Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, made his first State of the Union before the European Parliament in Strasburg (read his address here). As he recalled in the early part of his address, the State of the Union is an important institutional exercise solidifying the relationship between the Commission and Parliament. In the State of the Union, the President addresses the overview of the past year, and identifies the priorities for the coming year. The title of his address is State of the Union 2015: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity. Juncker wants to take a hard look at the way the EU and Europeans behave, which has been quite disastrous these last years, and the types of solutions that could be implemented in order to solve the many crises facing the Union.
The tone of his address was quite dark and accusative. At several occasions, Juncker was very critical, and pretty much started his address by saying that “our European Union is not in a good state.” In order to change the current path, Juncker urged to re-find a common European ground and solidarity among the 28 nations.
Five key priorities were identified by President Juncker: the refugee crisis; the euro area and the Greek future; the Brexit; the instability of Ukraine; and, climate change. They can be grouped into three categories: internal/institutional, regional and global.
The first priority for the Europe as a whole is finding solutions for the refugee crisis. Juncker spent a considerable amount of time talking about the crisis and the solutions that can be implemented. Before talking cooperation and coordination, Juncker underlined the shared historical heritage of Europeans and the fact that migrations caused by political persecutions and oppressions have occurred at many occasions on the European continent. Juncker implied that forgetting our European past, or simply selecting moments of history, is not an acceptable approach. Juncker addressed the question of numbers of asylum seekers and correctly put it in perspective saying that they simply represents 0.11% of the overall EU population of 500 millions, when they are representing 25% of the Lebanese population (read
a previous piece on the topic here).
Juncker underlined that the Commission has been advocating for more integration on immigration policies in order to create a Common European Asylum System. If Juncker reminded the positive actions implemented by the EU like Frontex, foreign aid to Syria and so forth, he said that “Where Europe has clearly under-delivered, is on common solidarity with regard to the refugees who have arrived on our territory.”
In dealing with rising numbers of refugees arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary, the Commission is pushing for the adoption by the EU meeting of ministers of September 14th of the “Commission proposals on the emergency relocation of altogether 160,000 refugees.”
The last sentences of his part on the refugee crisis was quite a powerful statement as it clearly illustrates Juncker’s vision of what Europe is and should be:
I do not want to create any illusions that the refugee crisis will be over any time soon. It will not. But pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe.
Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border. This is the Europe I want to live in.
The crisis is stark and the journey is still long. I am counting on you, in this House, and on all Member States to show European courage going forward, in line with our common values and our history.
The second priority concerns the Euro area, Greece and the European social model. The third priority consists in maintaining the unity of the Union by keeping Britain inside the EU. Juncker has always been clear on the fact that the UK ought to remain a core member of the Union.
Regional Priority – Ukraine
The fourth priority identified by Juncker deals directly with the stability of the European continent, and especially with the lingering military and political crises in Ukraine. Juncker’s view on the Ukrainian crisis is that the EU “will need more Europe and more Union in our foreign policy.” Juncker underlined that the 28 nations must show more unity in confronting Russia and demonstrating to Russia that it will have to pay a high cost in maintaining the regional instabilities in Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, Juncker did not mention Crimea and its annexation by Russia.
Global Priority – Climate Change
In December, Paris will host the COP-21 meeting, which Europeans would like to be the meeting that brought global unity and commitment to addressing climate change. “Europe’s priority,” underlined Juncker “is to adopt an ambitious, robust and binding global climate deal.” The ultimate objective for the Europeans is quite grandiose as they hope to achieve the creation of an “international regime to efficiently combat climate change.” The creation of an international regime would be a fantastic first step, but having a regime without clear powers, independent enforcement mechanisms, and a fund would be meaningless. Then, each signatory of the regime will have to ratify it back home. If Europe can offer credible influence, it is uncertain that the United States, in period of presidential campaign until November 2016, would ratify it.
Juncker’s approach, which is in fact a Commission’s approach, to addressing the problem of climate change is a market-oriented strategy based on two aspects. The first one is the EU Emissions Trading System, which consists in trading quotas of emissions, and the second one is the development of the Energy Union, which is as well focused on innovations and on the interconnection with the markets.
Despite Being Political, the State of the Union Falls Short
Jean-Claude Juncker’s address is interesting as he, early on, underlined his legitimacy as President of the Commission as he was appointed directly after the elections of the European Parliament. Certainly, the President of the Commission is not directly elected by the European citizens, but for the first time ever the different candidates for his posts were semi-campaigning. Ultimately, he claimed that he has had “the opportunity to be a more
political President” and he told the Parliament that he “wanted to lead a political Commission. A very political Commission.”
The Commission is the executive body of the European Union as its role is to enforce and advance the interests of the Union. In short, the Commission is the guardian of the Treaties. Even though President Juncker appears to be frustrated about the direction of the EU, the lack of solidarity and unity among the Member States, his first State of the Union falls short for several reasons (read here a piece by Tim King of Politico arguing that Juncker lacked in persuasive explanation):
First, the address is too complex and tends to go back to the legal texts at too many occasions in order to validate and justify the power and legitimacy of the Commission. The address could have been much shorter and direct without all these legal justification. It is not certain that Juncker needed to offer some lecturing about the institutional design and functioning of the EU. In addition, this quest by Juncker for legitimacy and perpetual justification of his power is quite interesting and may underline some complex tensions at the European level.
Second, if Juncker’s plan on reforming the asylum model in Europe is well thought out, the solutions for Greece are not present at all. The part on the Greek crisis reinforces the sentiment that the EU is unable to merge the gap between a common currency and national fiscal policies and most importantly find a solution in re-launching the European economic engine.
Last but not least, if the five issues identified are right on the approach to solving them is the traditional one coming from the Commission and can be summed up by “more Europe.” This motto advanced the Commission of “more Europe” in order to solve all internal, regional and global problems is for many the cause of the disconnect between Brussels and the European nations. In his first address, Juncker failed in connecting with European citizens.
To end on a positive note, one of the most meaningful statements made by Juncker, which was lost in the length of text, appears in the conclusion. He said “While I am a strong defender of the Community method in normal times, I am not a purist in crisis times – I do not mind how we cope with a crisis, be it by intergovernmental solutions or community-led processes. As long as we find a solution and get things done in the interest of Europe’s citizens.” Such statement shows the true colors, meaning political philosophy, of Juncker and the desire to find the most appropriate solutions to solving serious crises. This should have been the core argument of his address.