Barbara Matias is our guest reviewer of the 2017 State of the European Union Address.

“I have always fought for Europe. At times I have suffered with and because of Europe, and even despaired for it. Through thick and thin, I have never lost my love of Europe.”

As instituted by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, every year in the first European Parliament plenary session of September the President of the European Commission gives the State of the Union Address, followed by an open debate with the members of Parliament. This year marked Jean-Claude Juncker’s third time giving his speech in Strasbourg. After a tumultuous year of critical national elections, landmark trade agreements and provisional migration resolutions, it was an anticipated speech.

Delivering his remarks in English, French and German, Juncker spoke on behalf of a European Union that has survived a political storm only to come out with renewed hope, confidence and optimism. He set out the main priorities and challenges for the remaining 18 months of his mandate, resolute on a stronger EU27 as a Union of freedom, equality and the rule of law.

Five priorities

In addressing the past year and new one starting, he made mention of five main priorities: trade, industry, climate change, cybersecurity and migration.

Europe’s economic recovery now finds itself with unemployment at a nine year low and a “growth in the European Union [which] has outstripped that of the United States over the last two years. It now stands above 2% for the Union as a whole and at 2.2% for the euro area”. For this reason, global partners have increasingly been reaching out to clinch trade agreements. President Juncker laid down that over the past year and in absolute transparency a trade agreement with Canada was assured, a political agreement with Japan on a new economic partnership was concluded, and a similar agreement is foreseen with Mexico and South American countries by the end of the year. Calling upon the European Parliament, he further proposed opening trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand, so as to finalise an agreement by the end of his mandate. In order to defend Europe’s strategic interest and competitiveness, Juncker also praised the European manufacturing industry, but condemned the car industry – directly alluding to the recent German car manufacturers’ emissions scandal. “Instead of looking for loopholes, they should be investing in the clean cars of the future”, he said, touching upon the third topic: climate change. Juncker was clear in asserting: “I want Europe to be the leader when it comes to the fight against climate change”, especially in light of the United States’ proposal to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Regarding cybersecurity, he sets out a Union whose democracies and economies are better equipped in the digital era by proposing implementation of a European Cybersecurity Agency.

Finally, on the hot topic of migration, he pointed out that no controversy invalidates the progress made so far. External borders are better protected with more FRONTEX officers deployed to assist national guards, and the irregular flows in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean have been contained either by the EU-Turkey deal or partnerships with Northern Africa. In fact, “last year alone, our Member States resettled or granted asylum to over 720,000 refugees – three times as much as the United States, Canada and Australia combined. Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one. (…) We will also work on opening up legal pathways. We are close to having resettled 22,000 refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and I support UN High Commissioner Grandi’s call to resettle a further 40,000 refugees from Libya and the surrounding countries.”

How to deliver

It is on these five issues that he wants his mandate to deliver, but President Juncker notably highlighted that our Union is not just about institutional reforms or money, but also about shared commonality and democracy.

In light of the above, he urged for the first time that the Schengen area of free movement be expanded to Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, that all Member States join the single currency once all conditions have been fulfilled, which will be made easier by the proposed Euro-accession instrument, and he also encouraged all Member States to join the Banking Union for a more efficient risk-reduction and risk-sharing. It was said as well that viewing the EU as a zero-sum game makes no sense for the work it has done and continues to do – in Juncker’s words, “the right compromise makes winners out of everyone. A more united Union should see compromise not as something negative, but as the art of bridging differences. Democracy cannot function without compromise. Europe cannot function without compromise.” The Union must strive for what it should be, a block of “equality between its Members, big and small, East and West, North and South.” Juncker therefore came out against a multispeed Europe which has been advocated by Germany and France beforehand in order to avoid unequipped economies joining the single currency.

Enlargement beyond EU27 was also brought up. Although Juncker has already stated that no expansion will be possible until the end of his mandate, he reiterated that “if we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans”. Focused on accession candidates that prioritise rule of law, justice and human rights, he predictably ruled out any possibility of Turkish membership in the foreseeable future, directly criticising the ongoing imprisonment of German journalists in Turkey, which has strained German-Turkish relations in recent months.

Brexit on the periphery

Finally, only referencing the United Kingdom at the end of his hour-long speech, the President of the EU Commission admitted the regret he feels in the UK abandoning the Union on March 29th 2019, but, in an impromptu off-script moment in reply to an indiscernible comment from a British MEP, Juncker plainly stated “and I think you will regret it as well soon, if I might say”. He made no hesitation in that the future of the EU is not about the UK’s departure, but rather about improved unity, solidarity and strength among EU27 and, when the time is right, added Member States. “My hope is that on 30 March 2019, Europeans will wake up to a Union where we all stand by our values.”

Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech, more than institutional, had a very personal tone and looked to speak for a Union that is just not of nations, but of citizens.

“I have lived and worked for the European project my entire life. I have seen good times and bad. I have sat on many different sides of the table: as a Minister, as Prime Minister, as President of the Eurogroup, and now as President of the Commission. I was there in Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon as our Union evolved and enlarged.”

A renewal of European values

Juncker did argue for a stronger single market and Economic and Monetary Union that progress from resilience to efficiency, yet, most importantly, he praised a Europe of values. In all its trade, migration or financial endeavours as a global actor, the European Union shall always remain “our” Europe, a region of commonality within difference, of shared heritage and of free movement labour opportunities multiplied by 27. There is a common identity that spreads across all Member States, be it not that all EU nationals are officially granted EU citizenship and common equal rights under the Maastricht Treaty.

On a personal note of my own, since moving to the United States I have come to value this shared identity even more and realised how misunderstood it is by non-EU nationals who see it merely as a single market, an institutional mayhem or a migratory fortress. For us, citizens, it is a region of shared qualities, rights, opportunities and, certainly, values. Juncker’s address was clear in emphasising what a unique endeavour the European integration project is and how much it has grown since its implementation in 1957 – “Europe was not made to stand still. It must never do so. Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors taught me that Europe only moves forward when it is bold. The single market, Schengen and the single currency were all written off as pipe dreams before they happened. And yet these three ambitious projects are now a reality.” For this reason I am confident in the progress we shall make together in the course of this upcoming year, as laid out by President Juncker in the State of the Union Address of 2017.

Bárbara Matias
Bárbara Matias works for the European Commission as Desk Officer. Currently in the DG INTPA's Southeast Asia unit leading the Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos files, she previously led the Armenia joint programming file in DG NEAR. Before that, Bárbara worked as Programme Officer in NATO's Operations Division, on Iraq capacity-building and on Covid-19 aid coordination with the EU. She previously worked in Kosovo as Research Fellow at the Group for Legal and Political Studies focused on the EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans. Bárbara has written for online political platforms and peer-review journals since 2015. She holds a Master in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, New York where she was a Fulbright Graduate Scholar and undergraduate lecturer, and speaks 6 languages.

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