Brexit is not the future of Europe. At a time when all eyes in Brussels are pointed at the Brexit negotiation process, when decision-makers, business representatives, NGOs and trade unions constantly speculate over the future relationship between the EU and the UK, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent only a few sentences on Brexit in his recent State of the Union address.
Despite Juncker’s brevity, however, his words on the UK’s departure from the EU were the most emotional in this year’s speech.
Instead, the Chief of the EU Executive arm focused on outlining his personal vision of a stronger Europe which, thanks to greater internal cohesion, can face the global challenges of our time.
According to Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the answer to the challenge of Brexit is not a European Union à la carte, where different groups of Member States pursue different levels of integration. By contrast, more effective EU institutions and a more dynamic democratic process should promote internal cohesion, allowing the EU to play an increasingly important role on the international stage.
It should come as no surprise that the successful implementation of the EU trade agenda was listed as the first objective to achieve by the end of the current Commission mandate.
The Commission President announced his intention to open trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand – draft negotiating directives were published shortly after the conclusion of the speech – expressing his ambitious will to conclude those FTAs by 2019. Juncker also underlined his commitment to sealing the agreement with Mercosur and upgrading the existing FTA with Mexico by the end of 2017, as well as praising the political deal reached with Japan earlier this summer.
The timely implementation of the EU trade strategy will open up significant opportunities for European exporters and allow the EU to fill the void left by the US on the international trade arena since Trump’s protectionist turn, marked by the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) soon after the presidential inauguration.
Mr Juncker pointed out that the Commission will not act as a “naïve supporter of free exchange”, and that it will instead protect EU interests in negotiations, for example by proposing a tougher framework for foreign investments screening.
However, it remains unclear how this cautious and pragmatic approach to free exchange will shape negotiations on those traditionally sensitive sectors of the economy, notably farming and agriculture.
”On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This will be a very sad and tragic moment. We will always regret it. And I think you [the UK] will regret it as well. Nonetheless we have to respect the will of the British people. But we will move on, we will make progress, because Brexit isn’t everything. Brexit is not the future of Europe”.
Emotional words by Juncker during his State of the Union speech
Although he listed it as the fifth priority for the remaining part of the current Commission mandate, Juncker spent more words on migration than on any other issue covered in his speech.The Commission President called for stronger common border protection, praising the effectiveness of ongoing EU border control efforts in stemming illegal migration flows and saving lives in the Mediterranean.
More solidarity towards asylum seekers should go hand in hand with a more effective implementation of the return policy for migrants who are not entitled to refugee status. Juncker’s remarks on migration signal his call for unity among Member States, in an effort to bridge the divide between a more Eurosceptic and xenophobic Eastern Europe and a more welcoming and liberal Western Europe.
More Europe, Stronger Europe
An ambitious trade agenda and an effective plan to deal with migration challenges are two essential conditions for the EU to play a leading role in the international arena. But other measures are necessary to enhance the EU’s international prestige.
The Commission President encouraged Member States to use Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in foreign policy decisions more frequently, in order to speed up and increase the efficiency of the decision-making process. Moreover, a “fully-fledged European Defence Union” should be in place by 2025, thanks to increased military spending and cooperation by Member States.
In Juncker’s words, the EU’s international stance must be firmly established on stronger internal cohesion. The latter can be achieved at two different levels: At the institutional level, Juncker supported the idea of a single President for both the Commission and the Council of the EU, who would, he said, better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens.
The Commission President also reiterated his support for a Eurozone Economy and Finance Minister. The latter would replace the current Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, who would become Vice-President of the Commission and chair the Eurogroup as well. The introduction of this new institutional figure should go hand in hand with the extension of the Euro Area membership to all member states, provided that eligibility criteria is met.
Juncker also stated that Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia should soon become part of the Schengen area, while all Member States should join the Banking Union in the future, provided that a proper risk-management framework is put in place.
At the political level, Juncker stated that more democracy will translate into greater internal unity and cohesion. Hence his support for transnational lists in EU elections, as well as his passionate defence of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, which for the first time in 2014 allowed EU parties to indicate their candidate for the role of Commission President. Juncker also announced a reform of the EU rules on the funding of political parties and foundations, which should cut financing for anti-EU extremists, while giving EU parties the means to better structure and organise themselves.
“The wind is back in Europe’s sails. We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails”.
The overall picture painted by this year’s State of the Union speech is one of a brighter future for Europe, where more integration leads to EU economic wellbeing and prominence on the international arena.
Whether or not the EU will be able to reap the fruits of this brighter future, however, will depend on multiple conditions which are certainly very difficult to achieve.
Above all, deeper EU integration requires the unanimous consent of all Member States, which appears very unlikely, even in times when a renewed Franco-German alliance in support of the EU seems to have pushed back Eurosceptic populist aspirations.