Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, had the unenviable job last year of delivering his first State of the Union (SOTEU) address in the midst of a multitude of ‘crises’ engulfing the EU – migration, tax evasion, and the continuing state of many countries’ economies, to name a few. A year has passed since then, but it is hard to argue that the situation has improved.
Indeed the EU now faces a threat more existential in nature than anything before – the withdrawal of a Member State from the Union. And while Juncker never uttered the word ‘Brexit’ in his second SOTEU this week, it cast a long shadow over proceedings.
Call for national support
The former Luxembourg PM, attacked by one MEP for being “old and tired”, kept his speech relatively short (at just over half the length of last year’s) and focused, and was honest about the scale of the challenges. He also tried to lower expectations by comparing the SOTEU with the US State of the Union address, and playing down the Commission’s actual power: “Europe can only work if speeches supporting our common project are not only delivered in this honourable House, but also in the Parliaments of all our Member States”.
Juncker cut a plaintive figure as he lamented that “It is as if there is almost no intersection between the EU and its national capitals anymore”. His frustration with Member States was palpable, with some not-so-subtle rebukes for not upholding EU values – from checks on the Polish judiciary to Irish tax arrangements with Apple. “Mario Draghi is preserving the stability of our currency. And he is making a stronger contribution to jobs and growth than many of our Member States”, complained the Commission President.
The ‘EU Army’ returns
Nonetheless, there were a range of new proposals in the speech, which was quite policy-focused for a man who at times is known to ramble. Perhaps the most striking, at least from a British point of view, were on defence – the idea of an ‘EU army’ was a key point of discussion in the run-up to the UK’s referendum. And now there is clear movement in this direction, perhaps made possible by an impending British departure, with a single EU military headquarters, common military assets, and a new European Defence Fund all put on the table.
Other highlights were a doubling in size of the European Fund for Strategic Investment, a new Investment Plan for Africa, and the unveiling of a new telecoms package.
Responses from the EU’s political groups were predictable: the centre-right and centre-left were happy with what they heard, while the left criticised an “elitist and militarist” speech and eurosceptics were naturally unhappy with everything.
From Strasbourg to Slovakia
In many ways, as Juncker alluded, the more significant date this week is today (Friday), when national leaders (minus the UK) meet in Bratislava for another event which, according to European Council President Donald Tusk, is definitely “not about Brexit per se”.
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