On 13 September Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, delivered his State of the European Union (SOTEU) to the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg. In what has become an annual event openly modelled on the American president’s speech to Congress each January, the Commission President uses the opportunity to take stock of events of the past year and give some insight into what direction the EU may take in the following 12 months and beyond. Juncker began this year’s SOTEU by confidently claiming that the EU had turned the corner on its many recent challenges and now “had the wind in our sails” to address a series of institutional, policy and political questions.
The EU’s institutional architecture is a source of constant attention by EU insiders and Juncker had a few points in his speech to whet their appetites. He claimed that a European finance and economy minister, a proposal that some member states, such as France, have maintained for a number of years, could strengthen macroeconomic governance of the EU. However, he sees this new figure as part of the Commission and not a new structure that might be more closely aligned to the wishes of the member states. He also weighed in on the question of how to make decision-making for the single currency more democratically accountable, shooting down ideas floating around about creating a separate parliament for the 19 member states that were part of the Euro.
The institutional proposal that gained immediate attention was the idea to combine two existing presidencies, that of the Commission and the Council, into a single figure that would be the candidate designated by the largest parliamentary group that emerged from the elections held every five years. It is hard to see how these proposals will gain traction in the member states, many of which have significant parts of their electorate learning in the direction of Euroscepticism.
Juncker did not present any surprises when it came to talking about policy initiatives for the next year. He proposed the creation of a European cybersecurity agency and for the creation of an “intelligence unit” to deal with trans-border security threats. Seeing an opportunity to fill gaps perhaps left by an American presidency with different priorities, he re-asserted EU leadership on climate change and liberalized trade. These are all standard statements by EU officials and were more an affirmation of the known than venturing into new policy realms in a bold and dramatic fashion.
The SOTEU did address the policy issue that has become a priority for many member states and EU institutions, migration. Juncker reminded Parliament that the EU was the embodiment of values such as solidarity, which compelled it to not become a fortress. At the same time, he spelled the measures that the Commission had taken to stem the flow of migrants and to manage them internally, expressing solidarity with states on the front line such as Italy. Surprisingly, Juncker had little to say about foreign and security policy.
The SOTEU did make a number of political statements that are sure to cause some discussion in some national capitals. Juncker took aim at Turkey, effectively saying that accession to the EU was off the table and denouncing its treatment of journalists. He called for Romania, Bulgaria and eventually Croatia to join the Schengen area and held out the hope for an enlarged Union in the future. Without naming them, he continued the Commission’s pressure on Hungary and Poland, dedicating a part of his speech to a defence of the rule of law. He did not ignore the question of Brexit, saying simply that it was a sad moment but the EU would carry forward from March 2019 with 27 members.
What was consistent and apparent in the SOTEU is that the EU institutions and the member states may not necessarily be heading in the same direction. The SOTEU tried to emphasise that the EU was going forward after its recent challenges, carried by the wind in its sails. However, it did not shed great light on where the ship was heading, who was steering and whether it is sailing in calm waters or stormy seas.
This probably reflects the fact that these are questions that continue to be decided in national capitals and by broader global forces. The national elections in Germany in late September and later in Italy that will put a hand on the tiller and they could decide to head for the eye of the storm.