In the run-up to last year’s State of the Union, the big question on everyone’s lips was how European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was going to address the future of the European Union in the raw aftermath of the referendum on Brexit. Today, with perhaps a little less of its usual cynicism than last year, and perhaps a tad more anticipation, the EU bubble was focused on the third edition of Juncker’s State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This is how we saw it, live from the Strasbourg hemicycle.
Raising the anchor
In a clear shift from last year’s address, Juncker this year struck a distinctly more optimistic note, in a valiant attempt to instill a sense of pride and confidence in the future of the EU. In this post-referendum, Brexit-negotiating era, the EU has not yet crumbled and fallen. In fact, trends indicate that citizens’ feeling of belonging to the EU is on the increase. Economic recovery is bearing fruit, employment rates are on the rise and Europe is, objectively, in a strong economic position to face the challenges of the day. This does not mean all is ok – the Union is facing some of the worst turmoil it has ever seen within its own borders, with the ongoing crises relating to democratic governance in Poland and Hungary. But today’s speech was all about looking to the future: in his closing remarks, Juncker called on the EU to “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the harbor, and catch the trade winds in our sails”, which pretty much captures his mood, building on positive momentum to drive a more democratic Europe, drawing in member states, and consolidating unity.
The beginning of the end of a mandate…
This year’s SOTEU implicitly recognized the feeling already floating around the bubble: we are now entering the final 16 months of the current EU institutional mandate. With MEPs either beginning to plan their reelection campaigns (EP President Tajani added a little personal touch with his own mini-SOTEU yesterday morning), or planning their retirement, Juncker’s address kick-starts the final phase of his Commission’s time in office, and underlines his ambition to accomplish as much as possible of the agenda set out in 2014.
In a move that will undoubtedly irritate the UK, Juncker stressed the importance of striking strategic trade deals, committing to publishing all draft negotiating mandates and calling for deals to be concluded speedily with Australia and New Zealand, in the wake of recent progress in talks with Japan and Mexico. Juncker also proposed a new framework for investment screening, which is bound to please President Macron, aimed at ensuring strategic EU assets are protected from non-EU entities. The future of Europe’s industry was in focus, with the announcement of a new Industrial Policy Strategy – the details of which will be unveiled next week – in a bid to support growth and innovation in Europe, answering a repeated call from industry associations. The Digital Single Market – one of the major pillars of the Juncker Commission from the onset – received relatively little attention in the speech itself, aside from the announcement of the creation of a European Cybersecurity Agency, which raises the question of what the existing ENISA (European Union Agency for Network and Information Security) is for.
Looking ahead to Scenario 6 and a united Europe
In the remainder of his 60-minute address, Juncker focused on the anticipated ‘scenario 6’ (a reference to the five scenarios for the EU’s future put forward by the European Commission in March) and the importance of strengthening unity across the union. Juncker outlined his “new” scenario 6 for the future of the EU in 2025, encapsulating Europe’s fundamental values (in a reference to France’s national motto): freedom of expression, equality for all citizens, regardless of geography or social standing, and ensuring the rule of law through independent judiciary. (In case you are wondering what happened to fraternity, it was covered in an earlier point on the protection of refugees and the migration crisis.)
Finally, while the importance of unity in the EU was underlined throughout the speech, it was a significant stand-alone finale to this year’s address. Unity in sharing a common policy agenda and value system: guaranteeing free movement across Schengen, fighting for social rights at the EU’s planned Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg this November, countering the two-speed approach to the single currency by creating a Euro-accession Instrument and encouraging all Member States to join the Banking Union; but also, symbolically, unity in European leadership: calling for the creation of a European Minister of Economy and Finance, and merging the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.
Moving forward from today’s address, the next steps in the union’s lifespan will depend on how much of the Juncker Commission’s policy agenda can be concluded in the next 16 months, and how much of the political vision outlined today will be supported and defended in the count-down to the proposed Special Summit in Romania on 30 March 2019, the day after Brexit, which will open up the new EU-27 era.