this Europe’s hour: the time for European sovereignty has come”, said Juncker.
“It is time Europe developed what I coined “Weltpolitikfähigkeit” – the capacity to play a role, as a Union, in shaping global affairs. Europe has to become a more sovereign actor in international relations”, the Commission president said, adding that European sovereignty can never be to the detriment of others.
The biggest highlight was his proposal that the EU should strengthen the international role of the euro. He said it was “absurd” that Europe pays for 80% of its energy import bill – worth €300 billion a year – in US dollars when only roughly 2% of EU energy imports come from the US.
“It is absurd that European companies buy European planes in dollars instead of euros,” he added.
Regarding bills from Russian energy giant Gazprom, it can be reasonably expected that Russia would go along with the EU proposal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already instructed his government to reduce the country’s dependence on US dollars, in response to intensified US sanctions.
Regarding sanctions, one of Juncker’s expected ideas was a proposal to abandon unanimity for renewing sanctions and to pass such decisions by a qualified majority instead. It has been increasingly difficult to renew sanctions against Russia, especially since Italy elected a new populist government.
But that was also trimmed down. Juncker proposed to move to qualified majority voting in specific areas of the EU’s external relations: human rights issues and civilian missions, as well as taxation.
This, he said, was possible on the basis of the current Treaties and a forgotten “passerelle” clause of the Lisbon Treaty.
As an example, he said it was not normal that the Union fails to condemn human rights violations in China just because one country disagrees. He didn’t mention Russia a single time.
Udo Bullmann, leader of the S&D group, commended Juncker for being a political leader and not a mouthpiece of capitals. But he asked: is the Commission policy adequate to the challenges?