President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, delivered his third annual ‘State of the European Union’ address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, 13 September 2017. The forward-looking speech, entitled ‘Catching the Wind in Our Sails’, took stock of the achievements of the past year and set out the priorities of the European Commission for the upcoming year. The speech was followed by a debate with Members of the European Parliament.
Since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the President of the European Commission delivers the State of the European Union address at the European Parliament every year in September. The speech is intended to start dialogue with the European Parliament and the Council to prepare the Work Programme of the European Commission for the following year.
As is customary, European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, sent a Letter of Intent outlining initiatives planned by the European Commission for the upcoming year, to the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and to the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU which is currently held by Estonia. This letter is intended to make political life in the Union more transparent and democratic.
President Juncker opened his speech by reflecting on the progress made by the European Union over the past year. Among other things, he listed different ways in which the EU’s economy has improved and recognised the role played by its Institutions in “helping the wind change”.
President Juncker outlined five principal priorities for 2018:
▪ Strengthen the European trade agenda;
▪ Stronger and more competitive European industry;
▪ Europe to become a leader on climate change;
▪ Better digital protection for EU citizens;
President Juncker then discussed the direction for the future of the European Union. Following the European Commission’s ‘White Paper on the Future of Europe’ published in March 2017, which presented five different scenarios for how the EU might evolve by 2025, President Juncker gave his personal vision of how the EU might look; a “sixth scenario”. This comprises three guiding principles: freedom, equality and the rule of law.
These three principles form the basis of the Roadmap for a more united, stronger and more democratic Union, which outlines the agenda of engagement on a broader reform of the EU.
A More United Union
President Juncker emphasised the importance of compromise between Institutions when discussing a more united Union. He stated that a more united Union “needs a more inclusive Union”.
He proposed enlarging the Schengen Area to include Bulgaria and Romania “immediately”, and that eventually Croatia should be included too. On joining the Euro, he stated that “all but two of our Member States are required and entitled to join the euro once they fulfil all conditions”. President Juncker said that Member States should also be encouraged to join the European Banking Union, and agree on the European Pillar of Social Rights “as soon as possible”, at the latest by 17 November 2017 at the Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden.
A Stronger Union
President Juncker emphasised the importance of a stronger Single Market, and proposed that decisions in the Council relating to the Single Market be made “more often and more easily” on the basis of quality majority voting, rather than unanimous voting. His proposals for a stronger Monetary Union include the creation of a European Minister of Economy and Finance who should coordinate all EU financial instruments and be President of the Eurogroup. He called for this role to be assumed by the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs.
There were new proposals put forward also on terrorism, foreign policy, and defence.
President Juncker emphasised the efforts made by the current European Commission to focus on “things that matter”, reducing the number of initiatives proposed and granting national governments back certain powers. He said that a Subsidiarity (the principle that action should be taken at EU level where necessary, but at the national, regional or local level where possible) and Proportionality Task Force was being set up this month to make sure the EU is only working in areas where it “adds value”.
A More Democratic Union
President Juncker made several proposals relating to the European Parliament, particularly in the lead up to the 2019 elections. These included political parties beginning their election campaigns earlier and new rules on financing. He expressed “sympathy” for transnational voting lists in European Parliament elections and urged for the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process to continue (whereby the President of the European Commission comes from the largest political group elected in the European Parliament elections). President Juncker also gave his support to the idea of holding democratic conventions across the EU.
He announced a new code of conduct for European Commissioners which details that Commissioners may run for European Parliament election and strengthens the “integrity requirements” for Commissioners before, during, and after their mandates.
Finally, President Juncker proposed that the roles of the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council be merged into one single Presidency. He said that, in his view, the EU would be “easier to understand” with one President, and it would “better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens”.
President Juncker concluded his address by calling for a “Special Summit” to be organised in Romania on 30 March 2019 in order to “take the decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe”. Romania will hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU from January to June 2019 and the UK is scheduled to withdraw from the EU on 29 March 2019.
President Juncker said the UK’s withdrawal would be a “very sad and tragic moment” but that his focus was on the European Parliament elections which will be held “a few weeks” after the withdrawal date.
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