Jean-Claude Juncker: EU has window of opportunity to reform itself
Innovative measures needed to “win the hearts and minds” of citizens, says European Commission chief in State of the Union address.
Jean-Claude Juncker | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has called for a single EU presidency, transnational electoral lists and continued enlargement of the bloc.
Such moves, he argued, are needed to “win the hearts and minds” of Europe’s citizens.
Speaking in Strasbourg on Wednesday in his annual state of the union address, he also predicted that the UK would “regret” its decision to leave the EU.
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Among a wide range of proposals, one of the most radical was his support for merging the presidencies of the Commission and the European Council, the body that represents EU member states.
Another idea was the introduction of EU wide transnational lists for European elections in the future.
Juncker used his much awaited speech, often punctuated by applause from MEPs, to voice his backing for an enlarged EU, embracing countries in the Western Balkans.
He also called for the creation of an EU finance minister and stronger European army.
In an address filled with nautical metaphors describing his vision for the future, He said the “wind was back in the EU sails” and the European Project could now look to the future with renewed vigour.
He said the key message was, “We now have new window of opportunity before us but it will not stay with us forever.”
“We now have new window of opportunity before us but it will not stay with us forever”
His speech was greeted with a mixed response from MEPs, with the Eurosceptic UKIP deputy Nigel Farage calling it “one of the most worrying” he had ever heard.
In front a packed plenary chamber, he opened a 70-minute speech by saying that eight million jobs had been created in Europe in recent times and that unemployment in Europe was at a nine-year low.
He said that while the EU could not take all the credit for this he was sure that if the figures were reversed the EU would have been blamed.
The Commission, he said, had already presented 80 per cent of its proposals at the outset of its mandate and he argued “we must make sure that these are now adopted.”
He said, “We are now ready to present the remaining 20 per cent of these by May 2018. Our priorities for the upcoming year include five which I regard as being particularly important.
“First, we must strengthen the European trade programme. Countries around the world are knocking at our door to sign trade deals with us but we must get as much as we give. We are now recommending opening trade deals with Australia and New Zealand. The European Parliament will have the last word on these agreements but there must be full transparency in the negotiations at all levels.
“Second, we must make industry more competitive and we will shortly present a new industrial strategy for Europe.
“Thirdly, I want Europe to be in the vanguard in the fight against climate change. Fourth, I want us to better protect citizens in the digital area, including intellectual property rights.”
Juncker proposed a new cyber defence authority, saying that Europe is currently poorly equipped when confronted by cyber attacks, “which are often more dangerous than guns and tanks. These attacks spare no one and know no borders.”
He added, “The fifth priority is migration which remains on our radar not least as we have to have common frontiers and common protection. We have managed to slow down the rate of irregular arrivals to Europe by 70 per cent and have considerably reduced the number of human losses in the Mediterranean.
“When it comes to helping migrants in the Mediterranean, I want to pay tribute to Italy which is saving the honour of Europe.
“Europe as a whole has continued to show solidarity to asylum seekers and has given asylum to refugees - in fact, three times more than Canada, the US and Australia combined. But we must double our efforts on this and the end of the month the Commission will present more proposals on tackling migration.”
Juncker told MEPs, “These are just a small number of the initiatives and priorities that we want to complete but even this is not enough to win the hearts and minds of Europeans.”
He reminded EU deputies that in March he had set out five scenarios for Europe’s future.
“We must now set in train a process which allows EU citizens to determine their own future – it cannot be dictated from above.
“I was there at Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon where the EU expanded. I have always fought for Europe and agonised over it. I have never lost my love for the EU. But there is no love without disappointment”
“The time has come to take the next step from reflection to action. The way I see things is that there should be a scenario number six, a personal one which is born out of decades of me living and working for the European project, through the good times and the bad times.
“I was there at Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon where the EU expanded. I have always fought for Europe and agonised over it. I have never lost my love for the EU. But there is no love without disappointment.”
Three things, he said, underpinned the sixth scenario: freedom from dictatorship “and the opportunity to speak our minds”; equality of opportunity “where there are no second class citizens or workers” and third, the rule of law.
He stressed the importance of respecting court judgements “and this means ECJ judgements must be respected in all cases because failure to do so means we are stealing citizens’ rights.”
Juncker said, “People are not looking for new treaties or institutions – people do not care two hoots for this. One day there will be treaty change but to busy ourselves with this now would be wrong. For a stronger EU the EU has to be more inclusive and that means bringing Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia into the Schengen area.”
The euro, he said, “needs to be more than the currency of just a select number of countries and must become the currency of all Europe.”
On future EU expansion, he said, “We must offer credible enlargement opportunities to the Western Balkan countries and, in the future, the EU will have more than 27 member states.”
But he ruled out EU membership for Turkey in the “foreseeable future.”
He said, “Turkey has been moving away from the EU in leaps and bounds. There are some in Turkey who want to pull up the drawbridge and blame the EU for the failure of accession talks. Today, I appeal to the powers that be in Turkey let journalists and others go and stop calling member states fascists and Nazis.”
He also said there was a need for a “simpler” single market, adding, “making this happen does not necessitate treaty change. I am thinking of decisions, for example, about VAT and the financial transaction tax.”
He added, “We also need an EU minister for economy and finance to promote structural reform in member states and build on the work done in the commission.”
This could be achieved without creating a new post, he added.
Juncker said, “The EU has to be stronger in how it fights terrorism and, today, I plead for the creation of a European investigating body that ensures data is exchanged more effectively between member states.
The EU needs a stronger voice on the world stage but for this we must take foreign policy decisions more swiftly. More effort in the defence field are also needed including a true Europe defence union.”
He said, “We should not annoy people with nit picking but focus on the big things and take a back seat on the smaller things which must be left to member states.”
“The EU needs a democratic leap and I hope the political parties will kick off their campaigns for the 2019 European elections earlier than before. I also support transnational lists for European elections. We will also set out today new rules on the funding of political parties which allow them to better structure themselves.
He also spoke of the need for “more efficiency” and called for the merging of the competences of the council and commission presidents.
This, he said, should not be seen as attack on European council president Donald Tusk but “would ensure the EU landscape would become clearer and be steered by the same captain at the helm.
On future financing of the EU, he said he had sent, on Wednesday, a “roadmap” to Tusk and his European Parliament counterpart, Antonio Tajani on the EU budget, but stressed that there “should not be any budget cuts.”
“In March 2019, the UK leaves and this is a very sad and tragic moment in our history. I think we and the UK will regret it. But while we must respect the will of the British we will keep moving. Brexit is not the be all and end all"
On Brexit, he said, “In March 2019, the UK leaves and this is a very sad and tragic moment in our history. I think we and the UK will regret it. But while we must respect the will of the British we will keep moving. Brexit is not the be all and end all.
“I suggest we prepare well for this date with a clear vision of how the EU will go.”
He called on Romania, which will hold the EU presidency at the time the UK is due to exit the EU, to organise a summit on 30 March 2019 which “will be the right moment to take essential decisions on a more democratic and stronger Europe.”
He added, “I hope citizens will wake up on 31 March 2019 to a world like this.”
He said Jacques Delors, a predecessor as commission president and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl had “taught me that Europe will only advance if it shows courage. People tell me we should not overload the EU ship but it is not enough to make minor repairs. Step by step, we must patiently build the EU, complete the flaws and finish the job. If do not then when the next storm brews, and it will, it will be too late.”
Responding to his speech, Tajani told Juncker: “I share the need for a more democratic Europe and am glad you have underlined this. Today, you have repeated the position of parliament on a number of issues.”
Elsewhere in the chamber, Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament’s centre-right EPP group, said, “We must defend the European way of life in a world which is changing rapidly.”
Socialist leader Gianni Pittella said, “There is a new wind of hope blowing over Europe and citizens realise that without it they will be on their own.
ECR group leader and British Conservative MEP Syed Kamall said, “Being critical of EU policies should not be seen as being a critic of the EU. We support the call for modern, open trade… but an EU five year plan will not create jobs. It is businesses that do that.”
Liberal, ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt said, “I liked the speech, it was full of vision and ambition for 2019 and makes a big difference from last year. We also want transnational lists so I support that proposal.”
He added, “There is no bloody way that citizens want to destroy Europe. The only who does not get it is Nigel Farage.”
The Greens group’s co-leader Philippe Lamberts said, “Juncker is someone who can put Europe back on track.”
But Nigel Farage said, “This is one of the most open and worrying speeches in my long years here. Brexit has happened so the message is: full steam ahead: one president and a finance minister, a stronger EU army and more Europe in every direction, all without the approval of citizens.”
It is reminiscent of the regimes of old. The EU is moving in a very worrying undemocratic way. If these plans come to fruition, far from the populist wave being over, I fear it has not even yet begun. All I can say is Thank God we are leaving.”
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