European Commission President calls for a more united, stronger and more democratic EU
On 13 September, European Commission President JeanClaude Juncker laid out his thoughts for the year ahead during his muchawaited address to the European Parliament on the State of the Union (SOTEU).
In a nutshell, the SOTEU is an annual speech that takes stock of the EU‘s current political and economic landscape and also serves as an opportunity to review the work of the Union over the past year, as well as to look ahead to the priorities of the coming year. It is followed by a debate during which the European Parliament reviews the Commission’s objectives and achievements.
In an interview with politico.eu ahead of SOTEU, President Juncker was quoted saying, “While I am not an integration fanatic, I am very much in favour of deepening the European Union and at the same time respecting to the fullest extent justified, national interests.” In the speech itself, he called for “a more united, stronger and more democratic Union” based on three principles: freedom, equality and the rule of law.
So what does he mean by ‘a more united Europe’? During his speech, Juncker made a number of concrete proposals. One of these concerns the euro and the fact that not all EU Member States have joined the euro area.
He referred to the obligation that all Member States, apart from Sweden and Denmark, adopt the single currency.
“Member States that want to join the euro must be able to do so,” he emphasised, also proposing the creation of a ‘Euro-accession Instrument’, offering technical and financial assistance to such countries.
Another issue which revolves around integration is the protection of the EU’s external borders. President Juncker spoke of the need “to open the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania immediately”, whilst also allowing Croatia to become a full Schengen member once it meets all the criteria.
He also spoke of the urgency of completing the Banking Union so that banks would be able to operate under the same rules and under the same supervision across the EU, as well as on the importance of reaching agreement on a European Pillar of Social Rights “to avoid social fragmentation and social dumping in Europe”.
Whilst excluding any further enlargement of the EU during the term of the current Commission, Juncker referred to the need to maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. He also excluded the accession of Turkey in the foreseeable future.
Mr Juncker emphasised the fact that the EU is a union based on values. “Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values.” It is in this context that he referred to “the three principles that must always anchor our Union: freedom, equality and the rule of law” whilst proposing his own ‘scenario 6’. In March, in its White Paper on the Future of Europe, the Commission had proposed five scenarios for what Europe could look like by 2025.
On freedom, he said that all citizens should have the freedom to speak their mind. Freedom of speech, he said, cannot be taken for granted. He added that, “We need to fight for freedom, it doesn’t just come about.”
Referring to equality, Juncker spoke about the importance of “equality between Member States”, “big and small, East and West, North and South” as well as to equality of citizens stating that there can be no second class citizens, no second class workers and no second class consumers.
He labelled as unacceptable the fact that in 2017 there are still children dying of diseases that should long have been eradicated in Europe because children do not have the same access to measles vaccines across Europe. He also referred to the setting up of a common Labour Authority to ensure that all EU rules on labour mobility are enforced in a fair, simple and effective way.
Referring to the rule of law, the President of the Commission stressed the importance that all Member States respect the judgements of the Court of Justice of the European Union adding that by undermining the Court, Member States would effectively be stripping citizens of their fundamental rights.
Referring to migration, Juncker spoke of the EU’s success in drastically reducing the loss of life in the Mediterranean. Taking umbrage over the state of migrant reception centres in Libya, he spoke of Europe’s collective responsibility to put an end to this situation.
He also referred to the fact that Europe as a whole has continued to show solidarity and mentioned that in 2016, EU Member States resettled or granted asylum to over 720,000 refugees. This is three times as much as the United States, Canada and Australia combined.
He emphasised that those persons who did not have the right to stay in Europe should be sent back to their countries of origin whilst continuing to show solidarity with refugees who really needed protection.
In his SOTEU, Juncker also spoke of the need to complete an Energy Union, a Security Union, a Capital Markets Union, a Banking Union and a Digital Single Market.
He referred to the importance of strengthening the EU’s trade agenda, making the European industry stronger and more competitive, the EU becoming a leader in the fight against climate change, and keeping Europeans safe online.
Last but not least, President Juncker made a brief mention to Brexit, describing it as a very sad and tragic moment.
The fact that the wind is back in Europe’s sails, as Mr Juncker put it, is a positive factor that may well bring about a more united, stronger and more democratic union.