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Juncker's state of the nation speech called to seize the window of opportunity
Jean-Claude Juncker presented a sixth scenario for the future of the European Union to the European Parliament on Wednesday 13 September, in which he called on all member states to join the euro, the banking union, Schengen area, and to support a European social standards union.
A year ago, the EU “was battered and bruised by a year that shook our very foundation”, but with the EU economy outperforming the US, lower public deficits and unemployment, Europe “has bounced back,” the European Commission president said.
He argued that Europe should stay on the course it set out on last year in Bratislava, and should prepare for the future.
He argued that the energy union, security union, capital markets union, banking union and the digital single market were on the way to be completed. The European Commission had put forward 80% of the proposals promised at the start of its mandate, and that these must now be turned into law. The remaining 20% would be presented between now and May 2018. However, he cautioned that compromise was necessary to achieve progress on the common asylum system and the reform of the posted workers directive.
Juncker also announced that the EU was opening new trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.
The main policy proposals of the speech
He proposed a new EU framework for investment screening. Juncker said in his annual address:
“If a foreign, state-owned, company wants to purchase a European harbour, part of our energy infrastructure or a defence technology firm, this should only happen in transparency, with scrutiny and debate. It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so that we can protect our collective security if needed.”
He announced the European Commission would propose a new industrial policy strategy (focused on innovation, digitisation and decarbonisation), new ideas to reduce the carbon emissions of the transport sector, and to create a European cybersecurity agency.
He added that he intended to propose a European intelligence unit “that ensures data concerning terrorists and foreign fighters are automatically shared among intelligence services and with the police,” and that there was a strong case to “task the new European Public Prosecutor with prosecuting cross-border terrorist crimes.”
On migration, Juncker praised Italy for its generosity, saying that it was “saving Europe's honour in the Mediterranean.”
The commission will present a new set of proposals with an emphasis on returns, solidarity with Africa and opening legal pathways. On returns, he only said that work must be speeded up. He asked parliament for a swift agreement on making it easier for skilled migrants to come to the EU with a blue card. Juncker also called on the member states to contribute more funding to the EU-Africa trust fund. He finally supported the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi's call to resettle a further 40,000 refugees from Libya and the surrounding countries.
Schengen and membership talks
Juncker advocated that if Europe wanted to protect its external borders effectively, Romania and Bulgaria should become members of the Schengen agreement. He added that Croatia should also join as soon as it fulfilled the criteria. The European Commission president said that the EU should be open to membership for the West Balkan states.
On Turkey, Juncker ruled out accession in the near future because it did not respect the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights and had a message for the Turkish government:
“The call I make to those in power in Turkey is this: Let our journalists go. And not just them either. Stop insulting our member states by comparing their leaders to fascists and Nazis. Europe is a continent of mature democracies. Insults create roadblocks. Sometimes I get the feeling Turkey is intentionally placing these roadblocks so that it can blame Europe for any breakdown in accession talks.”
Common currency and banking union
Juncker reiterated the stated aim in the treaties that all EU member states (bar the UK and Denmark) have committed themselves to join the common currency eventually:
“If we want the euro to unite rather than divide our continent, then it should be more than the currency of a select group of countries. The euro is meant to be the single currency of the European Union as a whole. (…) This is why I am proposing to create a euro-accession Instrument, offering technical and even financial assistance.”
He also encouraged all member states to join the banking union, and completing it was a “matter of urgency.”
The European Commission president said in his speech on Wednesday:
“We need to reduce the remaining risks in the banking systems of some of our member states. [The] Banking Union can only function if risk-reduction and risk-sharing go hand in hand. As everyone well knows, this can only be achieved if the conditions, as proposed by the commission in November 2015, are met. To get access to a common deposit insurance scheme you first need to do your homework.”
Employment and social rights
Juncker announced the creation of a common labour authority to ensure fairness in the single market, which would be a European inspection and enforcement body.
He urged national governments to agree at the November summit in Gothenburg on the European pillar of social rights.
Guiding values for the future
Juncker professed his “love” for Europe and explained the principles that guided his proposals for the future of the EU:
“For me, Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values. In my scenario six, there are three principles that must always anchor our Union: freedom, equality and the rule of law.”
Freedom is often taken for granted, but needs to be fought for, especially freedom to voice your opinion, whether as a citizen or a journalist.
Equality must be a guiding principle for the EU: between big and small, east and west, north and south member states. He addressed several concerns of citizens or national governments with these statements, whether it was the scandal of food of lesser quality in some central and east European (CEE) states, the fact that vaccination was not readily available for children, or the inequality in salary for posted workers and social dumping.
Juncker insisted that the rule of law was another common value:
“Accepting and respecting a final judgement is what it means to be part of a Union based on the rule of law. Member States gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice. The judgements of the Court have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights. The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must. Our Union is not a State but it is a community of law.”
The European Commission president announced several major reform proposals: the introduction of more qualified majority voting (QMV) in taxation and foreign policy, the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism into a European monetary fund, the creation of a European economy and finance minister, the merging of European Commission president and European Council president, and a subsidiarity taskforce to examine proposals to give some powers back to member states.
He was also in favour of creating transnational candidate lists for the European Parliament elections, and to reform the party financing rules to avoid “filling the coffers of anti-European extremists.” Juncker announced a new code of conduct for European commissioners which would allow them to be candidates at EP elections and increase integrity requirements.
Juncker asked member states to give up unanimity in the areas of the common consolidated corporate tax base, on VAT, on fair taxes for the digital industry, on the financial transaction tax and foreign policy. This could be done without treaty change, but at a unanimous vote only.
A European economy and finance minister, who would be vice president of the commission and accountable to the European Parliament, would also be president of the Eurogroup. He would promote and support:
“structural reforms in our member states. He or she can build on the work the commission has been doing since 2015 with our Structural Reform Support Service. The new minister should coordinate all EU financial instruments that can be deployed when a member state is in a recession or hit by a fundamental crisis.”
Juncker rejected the idea of a Eurozone budget, but said there must be a “strong euro area budget line within the EU budget.”
The idea to merge the posts of presidents of the European commission and council was to increase efficiency and visibility:
“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.”