Nick Gutteridge — Daily Express Sept 13, 2017
JEAN-CLAUDE Juncker set out an ambitious raft of proposals for the future reform of the European Union when he delivered his annual State of the Union address today.
The Brussels boss raised eyebrows with a series of eye-catching initiatives and an openly federalist agenda, jettisoning much of the caution seen in previous years.
Mr Juncker spoke at length about trade, the eurozone, migration, defence and foreign policy and the single market, on each occasion advocating more Europe as the answer.
The speech was described as a ““step-by-step move towards a European superstate” by one Tory MEP and “one of the most integrationist speeches of any EU Commission president” by a Remain backing newspaper.
Here express.co.uk rounds up the most important announcements in Mr Juncker’s address, what they mean for the future of the project and how likely they are to ever see the light of day
After a brief introduction, the EU Commission began his speech with his trade ambitions for the next two years – putting the issue front and centre of the rest of his presidency.
He boasted that “partners across the globe have started lining up at our door to conclude trade agreements with us” and vowed to seal agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mercosur and Mexico before 2020.
But in a nod to concerns about globalisation, he also announced a new investment screening programme, designed to protect “strategic” industries like defence and transport from state-motivated Chinese takeovers.
The EU member states are firmly behind Mr Juncker’s trade agenda, and though as ever NGOs and certain regions are likely to kick up a fuss, it is likely many of his ambitions here will come to pass despite the tight timeframe.
Migration is still a very sensitive topic with certain member states, as Mr Juncker acknowledged when he recognised some of his proposals on the subject are “controversial”.
The EU Commission chief called for a full blown European asylum system and praised the European Border and Coastguard initiative, saying that “common borders and common protection must go hand in hand”.
He slapped down countries like Hungary and Poland who are refusing to take in refugees, bemoaning their lack of solidarity and insisting: “Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one.”
But there was also a nod to their concerns. He announced “a new set of proposals with an emphasis on returns” is imminent, saying eurocrats need to “significantly step up our work” on deporting economic migrants.
THE SINGLE MARKET
Mr Juncker’s comments on the Single Market revolved largely around the controversy of wage undercutting, which has become a major issue in French and Dutch domestic politics.
In a big win for Emmanuel Macron, he vowed to create a new EU “Labour authority” which will police working conditions and wages to ensure people “earn the same pay for the same work in the same place”.
But the proposals are not likely to go down well in Eastern Europe, where countries like Poland perceive them as a threat to free movement and feel they are being specifically picked on.
Appreciating this, Mr Juncker pointed out his reforms will also end the scandal whereby companies sell Eastern Europeans poorer quality products than their Western counterparts “despite the packaging and branding being identical”.
Amongst Mr Juncker’s strongest, and most controversial, proposals concerned the eurozone. First, there was a thinly veiled threat to all member states that they must join the euro.
He promised to set up a “euro-accession instrument, offering technical and even financial assistance” to countries like Poland to help them qualify for the currency. In truth, this is an attempt to force them to adopt it because, as the EU boss knows well, five out of the six non-euro countries have already been judged ready by the ECB and have just chosen not to.
Elsewhere, the EU Commission chief handed another huge victory to Mr Macron by announcing his plans to create a fully fledged European Monetary Fund, administered by a eurozone finance minister.
However, he stopped short of some people’s hopes by opposing a separate eurozone budget, calling instead for “a strong Euro area budget line within the EU budget” and ruling out the creation of a Eurozone Parliament.
SCHENGEN AND ENLARGEMENT
Mr Juncker called for Romania and Bulgaria to be inducted into the passport-less Schengen zone as soon as possible – something that has been blocked by member states over organised crime fears. He also said the bloc’s newest member, Croatia, should be fast-tracked into the borderless area “once it meets all the criteria”.
The Brussels boss also urged the bloc to continue its enlargement into the Balkans with accession for Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia, but ruled out membership for Turkey “for the foreseeable future”.
FOREIGN POLICY AND DEFENCE
The EU chief renewed his call for the completion of a “fully fledged Defence Union” – perceived by many commentators to be a European army, saying “we need it and NATO wants it”.
Mr Juncker also controversially called for future decisions on common European foreign policy – for instance, the imposition of sanctions – to be taken by majority and not unanimous votes.
All member states would have to agree to activate this new system and, given it would take crucial diplomatic powers away from capitals and pool them in Brussels, it is unlikely to be given the green light.
THE EU INSTITUTIONS
Mr Juncker surprised many observers by calling for the amalgamation of his job, as EU Commission president, with the role carried out by his EU Council counterpart Donald Tusk.
The proposal is in effect a rehash of the plans for a directly elected EU president in the bloc’s failed 2004 constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in separate referendums.
And the idea has already been shot down by the Danish prime minister, who said the member states value having their own representative, and would likely make other member states nervous too.
Elsewhere, Mr Juncker threw his support behind the idea of electing MEPs on pan-European lists, rather than by nationality, something currently being discussed within the EU Parliament and championed by Guy Verhofstadt.
Brexit, perhaps unsurprisingly, barely featured in Mr Juncker’s speech at all as Europe looks to move on from what he himself described as its “annus horribilis” of 2016.
It took the EU chief a whole hour to get around to the topic at all, and when he did he only mentioned it as an example of how Brussels is forging ahead without the UK.
He told the parliament March 29, 2019 “will be a very sad and tragic moment in our history we will always regret this”, before adding an unscripted aside to Britain that “I think that you will regret it as well soon”.
In a nod to the fact Brexit is becoming an increasingly peripheral issue, both in Brussels the other European capitals, he said: “We are going to make progress, we will keep moving, we will move on because Brexit isn’t everything, it’s not the future of Europe – it’s not the be all and end all.”