When Jean-Claude Juncker rose to give his first ‘State of the European Union’ speech yesterday, there was precisely zero chance of the statement much loved amongst US political dramas. Namely that ‘the state of our Union is strong.’
Mr Juncker had no such luxury. Indeed, he was very explicit. It’s most definitely not business as normal.
The situation in which Mr Juncker gave his speech could hardly have been more challenging. The economic situation in Greece remains on a knife edge. There continue to be concerns over the situation in the Ukraine. And most prescient of all, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants continue to endure back-breaking poverty and unimaginable danger to reach Europe’s shores.
These and other topics were ones that Mr Juncker simply had to talk about. And he’s entirely right that they all need action. What will cause debate, and even consternation in some quarters, is how Mr Juncker appeared to suggest that action should be taken.
The common theme of Mr Juncker’s speech was ‘more Europe’, ‘more Union’ – effectively a call for greater collaboration, although perhaps not necessarily integration. And while there were explicit references to a possible Brexit, the desire for closer cooperation was wholly apparent.
David Cameron may take comfort from Mr Juncker’s speech. The reference to Britain’s role in Europe is a clear demonstration of the importance attached to the impending referendum at the highest levels of the EU. But equally many others will question the methodology Mr Juncker appears to want to follow.
What also caught the eye, apart from Mr Juncker’s comments on the migrant crisis, was his call for a ‘more political’ Union. There is a question as to how such an arrangement might manifest itself. Mr Juncker appears to be looking to more proactivity amongst European institutions, but questions will – and should – abound as to how this can be achieved while also satisfying the needs of individual Member States.
Ultimately of course, newspapers’ ink was reserved for Mr Junker’s comments on migration and human crisis unfolding across the continent. He has set the stage for a fundamental overhaul of migration rights. But the question remains whether the thousands in Europe and hoping to reach Europe can afford to wait until early 2016, when Mr Juncker has suggested the Commission will set out a legal migration package.
It was a speech that was ambitious in its scope. Ultimately Mr Juncker’s calls for more Europe and more Union will be welcomed by some and derided by others. Achieving either will go a long way to determining his legacy.