EU: State of the Union – or current state of dis-Union? And message to the UK

Today the President of the EU Commission delivered his first State of the Union speech and the main message was that there seems to be a disunion among EU States these days. Rather obvious I would say but nevertheless painful to acknowledge.

Mr. Juncker expressed “I believe the immense challenges Europe is currently facing – both internally and externally – leave us no choice but to address them from a very political perspective, in a very political manner and having the political consequences of our decisions very much in mind. Recent events have confirmed the urgent need for […] a political approach in the EU”. He later emphasised “[T]here is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union”.

It is not business as usual. It is time to speak frankly about the big issues facing the EU. The first priority now is and must be addressing the refugee crisis. This is, first of all, a matter of humanity and of human dignity. And for Europe it is also a matter of historical fairness.

“Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, dictatorship, or oppression”. “[W]e are too seldom proud of our European heritage and our European project. […]. It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa. That is something to be proud of and not something to fear. We have the means to help those fleeing from war, terror and oppression. It is true, there is an important and unprecedented number of refugees coming to Europe at the moment. However, they still represent just 0.11% of the total EU population. In Lebanon, refugees represent 25% of the population. And this in a country where people have only one fifth of the wealth we enjoy in the EU”.

As long as there is war in Syria and terror in Libya, the refugee crisis will not end. We can build walls or fences but imagine for a second if it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. What would stop you? Nothing.

Who would have thought around 15 years ago (prior to the major EU enlargement) that precisely among the 12 States lining up to join the EU – or, knocking at the door that would lead them to better lives and improved economies –  were some of the States that today so vehemently oppose to lend a helping hand to people escaping war! (eg. Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, etc.). I would have thought these States would be the first to understand that there is no nationality in the hour of need, and is humanity what needs to prevail.

After recalling the finger-pointing done among some Member States for not doing enough to tackle the migrants’ situation (a clear and direct message to London in my eyes) Mr. Juncker called for a stop to this type of actions (addressed to Brussels or elsewhere). It is time to deal with the matter at hand not to turn a blind eye and hope it would go away.

The EU has common standards applicable to asylum seekers, in respect of their dignity, on how to process asylum applications and common criteria that the national justice systems use to determine whether someone is entitled to international protection. But those standards need to be applied and respected in practice which does not seem to be happening in light of the 32 infringement proceedings launched against Member States before the summer. As such new proceedings will follow in the days to come. EU laws must be applied by all Member States.

On the bright side, some Member States (ie Germany, Sweden, etc.) are showing their willingness to significantly step up their resettlement efforts. This will allow the EU to come forward with a structured system to pool European resettlement efforts more systematically.

Mr. Juncker called on Member States to adopt the Commission proposals on the emergency relocation of 160,000 refugees at the Extraordinary Council of Interior Ministers on 14 September. He also mentioned that a true European refugee and asylum policy requires solidarity to be permanently anchored at policy and rules level. As a result, the Commission also proposed a permanent relocation mechanism, which will allow the management of crisis situations more swiftly in the future (and which I envisage will face a bumpy ride).

The refugee crisis will not be over any time soon. But pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe, Mr. Juncker said.

Talking about the Greek crisis the head of the EU executive said that “the talks on Greece have tested all our patience. A lot of time and a lot of trust were lost. Bridges were burnt. Words were said that cannot easily be taken back”. But a deal was reached and commitments adhered to and implemented. Though, he emphasised that the slowly regained trust remains very fragile.

As long as Member States have not amended the Treaties, the Commission and other EU institutions have a clear mandate and duty to do everything possible to preserve the integrity of the euro area as the membership in the euro is irreversible under the current text of the Treaties.

For Greece, what is vital now is to implement the agreed deal. There has to be broad political ownership for this. The programme is not enough to put Greece on a path of sustainable growth. Therefore, the Commission will stand by Greece to make sure the reforms take shape and assist in developing a growth strategy which is Greek owned and Greek led.

More generally, Mr. Juncker referred to the crisis originated in 2008 which as one that has led to very wide and evident differences across the euro area and the EU as a whole. It has damaged growth potential and added to the long-term trend of rising inequalities. All this has fuelled doubts about social progress, the value of change and the merits of belonging together. But there are important lessons to draw from the crisis that has haunted the EU for far too long. The strategy for growth (currently being debated at co-legislators level) aims to be a new start for the whole region.

With regards to growth the key points to focus on are: investing in Europe’s sources of jobs and growth, notably in the Single Market and completing the Economic and Monetary Union to create the conditions for a lasting recovery. The Commission is ready to act on both fronts.

Mr. Juncker also expressed “[…] we will fail in our efforts to prosper if we do not learn a hard lesson: we have not yet convinced the people of Europe and the world that our Union is not just here to survive, but can also thrive and prosper” […] “our collective inability to provide a swift and clear answer to the Greek crisis over the last months weakened us all. It damaged the trust in our single currency and the EU’s reputation in the world”.

He also mentioned something I have been saying for a long time namely that the EU seems like a ship with no clear destination these days. It is time to reassess and set course…. And those who do not agree on the destination should leave the ship sooner rather than later (the last part is my personal view).

As regards some steps taken or under way he mentioned that the five Presidents of the leading EU institutions have agreed a roadmap that should allow to stabilise and consolidate the euro area by early 2017; and then, on the basis of a renewed convergence of economies, to achieve more fundamental reform and move from crisis resilience to new growth perspectives.

Five areas where the Commission will present ambitious proposals swiftly and where progress is expected by this autumn were highlighted. Those are: protection of citizens’ bank savings (a more European system disconnected from government purses); a stronger representation of the euro on the global scene (the President of the Euro group should be the natural spokesperson for the euro area in international financial institutions eg. the IMF); a more effective and more democratic system of economic and fiscal surveillance; enhanced fairness in taxation policies (the country where a company generates its profits must also be the country of taxation) and;  a fair and truly pan-European labour market needs be achieved.

  • Deposit guarantee system: a legislative proposal on the first steps towards the new system will be presented before the end of the year.
  • Economic and fiscal surveillance: proposals to streamline and strengthen the European Semester of economic policy coordination further.
  • Taxation: the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base will make tax avoidance more difficult. In addition, an agreement on the automatic exchange of information on tax rulings is expected by the end of the year.
  • Labour market: promoting and safeguarding the free movement of citizens as a fundamental right of EU law whilst avoiding abuses and risks of social dumping. It will start with the social rights pillar initiativewithin the euro area, while allowing other EU Member States to join in if they wish.

The EU is a dynamic project, a comprehensive one. This message was especially directed to the UK.

About the UK situation (ie. referendum) the head of the EU executive reinforced the statement that it is for the UK people to decide to leave or remain a part of the EU. He hopes for the UK to remain a Member State beyond 2017 and will try to get the UK a fair deal (though not much more was said about what “fair” means). Further, Mr. Juncker is “convinced that strengthening [the EU] relationship with national Parliaments will bring the Union closer to the people that it serves” and this would, in turn, “ensure we preserve the integrity of all four freedoms of the Single Market and at the same time find ways to allow the further integration of the eurozone to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union”.

Other topics covered were climate change and the situation in Ukraine.

But the main and last message was that “there is much more to be said but in touching upon the main issues, the main challenges confronting us today, for [him] there is one thing that becomes clear: whether it is the refugee crisis we are talking about, the economy or foreign policy: we can only succeed as a Union”.

The EU is not just Brussels or Strasbourg. It is the EU Institutions but also the Member States. It is national governments and national Parliaments. It is enough if just one fails to deliver for all to stumble.

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