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.


Where does the EU go from here? The upcoming Bratislava Summit

It is clear that after the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union, the EU could no longer dodge the question that’s been increasingly on everybody’s lips: What is to be done? The EU is facing its deepest crisis with doubts about its very purpose emerging through the cracks. The forces of disintegration are on the rise. What’s the turnaround strategy that will bring Europe forward and renew confidence in this unique project? What’s the post-Brexit European narrative?

Following the UK referendum, confusion and disarray reigned supreme. The Brexiteers had no plan in case of Brexit, but neither did the EU institutions. No concrete ideas on the way forward for the EU after such a result were presented. Mogherini’s Global Strategy came closest in charting some course. Instead, there was scaremongering, flip-flopping, and calls for Commission President Juncker’s resignation.

Only after the dust started to settle and shock gave way to sober analysis did action follow. Now European leaders will meet in Bratislava on 16 September to flesh out a plan for the future of Europe post-Brexit. In the meantime, an array of actors has come out with position papers, interviews and political lines in attempts to set the agenda. Some are new, some are old, and some is just old wine in new bottles. A confrontation is emerging on two fronts. First, on the governance of the European Union and second on which policy areas should be the ones where the EU drives forward, achieves results, regains relevance and wins back confidence from its citizens.

The former is an old debate regarding the balance of power between EU institutions and governance models. It’s about “more” or “less” Europe, pitting federalism against intergovernmentalism. The social-democratic camp came out early in this one. European Parliament President Martin Schulz and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel co-published a paper calling for more integration and a federal Europe with a bicameral European government. A rather unrealistic proposition given the current situation. Others used the opportunity to highlight the importance of a two-speed Europe where a core – such as for example the founding Member States or Eurozone – move forward with integration leaving others behind. And then there are the voices, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, calling for a re-nationalisation of European policy. Polish President Beata Szydło, for example, sees “the need to strengthen national control over EU decision making processes” and the Marshal of the Polish Sejm stated in a declaration that “the coexistence and cooperation in Europe should be based on sovereignty of nation states”.

German Finance Minister Schäuble also weighed in to this debate, declaring that if the European Commission can’t get things done the Member States will take matters into their own hands. Laying blame for lacking progress on the European Commission’s doorstep, however, is hypocritical. It’s the EU Member States in the European Council themselves that most often cannot come to an agreement and thereby halt progress! Schäuble is disingenuous when he refers to the Eurozone crisis or the Turkey deal as examples of intergovernmentalism where the Member States took charge, solving problems. It wasn’t the Member States; it was Germany. It was a domineering Berlin that forced its deals onto others. This is what led to divisions and bad blood amongst the Member States.

In such a crisis where the core of the European project is in doubt, the Member States should especially show solidarity and walk together in lockstep. But this is not happening. Instead, Member States are descending into bloc politics. After Brexit, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier invited only Foreign Ministers of EU founding members for consultation to Berlin, snubbing the rest. The Central and Eastern European bloc is coordinating its position for the Bratislava Summit with the Visegrad Group of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia planning to publish a joint contribution beforehand. And the southern axis is coming together too: Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has invited his counterparts from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta to a summit in Athens on 9 September. Meanwhile, the three largest voting members in the European Council – Germany, France and Italy – have met at Ventotene on 22 August to discuss Bratislava.

Of course coordination before this important Bratislava Summit is necessary. But the question to me is rather, which format is more likely to unite rather than divide, on the road towards Bratislava? A strategic centre of Member States is needed that is small enough for conducive debate but representative enough to cover all Member States. Teaming up with Presidents Renzi and Hollande, Chancellor Merkel has tried to form such a centre between Germany, France and Italy. But this constellation is woefully lacking Central and Eastern Europe, forcing Merkel on a whirlwind tour of meetings with Member States (14 Member States in one week). Forming a Quartet together with Poland, which holds the current Presidency of the Visegrad Group, would have ensured that this region is also represented. It could have brought EU Member States better together before Bratislava. To quote Lyndon B. Johnson: “It’s probably better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.

And Member States are coming together in bloc politics to push forward the policy issues important to them, which brings me to the second front I highlighted earlier. The South is rallying to achieve progress on economic growth, investment, fighting austerity while Central and Eastern Europe is focusing on the refugee issue, reinforcing borders and strengthening national sovereignty.

The Ventotene meeting on 22 August between Merkel, Renzi and Hollande showcased the splits and highlighted some of the issues that could come into play in Bratislava. Issues raised were external/internal security, youth, refugees and economic growth/investment. Little was reached on the last two while on youth it was agreed to expand the Erasmus student exchange programme also to apprenticeships. Only the issue of external/internal security had broad agreement. Generally, this much anticipated meeting was hyped up beyond proportion. After all the three weren’t going to announce some ambitious proposals ahead of the Bratislava Summit, as this would have simply strained ties with the other 24 Member States. As such, Ventotene was largely symbolic with the three laying flowers at the tomb of Altiero Spinelli, who wrote the Ventotene Manifesto calling for a federation of European states to prevent nationalism from sparking war. The meeting seemed to be very much geared towards domestic consumption, intended to bolster support for Renzi who will be facing his own referendum on constitutional reform this October.

In the context of Ventotene, it seems that the most likely progress at the Bratislava Summit will be a declaration to move forward in the area of security and defence. An agreement in this area seems clear as I highlighted in an earlier blog post. Mogherini’s Global Strategy laid groundwork for this, the French and German Foreign Ministers also called for more integration on security and defence, as did the Italian Foreign and Defence Ministers in an op-ed in Le Monde, and Central and Eastern European Member States would also be in favour with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka having recently declared that he hopes the Bratislava Summit will bring progress on a joint military. In addition, Russian military aggression in Ukraine has also made the Nordic countries more willing to co-operate on defence issues, with Sweden and Finland raising security through defence collaboration agreements with the United States.

Pushing the EU forward in the nexus external-internal security is important. It’s an area where the EU can and must deliver. It should show that the EU provides security to Member States and its citizens, an elementary requirement given that in the context of a world in flames ranging from Libya and Syria to Ukraine and homegrown terrorism, ever more people ask whether the Union can provide security.

But I fear that this won’t be enough. Discontent with the EU isn’t merely based on fears about ISIS or geopolitics. It’s also about globalisation, feelings of being left behind, economic insecurity and social inequality – it’s about pocketbook issues. Here the EU needs to provide answers, too, lest it find itself portrayed as the cause of such malaise. This means boosting investments, strengthening the social pillar of the EU, making progress on fighting tax evasion, and tackling youth unemployment. Especially the last is crucial. Youth still feels great affection for the EU as evidenced in the UK referendum, but the EU is at risk of losing its youth if they don’t see any future prospects or have a stake in the EU. An open letter signed by prominent societal actors and politicians rightly made this point recently in Die Welt calling for a strengthening of the European Youth Guarantee, a revision of Erasmus to an Erasmus for all, and developing a common school curriculum on European culture.

On the road towards Bratislava, progress is on the horizon. But more is needed. As it stands, it is doubtful, whether the EU Member States will be able to overcome their divisions. This will make the next half year especially tough with further challenges ahead: a possible renewed refugee influx as Syria’s bloodbath continues, winter is approaching and the Turkey refugee deal hangs in the balance, a presidential vote in Austria between a far-right politician and a Green, a referendum in Italy, a volatile Ukraine, and so on.

The EU’s new Global Strategy – the EU’s next integration step forward?

Last week on 28 June, when Europe’s Heads of State and Government met in Brussels, they didn’t just deliberate on the UK’s historic decision to leave the EU. Far away from the limelight and press headlines was also the presentation of a new EU Global Strategy (EUGS) unveiled by the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini. Such a new foreign strategy was long overdue. The last one – the European Security Strategy (ESS) – dates back from 2003. Europe and the world have changed since then.

While the publication was supposedly purposefully held back in order to not give Brexiteers cannon fodder in the referendum given that the UK views efforts towards an EU foreign policy with great distrust, it’s arguable whether releasing it 4 days after the results of the referendum was any better. The combination of a Brexit-dominated European debate and the coming summer lull, could hinder a European public debate on this Global Strategy. This strategy, however, deserves reflection and discussion. It takes a reality check and provides thinking on the new strategic environment the EU finds itself in.

In my view, the document puts forth 4 particular strategic lines.

First, it tries to put European citizens at the centre and bridges internal and external dimensions. Doing a simple word frequency comparison the EUGS mentions “citizens” over 30 times while in the ESS the word only came up 3 times. The strategy endeavours to give European citizens confidence in the European project again. Mogherini notes in the very first sentence of her foreword that, especially after the UK vote to leave, the “purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned”. After the gruesome terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the exposure of terrorist networks in Europe, the violation of the European security order in Ukraine and the horrors of war in Syria and Iraq leading desperate families to seek shelter abroad, European citizens are anxious about their security. What good is this Union for if it cannot provide basic security and answers to citizens’ fears?

The Global Strategy addresses this directly by placing a strong emphasis on the link between internal and external security, noting that security at home depends on peace beyond our borders. This theme has hit a nerve in European political circles; it is being taken up by many different actors. The Foreign Ministers of Germany and France in a joint paper have called for a European Security Compact that ensures “the security of our citizens confronted with growing external and internal threats”, and the former EU High Representative, Javier Solana, has proposed that Europe create a Defence Union, pooling defence policy efforts.

Second, under the heading “principled pragmatism” it strikes a balance between realpolitik and ideals/principles in foreign policy. Such a nuanced approach is attractive but the strategy doesn’t define it more deeply, which – IMHO – leaves some underlying internal contradictions unanswered. Where, under this heading, would principles begin and end? When would pragmatism overshadow principles? Or in practical terms: could an anti-ISIS alliance with Assad fall under this category? The concept is a difficult balancing act. On one hand, it provides the necessary flexibility to arrive at a number of foreign policy stances and options. On the other, without defining some sort of limiting parameters to how far that flexibility can stretch, might the concept not risk becoming meaningless? Reading the paper “A strong Europe in a world of uncertainties” by the Foreign Ministers Ayrault and Steinmeier, one wonders whether they haven’t poured cold water over the concept already. In their chapter on a European Security Compact, principles, ideals, values aren’t given attention. While the EUGS talks of principled pragmatism and moving “beyond the illusion that international politics can be a zero-sum game”, the Foreign Ministers write that “power politics are back on the world stage” and that the EU is a key power in its neighbourhood that will support an international order underpinned by “strategic stability based on a peaceful balance of interests”.

Third, the EUGS places a strong emphasis on the concept of “strategic autonomy”. Again, the document doesn’t adequately define what it means under this heading. Strategic autonomy has been used by a variety of actors to distance Europe’s ties to the United States and NATO arguing that Europe should act autonomously in world affairs. This would be a mistake. At a time when the United States, after its pivot to Asia, is recommitting itself to Europe’s security order with its European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) which will hold a budget of $3.4 billion for 2017, we’re calling for “strategic autonomy”? The EU is strongest when it works together with its American partners and Jan Techau from Carnegie Europe has put it succinctly writing that “the US will remain key to the EU’s role in the world for many years to come, and the paper’s blind spot on this crucial and uncomfortable part of the transatlantic relationship is not healthy”.

Fourth, the EU Global Strategy places great emphasis on the concept of state and societal resilience. It wants to strengthen the capacity of the EU and its neighbours to weather internal and external crises. In this context, the strategy also focuses on a range of sectors from energy and cyber security to strategic communications. This is a novel and important approach and ties in with Mogherini’s internal-external security nexus. However, it too falls into a similar conundrum as principled pragmatism. The EUGS argues on one hand, that “a resilient state is a secure state and security is key for prosperity and democracy” while rightly noting that the reverse is also true and that a resilient society featuring democracy lies at the heart of a resilient state. But which resilience will the EU provide? Sven Biscop from the Egmont Institute has put it well in his security policy brief arguing that “increasing the resilience of a state against external threats can easily lead to increasing the resilience of a repressive regime”. I have also stumbled over the wording in the EUGS that the EU will invest in the resilience of states and societies “stretching into Central Asia”. Is this an indication that the EU wants to become a player in that great game alongside Russia and China? I would believe that our levers in this region are rather limited.

These main lines provide a lot of food for thought to Europe’s foreign policy circles and they will have to be filled with further ideas and particularly actions. Because this is an area that the strategy so far falls short; the words aren’t matched with deeds, yet.

Under the heading “From Vision to Action” the document tends to make very little new proposals. It emphasises the lack of spending and coordination on defence and calls for the implementation of legislation that is already underway (such as the firearms directive). IMHO there were more interesting proposals from the paper by Foreign Minister Ayrault and Steinmeier than in Mogherini’s. They, for instance, suggested a European Semester on defence capabilities, a European civil protection corps, a standing maritime force, a once a year European Security Council meeting to discuss defence and internal and external security, and so on.

I would also level some other criticisms towards the EUGS. Ranging from the hijacking of development and certain foreign policy funds for defence purposes – such as the new proposal adopted on 6 July to allow funds of the EU’s only civilian conflict prevention instrument to be used for training and equipment of third-country armies – to the, in my view, ambivalence towards the transatlantic partnership, where the US has for example not been mentioned in connection with counter-terrorism work even though intelligence cooperation is crucial in this regard.

All in all, however, the EU Global Strategy is a breath of fresh air. It sets out new ways of approaching Europe’s foreign policy environment and it will serve as a basis for a new integration push in the defence area. Many actors are already highlighting the need for a more integrated European security and defence line and using EU governance options, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation under Article 46 of the Treaty of the European Union, in that regard. The challenge now lies in identifying where further integration makes sense and how it can be taken forward. For this, more debate and consideration will be needed. Over the last year, Mogherini did a veritable road tour in the different Member States in preparation of the EU Global Strategy. Seems to me it’s time to hit the road again and now discuss her proposal and further integration steps in this field in the different capitals and foreign policy circles.