The other view of what President Juncker said …
I started writing this article days before the 14 September 2016, the day when the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, had delivered his state of the Union speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was an attempt to “forecast” the main elements of his speech, which covered a period that almost everybody would agree looks rather gloomy for the EU and its citizens. This was his second state of the Union speech, the first one being on 9 September 2015 when he called for “more Union in our Europe”. One year later, the Union has actually become less! Not only that, his then catchy slogan about the “last chance” Commission seems today even closer to realisation and one-step nearer to become indeed the last Commission!
The state of the Union speech is usually a recollection of what has happened (usually they prefer to say what has been achieved) since the last state of the Union speech and an indication of what should follow. The state of the Union speech often sends clear signals on what will be included in the Commission’s work programme for the next year. Moreover, as such, it is often the source of a new round of internal power frictions within the Commission.
Against this background and expectations, indeed this year’s state of the Union was different. Mr Juncker decided to go for a more “emotion free” speech minimising, or even avoiding, the areas of friction. It was a clever approach to appeal to the concerns of citizens by admitting the elements of the “existential crisis” of the EU.
On the factual political part, where everybody expected to hear proposals on how this “existential” crisis is battled and how the EC as the “hard-core” institution navigates Europe for the next 12 months, Mr Juncker did not say much. Those who expected him to say what went wrong with the UK negotiations, (a file that was handled personally by his chief of cabinet), that led to Brexit must have been rather disappointed. He said nothing. Those who expected to hear something about the refugees’ crisis and the Ukraine outstanding issue, issues which have both monopolised the agenda last year, must have also been very disappointed. In fact, his speech, in that respect was as thin as most of the speeches of the leaders of the political groups that followed him in the European Parliament.
Even on the issue of refugees, his speech lacked any political courtesy.
Mr Juncker delivered a speech to satisfy the “politics of the greenhouse” by inventing and cultivating artificial products, out of season, which may look good and fresh but, in fact, taste horrible. How else could one describe his persistent call for more militarisation of the EU on the name of combating terrorism and protecting external borders? How else could it be described his continuous pledge for more security and the development of European Military headquarters?
Mr Juncker proposed the expansion of EFSI by doubling the duration of funds and their capacity. He also announced the formation of an external equivalent fund for Africa and the neighbourhood. I am not convinced that this is the sort of message that most Europeans would appreciate but, nevertheless, if an external fund will be created, why not cover the enlargement countries as well? Or should we make the assumption that this is yet another clue that enlargement is dead for good.
Mr Juncker did not say who already benefitted from his plan and who was left out. Not in terms of countries (that we know, 27 out of 28) but in terms of beneficiaries. That is why it is artificial! He gave figures, which sound promising but in fact fail to improve the lives of most citizens. One could even argue that they actually make the living of most Europeans even worse, taking into account that these funds originate from public budget from which the citizens could have a more direct benefit instead of using them to generate bigger guaranteed funds for businesses to grow.
Furthermore, he highlighted the need to create the right environment for investment in EU and he stressed the need for the capital markets union… yet another union!
On refugees, he exhausted this huge crisis by making a call to Greece regarding the non-accompanied children and to Slovakia for the relocation case against Austria. This is as much as we heard about an issue that still divides Europe and let people sink on a daily occurrence at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea.
Mr Juncker defined certain political priorities that fall under his conviction that the EC should focus in the areas that EU can have an added value. However, one could argue that whether we have “more” or “less” union in Europe is not an issue of numbers but an issue of quality; Mr Juncker is still facing the challenge of quality as well as that of numbers. The (lack of) solidarity expressed by many member states on the issue of refugees and migration is haunting the Union today more than ever before. The overall weight he placed on the ten political priorities he announced while he was still a president-elect says a lot on where his priorities lay with.
So what was my expectation for this state of the Union speech to show a bright face of the EC? Well, I would start from a more political statement that sees EC as part of the problem and not as mere facilitator. I would expect some sort of internal self-criticism on Brexit. Even more, I would expect some reflection on the negative role of EU member states in the Syrian war and certainly some more substance on the fragile and unethical agreement with Turkey on the refugee issues. Finally, yet importantly, I would expect an appeal to all Europeans who are facing the fringe of poverty and social exclusion (they estimate them to be more than 9 million) that his Commission will put them in front of its policy support. Not as future employees, if they get lucky, but as human beings who need direct support now! This is, after all, the situation that turns extreme right into governments in many member states today and this is the pure reason why this may be the last European commission.
Overall, this state of the Union speech left a rather sour aftertaste. One that felt: “well things are not going well and we even admit it but, what the heck, we are in crisis”, and one that felt: “well if we don’t have solutions for the big problems lets develop new ones for which we can say something”.