European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union address on 13 September. His speech was positive, highlighting theprogressmade by the European Commission over the last year. He pointed out that the Commission has 16 months left to deliver real improvement on its positive agenda.
He stated that 80% of the proposals promised at the start of his mandate have already been put forward by the Commission. They aim to put the remaining 20% of initiatives on the table by May 2018, and work together with the other institutions to turn proposals into law and practice.
Juncker made clear his intention to finalise EU trade deals with Canada and Japan before his mandate comes to an end. He is also focused on open trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. Stating that the Commission “are not naïve free traders,” he mentioned the need for Europe to defend its strategic interests and raised the proposal of a new EU framework for investment screening.
His vision for open trade includes transparency with the European Parliament and Member States, as well as published drafts of all negotiating mandates proposed by the Commission. His comments were applauded by the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who described strong trade agreements as the “key to shaping globalization in Europe’s favour.”
Juncker described modern cyber-attacks as “more dangerous to the stability of democracies and economies than guns and tanks.” In order to combat the ongoing threat, the Commission has launched a European Cybersecurity Agency, which aims to improve the EU’s preparedness to react and effectively prevent cyber-attacks.
With regards to irregular migration, Juncker drew attention to the “solid yet admittedly insufficient” progress made by the EU over the past year. The European Border and Coast Guard have worked in conjunction with Member States to stem the flow of irregular migration.
He went on to praise Italy for their “tireless and noble work” in drastically reducing loss of life in the Mediterranean, most notably by providing training for the Libyan Coast Guard. Whilst his assertion that the number of deaths has reduced is accurate, the risk for those making the crossing has increased in 2017. The Commission will continue to work on opening up legal pathways for migration and aim to provide a “real alternative” for those making perilous journeys in order to reach Europe. Juncker re-iterated that legal migration is essential for Europe as an aging continent. He raised the Commission’s proposals for skilled workers to enter Europe using a Blue Card and called for swift agreement between the institutions on this issue.
Juncker envisaged a democratic union anchored by freedom, equality and the rule of law. He stated that there should be no second class citizens, workers or consumers. Compromise and inclusivity are key in his view. He called for the Schengen area of free movement to be immediately extended to Bulgaria and Romania, with Croatia joining once they fulfil the criteria. He also pushed for a “Euro-accession Instrument” to help facilitate more Member States joining the Euro and he encouraged all States to join banking union. He has faced criticism over his invitation, with some Eastern European officials describing it as “political pressure” likely to increase divisions.
The Commission President also touched on the European Pillar of Social Rights, which he hopes will be agreed at the Gothenburg summit next month. He reminded accession candidates that they must prioritise the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights if they want to be considered as part of the EU’s “enlargement perspective.” Focusing on Turkey, he urged those in power to “let our journalists go” and highlighted the importance of free speech.
Focusing on strength and democracy, Juncker laid out his plans for a strong economic and monetary union, as well as a crackdown on terrorism by means of a shared European Intelligence Unit. He stated that the Commission aim to have a stronger and narrower focus on relevant issues, putting forward just 25 new initiates per year. His vision also involves handing back more power to national governments and delegating 90% of State aid decisions. Stating that “European democracy deserves better,” he proposed new rules for financing political parties during elections and raised the controversial topic of introducing transnational lists. He noted that the Commission have drafted a new Code of Conduct for Commissioners, which aims to strengthen integrity requirements.
Looking to the future of the Union, Juncker raised the possibility of merging the European Commission and European Council Presidents. He asserted that having a single president would “better reflect the true nature” of a Union prioritising both States and citizens.
In his closing remarks, Juncker briefly mentioned Brexit. He stated that the UK will be missed but the will of the people must be respected. He remains focused on the future of the remaining 27 Member States and is optimistic that “on 30 March 2019, Europeans will wake up to a Union where we all stand by our values.”