Stuart Kirk gives us a concise report on Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent State of the European Union Address. Stuart, 24, is currently finishing up a Masters degree in Interpreting and Translation and is very active as a member of the Green Party of England and Wales. Stuart speaks French, Russian and Spanish and has a keen interest in the European project and its future.
In a defiant State of the Union speech, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker used the opportunity to remind Europe’s leaders and citizens of the founding principles of the union and what it means to be European. Something that he feels has been very much forgotten.
In such a short speech, relative to the scale and number of issues needing to be addressed, Juncker didn’t go into a lot of detail on any specific issue but instead chose to consistently remind listeners of Europe, why we need Europe and why we need to stick together.
Brexit is on everybody’s minds at the moment, but in truth, Juncker didn’t dwell on the issue. Towards the beginning of the speech, he briefly mentioned that he regrets the vote, but wishes that the UK would invoke Article 50 as soon as possible and reiterated that there will be no Europe ‘à la carte.’ His briefness seemingly reflects Europe’s attitude towards Brexit: let’s get it over with and move on. He did, however, in English, lambaste the spike in racial attacks across England in the wake of the referendum, expressing how ‘Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten or even murdered on the streets of Essex,’ to which he was met with a round of applause with the notable exception of one man sitting on the front row with his upside-down flag of the United Kingdom.
The economy also featured in Juncker’s speech. The Commission president raised the issues of high unemployment, social injustice and stressed how he could not accept Europe’s young people of today being poorer than their parents. An emphasis was also placed on the digital economy and the EU’s proposals of cancelling of roaming costs and providing high-speed Internet in public places. On an international level, Juncker stated that Europeans are not ‘naive free traders’ and they would stand up to protect Europe from Chinese steel dumping and Russian sanctions. At the same time, he reiterated his support for the free trade deal with Canada and underlined the need for member states to ratify the Paris COP21 deal as soon as possible, so as to not damage Europe’s international credibility.
Juncker highlighted the need for European solidarity in managing the refugee crisis. He maintained his support for the idea of a fair re-location system and stated that not protecting unaccompanied children was a betrayal of Europe’s historic values. However, the Commission president also stressed the importance of the reinforced European Border and Coast Guard and Europol, saying that ‘we must know who crosses our borders.’
The topic of the much talked about European Defence Union was also brought up. Juncker declared that Europe’s defence cannot rely on the capacities of individual member states and that economically speaking, such a union, working in conjunction with NATO, would be a lot more effective. He also expressed his desire to see a genuine European Foreign Minister rather than the current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and declared the need for Europe to be present during the talks on Syria with a common European Syria policy.
But the issue that really resonated from Juncker’s speech was Europe itself; Europe’s values, founding principles and most importantly, solidarity. ‘Solidarity is mentioned 16 times in the European treaties’ Juncker said, ‘Solidarity must come from the heart and cannot be forced or imposed.’ He remarked that only together can Europe compete on the world stage and the nations have a collective responsibility to better explain Europe to its citizens. He reminded us that Europe was born out of its troublesome history and suggested how European unity was a symbol of some nations’ entry into the free world, such as Spain, Portugal, and Poland. The speech concluded with a powerful personal story of why Juncker believes in Europe, recalling how his father helped him understand how crucial and fragile peace in the continent is. He called on Europe to reinvent the will of its predecessors in order to overcome the differences we face today. They say you don’t realise what you’ve got until you’ve lost it and being from the United Kingdom, a country that has just allowed itself to be taken over by galloping populism, young European-minded Brits like myself are now faced with losing the rights we so cherished. To other Europeans, I’d say do everything in your power to protect these rights and don’t take them for granted. To quote Juncker’s final remarks, ‘history won’t remember us, but will remember our mistakes. Let’s not be guilty of making a mistake that would put an end to the European dream.’