Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze overviews the European responses to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s last State of the European Union speech.
The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday delivered his annual State of the European Union speech, – “The Hour of European Sovereignty” – the last one before a new European Parliament gets elected and before the UK leaves the EU in 2019.
In his proposals for the future of the EU, Juncker called for greater solidarity and unity among member states, as well as for more “European sovereignty – the capacity to play a role, as a Union, in shaping global affairs.”
The proposals listed in his speech include strengthening the EU’s Border and Coast Guard with 10,000 additional guards by 2020, developing the European Asylum Agency, and increasing the return of illegal migrants. The Commission does not seek to “militarise the EU,” Juncker explained, while pledging to make the European Defence Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defence (PESCO) fully operational in the coming months. In the sphere of security the Commission is also suggesting “new rules to get terrorist content off the web within one hour,” and to allow the European Public Prosecutor’s Office to take care of terrorist offences.
Juncker also voiced proposals for a new partnership with Africa, a new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa and “a continent to continent free trade agreement.”
On Brexit, Juncker pointed out that “the UK will never be an ordinary third country for us. The UK will always be a very close neighbour and partner, in political, economic and security terms.” However, he also warned the UK Government that “If you leave the Union, you are of course no longer part of our single market, and certainly not only in the parts of it you choose,” referring to the UK’s proposal for a future partnership which suggests a free trade area in goods, but not in financial services.
Despite the fact that most of yesterday’s attention focused on the European Parliament’s vote to launch Article 7 procedures against Hungary, there was also a variety of mixed reactions to Juncker’s proposals. Here is an overview of what European politicians and media had to say:
European Parliament members:
Ahead of the speech, the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) group and candidate for the post of President of the Commission, Manfred Weber, released a video message in which he supports the proposals to strengthen Frontex and fight illegal migration. He also later urged to switch for qualified majority voting in the Council on foreign affairs, saying, “Europe is an economic giant, but also has to become a political one.”
Leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, Udo Bullmann, argued that many of the Commission’s proposals “are not enough,” calling for a “radical change” in the EU. In particular, the group “urges the European Commission to concentrate on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) in the upcoming months,” adding, “Our priority from now on is to make sure that the Parliament can fully use its prerogatives to scrutinize the Commission proposal.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group and the EP’s Brexit coordinator, called for the EU Commission to “be a new type of European government that realises the legacy of Juncker and the vision of [French President] Emmanuel Macron. We will offer an alternative to nationalists and populists in Europe ahead of the next election.”
The European Commission we need in the future will be a new type of European government that realizes the legacy of @JunckerEU & the vision of @EmmanuelMacron. We will offer an alternative to nationalists & populists in Europe ahead of the next elections #SOTEU #GenerationEurope
Syed Kamall, leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, stated the group calls on the Commission “to start delivering the kind of EU people want and deserve… It is time to move on from the 1950s model of a federalised EU, an outdated vision of yesterday. It is time to deliver an EU shaped by the wishes of its people who want a better tomorrow.”
Dutch MEP Hans van Baalen, a member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s governing VVD, commented that Juncker’s speech was “a federal sprint before the finish,” rejecting Juncker’s proposals to scrap the veto in foreign policy and in taxation plans. However, he called a greater role for a European coast guard “crucial.”
Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake, from the Democrats 66 (part of the ALDE group), argued that more proposals should have been voiced in order to react to the events in Syria, as “Europe cannot be a bystander” when facing such crises. According to Schaake, Juncker’s speech “underlines the fact that we are not strong enough…that we do not have our defence cooperation in order.”
Danish MEP Anders Vistisen from the ECR criticised the proposals for more integration on migration, calling for greater sovereignty on asylum policies.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz branded Juncker’s proposal to give Frontex a stronger mandate as “an important step” and expressed support for closer cooperation with African countries.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he “really liked the speech” and supported the proposals for a stronger external border, saying that Juncker’s goal to control migration is right, and that collective protection of borders “is an important tool.” However, he also called the proposals to add an additional 10,000 border guards a “little wild,” saying that the 12bn euros that these guards would cost is “a lot of money.” Rutte also disagreed with the proposal to expand the tasks of the European Public Prosecution Service.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte noted that the proposals for a partnership with Africa and on accelerating the return of illegal migrants are particularly welcome. He added that it will be “crucial to undertake a shared path towards the management of migration” and that Italy will be waiting for the reaction of the European Council to Juncker’s proposals, while supporting the message that Europe needs to stay strong and united.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen also focused on the challenge of migration, calling for further cooperation with third countries and border protection.
The French European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said France fully supports Juncker’s initiative for a new partnership with Africa.
Prime Minister Theresa May agreed with Juncker’s comments on Brexit, adding that even after Brexit, the “EU will also never be an ordinary party” for the UK.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa praised the speech, focusing on the “the importance of a united Europe in the fight against climate change, in promoting a sustainable response to migration, peace and international security.”
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov expressed his support for Juncker’s calling the EU to be a more active player in the Western Balkans.
The Guardian points to Juncker’s dismissal of the Government’s Chequers proposals and notices that he “scorned the British government’s plans to build a rival to the EU’s Galileo satellite project.” The paper adds that the “Commission president’s tone was generally gloomy.”
In today’s The Times, an editorial says Juncker “painted an over-flattering picture” of the state of the EU during his presidency, noting the lack of unity among member states on key issues such as migration. It concludes,
Britain needs to find a way between the rigidity of the commission position on Brexit and [Juncker’s] apparently gentler promise of close partnership… If this co-operation ends up aligning Britain with an increasingly hostile position towards the US, then this country’s interests will not be best served. Mr Juncker’s time in office is running out, as is Britain’s time in the European Union. His successor should focus on a guiding principle which Mr Juncker has let slip: the EU must reform on all levels if it is to survive.”
Meanwhile, The Independent editorial notes that “It may have been a thoughtful and reflective speech, but on [neither Europe’s problems nor Brexit] did he offer much evidence that the commission has all the answers.” It concludes,
Stormy as Mr Juncker’s presidency has been… He can point to real achievements, especially in trade and most recently defusing a potential trade war with the Americans. There have, though, been failures, in the sense that the commission is as insensitive to the mood of Europe’s electorates as ever.
Centre-left weekly Der Spiegel writes that while Juncker “demands off the EU to again show strength on the global stage,” he also “conceals the massive obstacles. For a good reason.” It adds, “For his high-flying plans to have even just a small likelihood of being realised, the EU would need to act quickly. But, so far, this is not foreseeable. Because the most dangerous enemies of the EU and its values are not Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, but Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Matteo Salvini.” The paper also writes about Juncker’s speech,
Many of his proposals aim at making use of the vacuum created by Trump. Juncker’s motto could also be: Make Europe great again.
For n-tv, Juncker’s speech and the following debate showed the two realities of the EU: one a “success story,” and the other, the lack of unity on several issues, including the vote on Hungary’s respect for EU values. The article concludes that the debate over European sovereignty at the end of Juncker’s term is not less fierce than when he came to office.
National newspaper Die Zeit reviews Juncker’s presidency term overall, concluding that he has made progress on some economic matters such as the Greek debt crisis, the unemployment situation in the EU and the potential trade war with the US. “Juncker’s problem is not the economy,” the paper notes, adding that Juncker “has to ask unpleasant questions” on Brexit and on the state of the rule of law in countries such as Hungary and Poland. It also argues that the President tries to find European solutions to issues such as migration, and that his proposals “are ready for implementation,” but it remains to be seen whether EU heads of state will support him in the last plans of his term.
For the Suddeutsche Zeitung, Juncker is not as aggressive as he used to be and “is more concerned with seeking unity in this divided union.” The paper also notes that his proposals come from the fact that he “is determined that the EU must change its role in the world if it does not want to go down.”
Der Tagesspiegel writes that the speech “provided a sober assessment of the state of the EU.” The paper comments that due to rising nationalist sentiments in member states, “It would certainly not have hurt if Juncker had spelled out the possible long-term consequences of an escalating nationalism.” Overall, Juncker left only a vague rejection of ‘exaggerated nationalism’… He said that “Europe remains,” but the question is: which Europe?”
Austrian Daily newspaper Die Presse focuses on Juncker’s calling on the Austrian EU Council presidency to develop more sustainable solutions in the sphere of migration, while in Der Standard, Juncker’s “soft tone” and calls for rejecting nationalism are contrasted with Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s “wild nationalist attacks on parliamentarians and the common Europe.”
Irish headlines mostly focused on Juncker’s commitment to “show loyalty and solidarity with Ireland when it comes to the Irish border” in Brexit negotiations, as well as on the proposals to move to qualified majority voting on taxation matters. The Irish Independent points out that
such changes would undermine the competitiveness of the 12.5% corporate tax rate offered by Ireland. [Irish] Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and colleagues have vehemently insisted that they will resist any such changes and that Ireland retains a valid veto.
Il Sole 24 Ore comments that the proposal to reinforce Frontex is “ambitious, as it effectively means reducing national sovereignty.” The paper notes that that unlike in previous speeches, Juncker has maintained his speech on a “low profile, avoiding excessive and unnecessary rhetoric.”
La Stampa evaluates Juncker as “a little tired, with arguments that do not succeed to warm the audience of the European parliament, and with decidedly unambitious proposals.” The paper adds, “It seemed an intervention from the past, too old for a Europe that finds itself in a critical phase on the eve of a decisive election.” Juncker’s call to reject “the kind of nationalism that points the finger at others instead of searching for ways to better live together” attracted much attention in Italy even though Juncker did not name names, according to the paper.
On a similar note as above, El Pais writes that Juncker pronounced the speech with a “slow, almost deadly” pace, noting that his words sounded like a “testament to a Europe of yesterday that does not know if it has a tomorrow.”
An op-ed for L’Écho points out that “even if Europe is going through an existential crisis…the Commission President delivered a speech in which we might have read some optimism.” This “optimism of the willingness” to reinforce European integration without making concessions to the extremist nationalists is the heritage that Juncker seeks to leave behind.
Dutch weekly news magazine Elsevier states that “Juncker’s words were more of the same – that more integration to solve migration issues is needed.” However, the magazine judges the proposals to make more issues an EU competence as “impractical” and “unnecessary.” It concludes that Juncker supports EU integration in itself rather than evaluating its feasibility and usefulness for citizens.