Mission impossible: Juncker calls for a more political EU

Cutting a lonely figure. Reuters/Vincent Kessler

European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has called for a more political EU in his state of the union address. From migration to trade, Grexit to Brexit, Juncker’s lengthy speech was a rallying cry for a more coordinated effort to tackle the problems the continent faces.

Juncker, who came to the presidency as a result of what many see as a more democratic procedure than his predecessor, proposes a stronger line from Brussels as the solution – starting with handling the refugees crisis.

Refugee crisis at the top

More than half of the speech was devoted to the refugee crisis – the EU’s biggest priority at the moment, according to the president. He called for greater union in Europe’s asylum and refugee policies. He wants a permanent mechanism for the relocation of 160,000 refugees over the next two years and a proposal for a common list of safe countries of origin, making it possible to fast-track asylum procedures for specific nationalities.

Calling for more solidarity, he pressed member states to care for the better integration of refugees into their societies. Finally, he underlined that in an ageing EU, there is a need for a better strategy regarding legal channels for migration and for addressing migration as a “well-managed resource” rather than a problem.

Captive audience. EPA/Patrick Seeger

There was praise for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which though poorer, have done much more to help refugees from war-torn Syria than the EU. Juncker said that there has been too much finger pointing going on, with member states blaming Brussels for their own failure to assume responsibility. Fighting the corner of his office, the European Commission, Juncker suggested there is plenty of legislation coming out of Brussels on this issue, and far less implementation of it going on in individual countries.

EU in the world

The refugee crisis might sit somewhere between the internal and external agenda of the EU, but clearer international issues also took centre stage in the speech which also took in Ukraine, Iran and the EU’s controversial TTIP trade agreement with the US. By defending the closed nature of negotiations on TTIP (and valuing the strength of Europe’s negotiators over transparency), Juncker showed his desire that Europe take a strong position in the world.

Juncker only touched briefly on climate change, but he made an interesting link between this topic and the refugee crisis, warning that the next wave might be one of climate refugees. Ahead of the Paris climate talks this December, the EU should become a model for others in the world, he said.

On Grexit and Brexit

If the Commission had not said loudly that Grexit is not an option, it could have happened.

Juncker took the opportunity in his speech to call for greater eurozone integration too. Specifically, he talked of his wish to see a more homogeneous deposit guarantee system to protect EU citizens’ savings and a European Treasury to better coordinate monetary policy. The debt crises in Greece and Cyprus have highlighted why this is necessary.

Talking of a “Europe of values”, the president also warned Britain that the freedom of the movement of workers is a fundamental and non-negotiable value. This follows the recent call from Britain’s home secretary Theresa May for a rethink of the EU’s borderless system and a ban on unemployed Europeans from entering the UK.

Union impossible?

Above all, this was a speech about how bad a state the EU is in. For Juncker, the way out of the continent’s troubles is to increase the EU’s power, for there to be deeper political and economic integration and for talk of rolling back past achievements like freedom of movement to be curbed. But the trouble is that the many crises that the EU has recently faced and the euroscepticism that has come with it have made greater integration all the more tricky.

Juncker attacked those who criticise European integration for failing to acknowledge its role in maintaining stability and peace (for Europeans and refugees alike). He also felt that critics had not given his Commission due credit for trying to limit its bureaucracy. It was the intransigence of member states, he emphasised, which had caused the failure of the relocation mechanism for refugees suggested by the Commission in May – he lamented that it had taken shocking images, such as those of the dead body of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, for some governments to start taking action.

It is therefore hard to be optimistic about the prospect of a more political EU. The still slow and inadequate response of these governments to this most pressing example of the disappointing state of the EU is indicative of why it is bound to remain as such for some time.