“This is Not the Time for Business as Usual…it is Time for Honesty”: State of the Union 2015

Analysis by Gabriella ATKINS

On 9th September 2015, President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, presented his first ‘State of the Union’ address.  This address is presented annually at the beginning of September to facilitate relations between the European Parliament and European Commission and ‘requires the President of the Commission to take stock of the current situation of our European Union and to set priorities for the work ahead’.

A powerful rallying-to-arms, Juncker’s speech directly addressed the most immediate crises facing the European Union and castigated its members for failing to act in the unified manner expected of an economically developed, mature system: ‘This is not the time for business as usual…It is a time to speak frankly about the big issues facing the European Union.  Because our European Union is not in a good state’.  Underlying the entirety of the speech is Juncker’s mandate: ‘There is not enough Europe in this Union.  And there is not enough Union in this Union.’

Having stated his belief that his position and the current state of world affairs requires ‘A very political Commission’, Juncker addressed five key issues facing the EU:

  1. The Refugee Crisis
  2. Greece, the Euro and the European economy
  3. Britain
  4. Ukraine and Russia
  5. Climate change.
Migrant lives being saved at sea - Public domain
Migrant lives being saved at sea – Public domain

‘The first priority today is and must be addressing the refugee crisis’ in light of the 500,000 refugees who have made their way to Europe since the beginning of the year, the majority of whom are fleeing Syria, Libya and Eritrea.  Juncker is keen to highlight that Europe’s past is based on a history of migration: ‘We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee’.  Calling on Member States to be proud and not fearful of their status as ‘a beacon of hope’, Juncker asserts the need to maintain a sense of perspective in light of the vast numbers of refugees arriving in Europe.  The ‘unprecedented number’ still only represents just 0.11% of the total EU population, in stark contrast to Lebanon where refugees represent 25% of the population.  Having directly addressed the need ‘to manage the refugee crisis’ Juncker moves on to sparingly celebrate what has been achieved so far.  The ‘first measure of European solidarity in action’ is the increased EU ‘presence at sea’ in dealing with the Mediterranean migration route.  Despite the EU’s support of Syrian refugees, Juncker highlights that the relocation of ‘22,000 people from outside of Europe over the next year’ might show ‘solidarity’ but is ultimately ‘very modest’ in comparison to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon’s hosting of ‘over 4 million Syrian refugees’.  Juncker acknowledges ‘that the mood is turning’ but presses the urgency of conditions – ‘Winter is approaching’ – and calls for a reform of the system of asylum applications.  Legal channels for migration within Member States must be opened whilst the external borders of the EU must be strengthened.  ‘Our European foreign policy must be more assertive’.  Despite a sparing congratulations to Member States on their actions so far, Juncker is adamant that ‘the international community has failed the Syrian people.  Europe has failed the Syrian people’.  Europe must learn from the events of the refugee crisis so far and move forward to assist refugees without stigma and fear.

The second issue Juncker addresses relates to the Greek crisis, the Euro and the European economy.  With regards to the Greek crisis, Juncker acknowledges that ‘Collectively, we looked into the abyss’ and ultimately ‘our collective inability to provide a swift and clear answer to the Greek crisis over the last months’ weakened the EU’s reputation on a world-wide scale and amongst Member States.  Juncker defends the European Commission’s and his own active role in the negotiation process in light of criticisms that negotiations should have been left to the International Monetary Fund arguing that ‘it is the Treaty on European Union which calls on the Commission to promote the common interest of the Union and to uphold the law’.  Whilst the reaching of a deal might appear to be the end of a long, complex process, Juncker is adamant that ‘We are only at the beginning of a new, long journey’.  As if to make a public reminder of Greece’s commitment to the deal, Juncker draws attention to the agreement he secured by ‘leaders of all the mainstream Greek political groups…to support this agreement’.  Furthermore, despite appearances, he maintains that the EU wants to ‘assist Greece in developing a growth strategy which is Greek owned and Greek led’.  Moving on to issues concerning the European economy as a whole, Juncker highlights that progress, particularly relating to unemployment, is ‘too slow, too fragile and too dependent on our external partners’.  Differences across the euro area are only widening and deepening.  The EU’s response to this is the ‘Five Presidents’ Report’, drawn up in May and June 2015.  Juncker highlights a few key areas of this report:

  1. The establishment of a ‘European system, disconnected from government purses’, to protect the bank savings of citizens up to €100,000 per person and account.
  2. The need for a stronger, single voice for the euro on the global scene.
  3. Fairness in taxation policies: ‘the country where a company generates its profits must also be the country of taxation’.
Jean-Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) - Zinneke, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0
Jean-Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) – Zinneke, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Juncker concludes this section of his address with an admonition to the United Kingdom – ‘The European Union is a dynamic project’ – creating a clear link between European economy and Britain that defines his next section.

The third section of Juncker’s address appeals to the British project for ‘A fair deal for Britain’.  Arguably the weakest section of his address, Juncker merely reiterates the importance and potential benefits of a single market.  However, he does acknowledge that the EU needs to strengthen ‘our relationship will national Parliaments’ in order to ‘bring the Union closer to the people that it serves’.  Juncker argues for Britain to remain within the EU: ‘I believe that the EU is better with Britain in it and that Britain is better within the EU’.

Juncker’s fourth section contains a distinct and direct message to Russia: ‘The security and the borders of EU Member States are untouchable.  I want this to be understood very clearly in Moscow’.  Juncker calls on the EU to stand firm with Ukraine, drawing links between the establishment of the EU and the fight for Ukraine’s independence as ‘a modern country…a stable economy, in a sound and fair political system’.  Unity in sanctions must be maintained and, ultimately, Europe should be leading foreign affairs.  ‘When the European Union stands united, we can change the world’.

The final section of Juncker’s address relates to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.  Sending a clear message to international negotiators, Juncker asserts the EU’s commitment to ‘leading in the fight against climate change’ but declares that ‘the EU will not sign just any deal’.

Overall, Juncker’s ‘State of the Union’ is a refreshingly frank appraisal of the current state of European affairs.  He acknowledges the mistakes and problems faced by the EU, particularly with regards to Greece, but it is satisfying to see such acknowledgment as the basis for – hopefully – future reform and change.  Juncker admonishes Member State’s actions with regards to the refugee crisis, at a particularly adept moment when populations are beginning to feel ashamed for their initial response to refugees.  One cannot help but feel that had such admonishments been delivered a month or two earlier, the reception might have been tangibly cooler.  Juncker manages to create a coherent voice – although this reader struggles to work out for whom or what. The Commission? The Parliament? Himself? – and presents it to the international world.  The European Union emerges as a squabbling gaggle of school children who need uniting and ordering by a common leader in order to create a cohesive unit strong enough to argue for its interests.

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