Those who expected an inspired, historic intervention, were disappointed: Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, in his State of the Union address delivered this morning at the European Parliament kept a low profile. “This Commission is merely a chapter, a brief moment in the long history of the European Union”, he said in the opening remarks. That’s why, he went on, he will not present an overview of the last four years, also because “we will keep working to render this imperfect Union that little bit more perfect with each passing day.” A separate document focuses on the political and legislative commitments agenda starting today (until next year). Speaking to MEPs, he said: “united we stand taller, this is the very essence of the European Union.” He reiterated the motto: “Modesty and hard work.”
A long list. The State of Union speech tackles the problems on the table. The President of the Commission highlighted a set of priorities in the economy and trade, in the areas of defence, migration and energy, on border protection, fight on terrorism, Africa’s development. The economic crisis that from the US hit Europe 10 years ago, has been overcome. Juncker pointed out the present need to focus on strengthening employment and the EU social pillar. He reaffirmed the commitment for Western Balkans’ EU adhesion, mentioned US protectionism and highlighted the thorny issue – in human, geopolitical and military terms – of Syria and of other instable world regions. He called for joint commitments on migration. He underlined: “I am and will remain strictly opposed to internal borders. Failure to do so would amount to an unacceptable step back for the Europe of today and tomorrow.” “Europe is a continent of openness and tolerance. It will remain so. Europe will never be a fortress, turning its back on the world or those suffering within it. It is not an island. It must and will champion multilateralism.”
Not only “borders.” Migrations are obviously a major theme in the European Community today. “We cannot continue to squabble to find ad-hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives”, as it requires fixed regulations and lasting solidarity. “The Commission is today proposing to further strengthen the European Border and Coast Guard to better protect our external borders with an additional 10,000 European border.” Thus the proposal “to further develop the European Asylum Agency to make sure that Member States get more European support in processing asylum seekers.” Go-ahead to initiatives for migrants, while “opening legal pathways to the Union.” “We need skilled migrants”, he underlined.
“Dangerous poison”. In fact the Juncker Commission, which has not always performed outstandingly in terms of proactive capacity, has put several legislative packages on the table and has asked for an ambitious budget, but the Member States, represented in the Council, are stemming almost all proposals because they disagree with each other. The migration issue is one typical example, but the same could be said of the EU budget, of the Economic and Monetary Union, of the Banking Union, of the Energy Union. Slowdowns even involve the area of common defence. National interests (and egoisms) prevail, while common answers that involve the whole of Europe are long in coming. “At the European Elections of 2019 – he said, applauded by half of the Assembly – I would like us to reject unhealthy nationalism and embrace enlightened patriotism”, because, he explained, “patriotism is a virtue. Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit.”
Economy, labour, Greece… In his speech Juncker pointed out that the EU “has turned the page” on the economic and financial crisis: growth has continued for 21 consecutive quarters with almost 12 million new jobs created since 2014.” Youth unemployment is at 14.8%, “This is still too high a figure but is the lowest it has been since the year 2000.” The so-called “Juncker Fund” has triggered 335 billion euro worth of public and private investment. Juncker equally refers to Greece: “after some very painful years, and with EU solidarity, it is now back on its two feet. I applaud the people of Greece for their Herculean efforts.” Issues to be addressed in the coming months, before the Sibiu Summit of May 2019, due to mark the end of the legislature before the vote of May 23-26, include foreign trade (i.e. the deal with Japan), climate change, space policy and the Galilee system.
… and daylight savings time. “It is time Europe took its destiny into its own hands”, Juncker said in the chapter on foreign policy, “to become a more sovereign actor in international relations. European sovereignty is born of Member States’ national sovereignty”, he underlined. “United we stand taller is the very essence of the European Union.” “We will use the 250 days before the European elections to prove to citizens that, acting as one, this Union is capable of delivering on expectations and on what we promised.” The elimination of single-use plastic and of daylight savings time are two subsidiary chapters that he doesn’t want to be passed unnoticed. Indeed, these are minor issues compared to the ones that the EU is facing today, but Juncker evidently considers them worthwhile mentioning, perhaps because of their somewhat symbolical bearing. “There is no applause when EU law dictates that Europeans have to change the clocks twice a year.” Clock-changing “must stop. Member States should themselves decide whether their citizens live in summer or winter time.”
Africa, United Kingdom and Brexit. “Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much. A new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa”: up to 10 million jobs in the next 5 year, Juncker estimates. On Brexit: “we respect the British decision”, “even though we continue to regret it deeply.” He pointed out that the United Kingdom must understand that it cannot be in the same privileged position as a Member State; that the EU will strive to prevent “a hard border with Northern Ireland” ; but “after March 29 2019”, once Brexit is implemented, “the United Kingdom will never be an ordinary third country for us. The United Kingdom will always be a very close neighbour and partner” for the EU. His heartfelt closing remarks: “I love Europe still and shall do so forever more.”