Did Juncker Rise to the Occasion? The State of the Union

There are speeches that give goosebumps, speeches that entertain, speeches that make one fall asleep, and then there are speeches that are so serious they leave an instant void; the audience needs time to digest and come to grips with it. This was the annual State of the Union speech (SOTEU) that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave this Wednesday in the plenary of the European Parliament.

It didn’t get much applause from Members of the European Parliament. The German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung was one of the first to title it a “disheartened speech” with no push. Others criticised the lack of vision and emotion. But this speech wasn’t, in the words of former President George H.W. Bush, about “the vision thing”. It wasn’t meant to be an emotional rallying cry for Europe. And it certainly wasn’t meant to be an ego-show by Juncker either. Those already took place before his speech. Both European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Council President Donald Tusk, IMHO, engaged in one-upmanship. The day before the SOTEU Schulz launched a Facebook Live Debate with his own views on Europe (which garnered 1.4 million views) while Tusk did a press release with a five page letter he sent to the EU’s Heads of State and Government outlining his perspectives. That letter was conveniently sent in the evening of 13 September so that everybody would see it in their inbox the morning of Juncker’s speech.

No, to me, Juncker rose above this. His speeches are known to be off-script, natural and humorous. He likes to be a centre of attention. But this time was different. He stayed on script and exerted particular effort to stay completely in control, aiming to avoid attention to his particular person. This seemed to have thrown off guard many Members of the European Parliament.

His speech was intended to bridge divides, smoothen political atmospherics, and lay the ground for a successful European Summit in Bratislava that will take place later this week. Let’s not forget how many divisions have come to the fore between EU Member States and EU institutions over the last year alone. His speech meant to bring sides together again.

First, Juncker made appeals to different European political parties. He turned to Socialists by calling for a more social Europe, to Conservatives by highlighting the need for debt reduction, to Liberals by emphasising free trade, to Greens by demanding the EU’s speedy ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Second, if there was an institutional power struggle between Member States and the European Commission, between more or less Europe, then Juncker took the wind out of those sails. He emphasised that “Europe can only be built with Member States and not against Member States” and that the EU “will and can never become a unitary state”.

Third, he made clear advances towards different regional splits (ie. North, South, East). This is particularly the case for Central and Eastern European Member States, which have had a particularly acrimonious relationship with the Commission. Poland was singled out as “a great nation”, the Postal Worker’s Directive, which is important to Central and Eastern European states, was given full support, and an olive branch was offered to their opposition to a fixed refugee relocation scheme with this paragraph: “When it comes to managing the refugee crisis, we have started to see solidarity. I am convinced much more solidarity is needed. But I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.” He also focused on the South. He highlighted Spain, Portugal and Cyprus and he took up the proposal of the Athens Declaration of the 1st Mediterranean EU Countries’ Summit, hosted by Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, to double the financing capacity of the Investment Plan. Simultaneously, he also mentioned the need for a Defence Union and took up proposals by France and Germany released in a paper this week to create a European Battle Group HQ, pool military spending and create a defence research fund.

Fourth, this SOTEU was also meant to provide ambitious new proposals that would deliver real benefits to its citizens. He proposed a fully deployed 5g network by 2025 and free WIFI access in all public places in Europe’s major cities by 2020, he pulled the initial proposal of roaming charges off the table in order to revise it with a text that would see all charges fully scrapped, he set out to create a European Solidarity Corps, in which young people across the EU will be able to volunteer their help, he moved forward plans for a EU Border and Coast Guard, called for a European Travel Information System to know who enters the EU when, promised to continue the fight against tax evasion emphasising the Apple case as an example, and so on and so forth.

And last but not least, I believe President Juncker is also trying to bring the EU and European discussions deeper into the Member States. In his SOTEU he called for more European debates in the national parliaments and said that all European Commissioners will go to their respective national assemblies to explain the European Commission’s policies, thinking, etc. This seems like a classical bear-hug strategy. At the moment, national capitals hijack the praise when Brussels does something good and they blame Brussels when something goes bad (especially when it’s their fault). But by encouraging more EU discussions in the national parliaments, and tying the European debates closer into the national debates, he might just manage to break this pattern. After all, it’ll be more difficult to lay blame at Brussels’ doorstep when issues have been adequately discussed at home and people are informed about the situation.

Did Juncker leave things out in his speech? Sure. He didn’t mention TTIP, the economic situation in Greece, the banking union and Italy’s banking crisis in the making, nor Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. Do a word frequency comparison of his 2015 and 2016 State of the Union speeches and the result will be a prevalence of “refugee”, “euro”, “Greece”, “crisis” (2015) compared to “work”, “invest”, “solidarity”, “people” (2016).

And will he be able to deliver on some of his proposals? That’s a mixed bag. A doubling of the European Investment Fund and scrapping Roaming charges, is very likely. But creating a European Solidarity Corps with 100.000 young volunteers by 2020? The idea is great but considering that the US Peace Corps has had 220.000 participants over the last 50 years, maybe his numbers are too far-fetched? Or maybe they aren’t given that 2013-2014 alone saw 272.000 Erasmus students, and this could be a major contingent to be tapped. Likewise, the proposal for free WIFI in public places in major cities by 2020, raised some eyebrows how that could be achieved.

But did he rise to the occasion? I believe he did. He intended to bring different constituencies together and create more unity, show that the EU can provide clear advantages to its citizens, and bring the European debate inside the national capitals. More work certainly lies ahead but Juncker is making sure that on the road to Bratislava the EU is not losing its way.

 

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