On Wednesday, 13 September 2017, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered the annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The speech, and the subsequent debate by the European Parliament, are intended to give MEPs the opportunity to review, critique and shape the policy programme of the European Commission for the coming year. The State of the Union has been held annually in September since 2010, when it was instituted by the Lisbon Treaty.
President Juncker’s speech outlined the Commission’s plans for 2018 – the last full year of Juncker’s term as Commission President. Since the beginning of his five-year term, Juncker has been keenly aware of the importance of delivering tangible results that will improve the perception of the EU among European citizens, going so far as to designate his term as the ‘last-chance Commission’. Indeed, the next year is seen by many as Juncker’s last chance to avoid being remembered solely as the man who oversaw the first withdrawal of a Member State from the EU, and instead to ensure his legacy as the President who reenergised and saved the European Union.
In his 2016 State of the Union, Juncker admitted that the state of Europe was not good. Anti-EU populist nationalists were gaining momentum across the continent, there were fears of contagion of withdrawals as a result of Brexit and public perception and trust in the EU were lagging. This year, the message of Juncker’s speech was that the winds had changed, and the EU was ready to catch the changing wind in its sails. Juncker’s vision for Europe involves taking advantage of this momentum to create new agencies- including a European Cybersecurity Agency and a common Labour Authority – and instruments to reform the EU.
On 1 March 2017, the Commission published the White Paper on the Future of Europe, which outlined five potential scenarios for how Europe could evolve by 2025. As the purpose of this paper was to initiate debate and discussion among the citizens of the EU and to place the steering wheel of Europe in their hands, the White Paper did not draw any conclusions as to what the Commission’s preferred scenario may be. Although Juncker has spent the past few months consulting colleagues, governments, national parliaments and civil society groups on their reaction to the reflection paper and their views for the future of the EU, he has said that this speech is about “delivering [his] own view on things”.
A significant aspect of the speech was the shift away from a multi-speed Europe, which many analysts had believed was Juncker’s preferred route for the future, and was favoured by French President Emanuel Macron, among others. Instead, Juncker has presented a sixth scenario, based on the principals of freedom, equality and the rule of law. He believes that Europe must take a more united approach, by insisting that the Eurozone, Banking Union and Schengen –major areas in which the EU has two tiers – should be projects that include all Member States.
The Euro, he remarked, is supposed to “unite rather than divide our continent”. To do so, it cannot be a currency of just a select group of countries, said Juncker. In order to accelerate the Eurozone accession process, he proposed a Euro-accession Instrument, to provide technical and financial assistance to countries as they try to meet the criteria necessary to join the Euro. As well as enlarging the Eurozone, he also called for a stronger Economic and Monetary Union. This would involve transitioning from the European Stability Mechanism towards a European Monetary Fund. He also outlined the need for a European Minister of Economy and Finance, who would coordinate the EU’s financial instruments and streamline critical decision making in times of crisis. These proposals reinforced Juncker’s position that there cannot be a chasm between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU. The Euro, he believes, is a fundamental part of the EU and not a separate project: “We do not need a budget for the Euro area but a strong Euro area budget line within the EU budget… The Parliament of the euro area is the European Parliament.”
President Juncker also put forward proposals for institutional reforms that are envisioned to tackle the EU’s democratic deficit – a consistent point of criticism made against the European Union. He proposed new rules on the financing of political parties and foundations, while avoiding “filling the coffers of anti-European extremists”. He also expressed tentative support for the idea of having transnational lists for European Parliament elections. This idea, which is not universally popular – even within Juncker’s EPP Group in Parliament – is believed by some to be a way to make European elections more democratic and to foster a European identity among voters.
A further proposal that is intended to promote unity and efficiency in the EU is the merging of offices of President of the European Commission and President of the European Council. Juncker declared that: “Having a single President would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens”. This proposal could also serve to quell the confusion from which citizens, journalists and even world leaders suffer regarding who the leader of the European Union is – a problem that is particularly acute in times of crisis. This reform, however, would completely change the balance of power and inter-institutional dynamics of the European Union. Already, a number of Prime Ministers have spoken out against this idea, arguing that it will reduce the voice of the European Council.
Finally, President Juncker sketched out his roadmap for the next 18 months until 30 March 2019 – the day on which the EU will become 27, following the UK’s withdrawal. Juncker plans to organise a Special Summit in Romania on that day, in which Europeans “come together to take the decisions needed for a more untied, stronger and democratic Europe”. By that time, Juncker hopes the EU will be such that all Member States “firmly respect the rule of law” and “where being a full member of the euro area, the Banking Union and the Schengen area has become the norm for all EU Member States”. This will be done following democratic conventions across Europe in 2018, as proposed by President Macron, so that the Commission can continue its ambition to include citizens in the process of reforming the EU to the greatest extent possible.
President Juncker concluded his speech by recalling the sentiments of Helmut Kohl and his predecessor Jacques Delors, who believed that “Europe only moves forward when its bold”. Now is not the time, Juncker believes, to be cautious but to move forward and “catch the trade wind in our sails”.
As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.