The European Union should combine the posts of Commission and Council presidents into one to ensure it is “steered by a single captain,” Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs during his annual State of the Union address today.
In an hour-long speech to the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg, an upbeat Commission President made the case for reforms to streamline EU leadership, outlined his vision for a European project built on “common values, freedom and the rule of law” and said Brexit was not “the be-all and end-all” for Europe.
Here are 10 key ideas Mr Juncker laid out during his speech:
1. Juncker wants the EU to more closely resemble a state
From backing a proposal for some MEP candidates to be on the ballot in each member state to calling for an EU finance and economics minister, Mr Juncker made it clear he sees the EU taking on more semblances of a state in the years to come.
The avowed federalist urged the EU to allow some foreign policy decisions to be taken by qualified majority voting rather than unanimity and said he – as well as Nato – wanted to see a European defence union by 2025.
Mr Juncker also called on the EU to merge the posts of Commission and Council president, currently held by himself and Donald Tusk respectively. The EU, he said, would be better understood if it was “steered by a single captain”.
The Commission president wants all states to join the European Banking Union, making bank supervision common across the bloc and more common standards in labour and social policies.
A new intelligence unit to share information about terrorists and cyber security agency to protect against cyber attacks were also proposed.
2. Europe must move fast on trade
Juncker made it clear the EU had “a window of opportunity” which it had to exploit and called for trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand to be wrapped up within the next year and a half.
He, however, placated France and Berlin, who are concerned that trade with China is becoming a one-way street, by saying Europe had to develop an investment screening mechanism to scrutinise takeover bids for firms in sensitive sectors such as defence and technology.
3. Europe will keep pushing for common taxation
Mr Juncker’s calls for Europe to do away with national vetoes in the taxation realm once the UK leaves the EU will have had many Finance Ministers, among them Malta’s Edward Scicluna, fidgeting.
The Commission President did not exactly mince his words, saying he was “strongly in favour” of qualified majority voting (rather than unanimity) on issues such as a common consolidated corporate tax base, VAT, digital industry taxes and a financial transaction tax.
4. Resistance to a ‘two-speed Europe’
As he outlined his proposed ‘sixth’ scenario for the EU, Mr Juncker made it clear that he was opposed to “second-class” citizens, consumers or workers. He said an agency to ensure equal and fair labour standards across the EU would soon be set up.
More pointedly, Mr Juncker defended existing EU institutions and expressed scepticism for proposals which call for the EU’s eurozone core to press ahead on its own or to have its own, separate budget.
Instead, he said more countries should join the single currency and should be given aid to help them meet compliance criteria for joining.
5. Europe must offer more carrots to its eastern members
Juncker's talk of "second-class citizens" was a clear reference to the EU's east - "Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers," he said - and the Commission president made several noises to keep eastern member states on his side.
He said it was high time Romania and Bulgaria were brought into the Schengen area – something France and the Netherlands have opposed – and told his audience the EU would eventually expand further.
That said, the odds of Turkey joining the EU have never been slimmer. Juncker explicitly called on the country to release jailed journalists and told Erdogan he had to “stop calling our leaders fascists and Nazis”.
6. Brexit talks will not dictate the EU agenda
“Brexit isn’t everything, it isn’t the be-all and end-all,” Juncker said, shortly after saying he believed the UK would come to regret its decision.
The president also had a biting aside, which was presumably aimed at London, saying “those who do not understand compromise do not understand democracy,” and at one point thanked the “27 member states" - despite the fact that the EU currently has 28 members.
7. Migration is causing Brussels fewer sleepless nights
Juncker said “real progress” had been made on the migration front, with irregular arrivals from the EU’s eastern borders and central Mediterranean both down significantly. He pledged to work with the UN to fix “scandalous” conditions in reception centres in Libya.
His “heartfelt thanks” to Italy – presumably aimed at placating Rome’s increasing restlessness with the existing situation – drew loud applause from MEPs in the plenary.
Mr Juncker, however, again harangued member states which resisted playing their part in resolving the migration issue, without mentioning them by name.
The Commission president also urged member states to look beyond the EU’s borders when tackling migration and pushed for more financing for Africa. Many migrants who arrived in 2015, he said, had bolted for Europe when UN food funds ran out.
8. Respect for the rule of law is not optional
Mr Juncker’s criticism of unnamed member states weaved in neatly with his later statement that European Court of Justice judgments had to be respected “in all cases.”
Just last week, the ECJ ruled against Hungary and Slovakia and said all member states were obliged to take in their fair share of asylum seekers.
Mr Juncker made it clear that the future of the European Union started and ended with respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary – a statement which will have gone down like a lead balloon in Poland, where the government has sought to seize more control of its courts.
9. Juncker was out to build bridges
The Commission president went out of his way to express appreciation for the EP, which he has often clashed with, and east European states, who often say Juncker ignores them.
He thanked MEPs for their work in helping Europe back onto its feet and made several references to the EU’s eastern members, most notably when he paid tribute to Baltic states by saying their history “is a part of European history” and expressed anger at a shortage of measles vaccines in Romania or companies selling inferior products to east European member states.
10. Juncker really, really loves the EU
The Commission president has spent much of his working life pacing up and down Brussels corridors, having served as Prime Minister of Luxembourg for almost 20 years, Eurogroup president and now Commission president.
And at one point this morning, Mr Juncker’s State of the Union speech turned into a paean for the European project, as he waxed lyrical about the EU.
"I have lived the European project my entire life, I have been through good times and bad times,” he said before going on to list his credentials as an EU giant.
“I was there at Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. I have been through thick and thin with European Union, and never have I lost my love,” he told MEPs before going on to note that “there is no love without disappointment.”
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