Jean-Claude Juncker spoke on shaping the Europe of the future to a packed auditorium. He started with a grumpy “moin” (roughly: mornin’ in Luxembourgish), and immediately had the students’ attention. He remembered how he grew up “not 500 metres away from Belval”, which used to be a prairie then.
Juncker said that he was initially sceptical about the idea of creating a university in Luxembourg, but gave credit to Erna Hennicot-Schoepges for perservering and laying the groundwork for what has become the University of Luxembourg.
He also joked that he was following Jacques Santer’s footsteps quite literally; Santer had been parliamentary secretary, then minister for employment, then prime minister, and finally president of the European Commission. “So I am watching what you’re doing now to know what will happen in my life”, Juncker added.
Shaping the Europe of the future
Starting his speech with a reflection of the geographics, demographics and future economic weight, Juncker said that Europe was in a multipolar world, and not “master of the planet”. It was a small continent with 5 million square metres and 44 countries (27 newly created after 1990). He added that nothing could be done without the big neighbour Russia.
But the EU will face challenges in the future.
While currently the EU makes up 25% of global GDP, in a few years it will have shrunk to 15%. So Europe will lose in economic importance. Soon we will be only 3% of the global population, and no EU member state will belong to the G7 anymore, Juncker warned.
Only way forward is integration
To break up in national categories in this context would be a huge mistake, Juncker said. He said this was not a plea from a “euroenthusiast”, which “I have never been”, but that it was only together that states could perform best.
Juncker insisted that the EU had achieved many great things: if there had been no common currency, the euro, the individual member states would have been more vulnerable and poorer in the recent economic crises. To unify the east and west European countries was one of the greatest achievements.
However, Juncker warned that the increased disparity between countries and inequalities within countries was dangerous. Social cohesion was important and it was essential to put Europe back at the heart of social Europe. That was why he presented the socle of social rights.
Talking about terrorism, climate change, increased cooperation in defence, energy, digitisation and investment, Juncker made a passionate plea for more integration and cooperation at European level.
The political crisis in Spain
On Catalonia, Juncker said he had tried to convince Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to do something before the situation escalated, and that he was very worried, because “living in a community had become so difficult”. Everyone was trying to go back to their own separate identities. He did not want Catalonia to split, as others may follow suit and the EU would become ungovernable. “An EU at 27 is already difficult, but at 98 it would become impossible.” Replying to calls that he should mediate between Spain and Catalonia, Juncker stated that: “I won’t. If only one party asks me to mediate, I can’t. I shouldn’t.”
Juncker said that the outcome of the referendum in the UK on staying or leaving the EU had been “unexpected--but not totally.” Now “we have to deal with the results, and the first to be impressed with the disadvantages of leaving was the UK.”
The process turned out to be longer than initially thought, said Juncker. The discussions on citizens’ rights were particularly difficult, as the UK was asking for things to stay as they are.
There was no real compromise on the financial settlement. Juncker reiterated the position that if they were unable to reach agreement on that issue, then the EU would be unable to start talks on the future relationship.
Juncker said: “The UK needs to deliver”, but that while it had brought many things to the EU, now that it wanted to leave, “it has to pay.”
Juncker is well known for his pertinent analogies, and used one here. He said: if you went to a bar as group of 28, and everyone ordered drinks, and then one says he won’t pay. That can’t work!
Naturally, this got a big laugh from the students.
Juncker finished his speech with a plea to have more courses in school on Europe’s history, on the “façon d’être”, because “we don’t know much of each other”. He added that what was needed was patience and determination in the EU.
When he finished the speech, there was a prolonged applause.
Student questions on consumer protection, sustainable growth
The students could ask their questions directly without having them screened beforehand.
The first student asked about consumer protection and pesticides. Juncker said he “had had enough” of the member states’ indecision on the issue of glyphosates.
Another asked about sustainable growth, to which the president of the European Commission replied that growth was not a goal in itself, but that a certain amount of growth was needed to finance social policies and social security. He added that the fruits of growth should be redistributed more socially.
Is French the language of the future?
Juncker joked that when he declared, after Brexit, that French would be the language of the future, a “shitstorm” descended upon him, especially from the British media. However, in the EU, all languages were equal, except Luxembourgish. The leaders of the country had “wisely” decided against petitioning it to become an official language, because “we speak the languages of others”.
A United States of Europe?
One student asked when we would see a United States of Europe. Juncker said that “when I was young, I said emotionally that a united states was a worthy goal. But I wouldn’t say that today.”
He explained that people don’t want to lose the benefits of proximity, the advantages that nation-states have. Juncker pleaded instead for more integration. He said that he was not in favour of the concept of nation states of Europe, but that a European government was not needed either.
Multispeed Europe, European finance minister
Juncker said that while he was in favour of a European finance minister, the devil was in the details. The ideas of the competencies of such a finance minister differed considerably between himself, chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.
On a multispeed Europe, Juncker explained that it was a dangerous concept, because many central and east European countries felt excluded. It should not be forbidden, but first it should be tried to find an agreement at 27. He took the example of the recently approved European public prosecutor, where a founding member, the Netherlands, did not participate.
A master’s student in educational and social sciences from Brazil told Delano following the speech: “for someone that lived most of his life outside of Europe, to see this prospect of a more united Europe is amazing. I think he touched on the main issues that we have nowadays around Europe. It was a great way to transmit his message, and he talked in a normal way so that people could understand what’s going on.”
Jill Ciancanelli, from Luxembourg, who studies the same programme, said: “through our master’s, we talk a lot about European and international institutions. That’s why the speech was very interesting and inspiring. It was also interesting to hear the Luxembourg perspective on this. Events like this are really necessary--to involve pupils and students, to enable them to participate in discussions and ask questions, and that Juncker always answered our questions.”
A female student from Japan said that Juncker was very frank about his opinions, very open and friendly.
Myriam, from the ECG, said: “it was very interesting to hear Juncker’s points of views. I think it’s good that he is not always very serious and uses different terms. It sounds better and one understands more.” Another student interjected “he is funny.” Myriam added:
“I do have the feeling that we have a say and that Europe is present in our lives. Europe is not just at the back of our heads. There is a feeling of togetherness.”