State of the Union Speech: from ‘no business as usual’ to an ‘existential crisis’

State of the Union Speech: from ‘no business as usual’ to an ‘existential crisis’

Agnieszka Widlaszewska takes a look at the State of the Union speech one year later

On September 14 2016 Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, delivered his annual State of the Union speech. Addressing the MEPs gathered in Strasbourg, he commented on the current state of affairs and outlined the Commission’s priorities for the years to come. Numerous predictions had been made ahead of the speech. Was Juncker going to talk more about external or internal problems? Was he going to propose effective solutions regarding combatting terrorism and protecting EU borders? What about the refugee crisis? And most importantly – what do we do about Brexit?

Surrounded by danger

Back in 2015 Juncker’s first State of the Union speech was not particularly optimistic – since 2014 multiple external challenges had forced the EU to turn away from its regular problems. The refugee crisis was a clear leader in terms of Juncker’s priorities. The President of the Commission was not mincing his words: he considered it unacceptable that Italy, Greece and Hungary were left alone in their struggle to cope with the crisis, and added that the EU was not making enough effort to help countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which were burdened with much larger numbers of refugees.

This issue was likely to occupy a central spot again in this year’s speech. Even though the EU managed to strike a deal with Turkey in March 2016, thus greatly reducing the number of migrant arrivals at the European shores, there is an ongoing conflict regarding relocation quotas. If Juncker wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2015 drama, reminding all Member States about their duties was expected.

Another international problem the EU had to face in 2015 was ISIS, which had grown in strength and had received the attention of the whole world. The annexation of Ukraine was also in focus, and Juncker called for supporting Ukraine financially and showing Russia the cost of confrontation. This year, in light of the ever stronger disagreements regarding sanctions imposed by the EU, this topic could have been one of Juncker’s main focus points again.

‘Money, money, money…’

As for more internal matters, after Juncker’s extensive commentary on the situation in Greece back in 2015 many were hoping for more information on the current state of the Eurozone. Is the worst over? Is the banking system stable or should we still hide our cash under the tree in the garden? Which new policies are being implemented to strengthen the Monetary Union?

A little treat many were probably waiting for was the topic of tax evasion, especially in relation to the Commission’s recently completed investigation of Apple’s tax agreements with the government of Ireland. As the EU’s executive continues to investigate tax ruling practices of member states and takes aim at some of the biggest multinationals, it was probable that Juncker would deliver a strong statement on the topic. What was likely to be omitted, though, was TTIP and its future, as the world awaits the US presidential elections with anxiety.

Facing the ‘existential crisis’

Despite their unquestionable importance it seemed that none of the already mentioned issues had high chances of stealing the spotlight, for there had been a Brexit revolution. The decision made by almost 52% of those who voted on June 23 shocked the whole world and showed that the greatest danger to solidarity and further integration in Europe might come from within. It was therefore crucial that the 2017 Social Pillar, promised by Juncker in 2015, was not going to be forgotten. Tackling unemployment, boosting investment and growth, ensuring fair pay for everyone – these points needed to be included on the Commission’s list of priorities.

An (un)expected speech

A lot of predictions were made. And quite a few of them turned out to be wrong. First and foremost, there was not much talk about Brexit. Juncker mentioned it mainly to reassure international partners that the EU was not at risk of a breakdown. He did, however, also stress that without allowing the free movement of persons and goods the British government could only dream of successfully negotiating the UK’s right to be part of the Single Market.

An issue which was completely ignored was Ukraine. Juncker turned towards Syria instead, and suggested that Federica Mogherini become a true European Foreign Minister. The President focused strongly on combatting terrorism and protecting EU borders. Among his ideas were a European Border and Coast Guard, reinforcing Europol and establishing a European Travel Information System. Creating a common defence system through pooling defence capabilities and establishing a single headquarters for joint European operations was also suggested.

Refugees, surprisingly, faded into the background. TTIP, unsurprisingly, was not mentioned at all. At least tax evasion received its well-earned attention when Juncker took the opportunity to publicly scold Apple for not paying its taxes. The President also presented some new proposals: fully deploying 5G across the EU by 2025, providing free access to WiFi in public places by 2020, developing the Investment Plan for Africa and creating a European Solidarity Corps that would enable young people to volunteer in response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Back on the right track

All in all, Juncker did the right thing by turning away from big international issues and focusing more on the problems of ordinary citizens. The Social Pillar was back on the table. Juncker remembered that social well-being, youth unemployment, finding financing for new projects, and receiving fair pay are the topics European citizens truly care about. Nonetheless, the Commission still needs to make the EU more open, democratic and transparent. Challenged by the ever stronger attacks from eurosceptics and nationalists the Union has to take decisive actions to prove that a united Europe is still something worth fighting for.

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