European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today admitted that citizens had lost faith in the EU, during a speech at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
Juncker also said that the Commission had regulated too much and interfered too much in people’s lives in the past.
“The European project has lost parts of its attractiveness,” Juncker said at the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly.
“One of the reasons why EU citizens are stepping away from the European project is due to the fact that we are interfering in too many domains of their private lives and in too many domains where member states are better placed to take action.”
“We were wrong to overregulate and interfere too much in the lives of our citizens,” he added, before pointing to the executive’s drive to cut red tape as evidence of efforts to improve the perception of the EU.
The ‘better regulation’ strategy saw the withdrawal of 83 pending bills left over from the Barroso Commission. His administration had also launched far less legislation than its predecessor.
Juncker told national MPs sitting in the 47-member state Council of Europe, which is not an EU institution, “It’s true that we are not very popular when we advocate for Europe.
“We are no longer respected in our countries when we emphasise the need to give priority to the EU.”
He warned, “We will eventually end up with the ruins of this ideal; people who want more national things at the expense of European principles and they [the people] will find themselves defenceless and the European union will no longer be respected around the world.”
The former Luxembourg premier said, “Today we are facing very tough times. We have the global refugee crisis, we have attacks on our free societies, all of our institutions are under immense pressure today and sometimes are really pushed to their limits.”
He warned that the EU’s slowing birth rate, combined with the major crises it faced, and its dwindling economic clout, meant it risked losing the respect of the world.
Juncker said that 20% of the human population was in Europe 100 years ago. At the end of the century it was 11%, and at the end of this century only 4% of the global population will be European.
“We are losing economic clout in a very visible way,” the Commission chief admitted. “With the low birth rate, if we continue with all of this in the face of the major problems we are emerging then that is not the sort of image I want of Europe. We want a strong influential Europe.”
Juncker refused to answer a question from Tory MP Kelly Tolhurst, who asked what the EU was doing to cut costs. He snapped that the EU budget was not a matter for the Council of Europe.
“Stand away from this question which is related to the Brexit debate and not the debate we are having today,” he said.
“We have made so many efforts to bring down the expenditure [of the EU institutions] I don’t think we can go any further,” he said, before citing the costs of the refugee crisis.
He also bristled when facing repeated questions about the EU’s controversial migration with Turkey.
The pact involves resettling one Syrian refugee from a Turkish camp for each Syrian migrant landing in the EU, and it has been criticised for breaking international and European law.
“It’s not about surrendering European values. I am really not happy about all this criticism levelled at the EU stating that it is surrendering its values by signing this deal with Turkey,” Juncker said.
He will meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu later today to discuss the deal, ahead of a visit by European Council President Donald Tusk to Ankara on Saturday.
Davutoğlu has earlier warned that the EU must offer Turks visa-free travel or jeopardise the deal.
Juncker said in Strasbourg that the deal would not weaken the qualifying criteria to liberalise visas with Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan increased the pressure on Juncker by saying that the EU needs Ankara more than vice versa,
Relations between the EU and Turkey have come under the spotlight after the migration deal was struck.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that Germany would allow the prosecution of a German comedian, who had made jokes about Erdoğan.
It was seized upon as another example of EU leaders compromising their traditional values in a bid to solve the migration crisis. Merkel was a prime mover in the Turkish deal.
Juncker denied that other countries were forced to follow the whims of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on issues such as the Greek crisis.
“That’s another false impression; that other European states are kow-towing to Germany,” he said, “it does not reflect reality.”
The Council of Europe is a 47 member state international organisation that was founded in 1949. It is distinct from the EU, which has 28 member states, the the two institutions have a close historical relationship. No country has ever joined the EU without first belonging to the Council of Europe.