In his latest State of the Union speech on Wednesday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker sounded unusually optimistic about the future of the European Union. With robust EU economic growth, which, in the last two years, has outstripped the US, and unemployment at a nine-year low, Mr Juncker is defining the final phase of his presidency with an ambitious reform agenda.
Again rebuking the UK for deciding to leave the EU, he said the country will regret the decision. “Brexit isn’t everything. It’s not the future of Europe,” he said, adding: “We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. The wind is back in Europe’s sails.”
For counties like Malta, the effects of Brexit are indeed important.
Few doubt Mr Juncker wants a more federalist Europe with Brussels assuming more significant powers on tax, foreign and security policy, social policy and the fight against terrorism. This project is bound to clash with the jealously-guarded protection of national sovereignty that helped the EU grow. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna immediately dismissed Mr Juncker’s plan for tax harmonisation that would have a significant negative effect on the island.
The core EU projects Mr Juncker is promoting include the strengthening of the euro area, the banking union and passport-free Schengen area. He wants as many member states as possible to embrace these projects wholeheartedly. This ambitious vision will irritate the usual EU rebels in Poland and Hungary and also the more important heavyweight member Germany.
He went further in his wish list for more integration. He agrees with French President Emmanuel Macron on the setting up of a new European economics and finance minister, an idea that will find resistance from other member states that resent centralised Brussels interference in such areas.
Mr Juncker also wants a merger of the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council. He would like to see “one captain at the helm of the EU”. This is unlikely to happen because most member states prefer to retain the European Council as ‘a voice of member states’.
Seasoned EU politicians would doubt how much of Mr Juncker’s agenda can be addressed in the remaining 19 months of his term.
In his speech, he failed to acknowledge the infrastructural weaknesses of the euro. Berlin is often at loggerheads with the European Central Bank and the European Commission on economic and monetary policy. Trying to enforce the adoption of the euro on Sweden, Hungary and Poland will not succeed to make the euro ‘the norm’ for most EU states.
The spectre of populist parties being elected to power in EU countries was given little importance by Mr Juncker. Elections in Italy will be the next big test for the EU as some of the major parties are unashamedly anti-EU. Even in France one still has to see whether Mr Macron will succeed in bringing about the labour market reforms he promised despite massive trade union resistance.
The burning problem of immigration too was practically ignored in Mr Juncker’s speech.
After the State of the Union speech, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Jutte described Mr Juncker as a “romantic”, jokingly adding that “when you have a vision, go see a doctor”.
Some wonder whether the wind is now really behind the EU’s sails.
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