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.
Speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg, Juncker said that soft power was no longer enough in the EU’s increasingly dangerous neighbourhood.
He made reference to the “brutal fight” over Syria, the consequences of which are immediate, as the refugee crisis, and as attacks on European cities by terrorists trained in Daesh camps, have shown.
“But where is the Union, where are its member states, in negotiations towards a settlement?” he asked. Indeed, the Syria talks are under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States.
— Natasha Bertaud (@NatashaBertaud) September 14, 2016
Juncker said that Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative and Commission Vice-President, was doing a “fantastic job”, but that she needed to become a genuine European Foreign Minister. In fact, Mogherini represents the Union only on issues where consensus at EU level already exists, which is the smallest common denominator of EU external action.
Juncker said he is calling for a European Strategy for Syria, and for Mogherini having a seat at the table when the future of Syria is discussed.
“Europe needs to toughen up. Nowhere is this truer than in our defence policy,” Juncker stated.
He elaborated that Europe could no longer afford to piggyback on the military might of others, or let France alone defend its honour in Mali. Indeed, in 2013, France took in Mali against Islamists with links to al-Qaeda, taking other EU members by surprise.
Over the last decade, the EU has had over 30 civilian and military EU missions from Africa to Afghanistan. But without a permanent structure, it has not been able to act effectively, Juncker said.
“Urgent operations are delayed. We have separate headquarters for parallel missions, even when they happen in the same country or city. It is time we had a single headquarters for these operations,” he stated.
The Commission chief further elaborated that the EU should also move towards common military assets, in some cases owned by the EU. “And, of course, in full complementarity with NATO,” he added.
The lack of cooperation in defence matters costs Europe between €25 billion and €100 billion per year, depending on the areas concerned, Juncker noted, adding that this money should be used for doing more.
Juncker pointed out that the EU already has a multinational fleet of aerial tankers, and that this example could be replicated.
Last but not least, Juncker said that before the end of the year, the European Commission will propose a European Defence Fund, “to turbo boost research and innovation”.
He reminded lawmakers that the Lisbon Treaty enables those member states who wish, to pool their defence capabilities in the form of a permanent structured cooperation.
“I think the time to make use of this possibility is now”, Juncker said, adding that he hoped that the 16 September informal summit in Bratislava would be the first political step in that direction.
Juncker’s proposals are largely in tune with recent political thinking in Paris and Berlin, facilitated by Britain’s exit from the European Union and even timelier in the context of a possible alienation of the USA from Europe in case Donald Trump wins the presidential election.
UKIP Nigel Farage commented that he had been repeatedly told before the Brexit referendum that there would be no European army, “but here we are”.
Juncker reiterates the need to setup EU Defence Fund – he means bankroll an EU army. Which means Brexiteers were right, as per usual. #SOTEU
— Nationalist UK (@Nationalist_UK) September 14, 2016
— Elżbieta Bieńkowska (@EBienkowskaEU) September 14, 2016
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) September 14, 2016
— Viviane Reding (@VivianeRedingEU) September 14, 2016