State of the Union 2017 scenario: with full breath ahead

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by Sergio Maia, Managing Editor

On September, 13th President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the annual speech of the State of the Union (here). Against the background of the White Paper on the Future of Europe and in solid dialogue with the European Parliament, President Juncker presented some new ideas as well as highlighted previous proposals. More importantly, the European Commission demonstrates that it is effectively holding the position of initiative with which the Treaties empower it – in close democratic discussion with the Parliament.

Here we intend to comment the first impressions about key aspects of some of the topics the Juncker Commission brought to life and debate.

1. After valuing the European institutions role on “helping the wind change” for growth, job creation and control of public deficits, he expressed the will to strengthen the European trade agenda by negotiating international agreements. It seems that after the cases of the Paris agreement (on environmental issues) and the uncertainty around TTIP, there are two messages underlying this point. The first is to make the EU the main business platform worldwide (Canada, Japan, Mexico, South America and the proposal to open negotiations with Australia and New Zealand). Reliable and stable, Europe wants to be the ideal partner and the first in line in global economy. With many interrogations amounting over the US, this also seems to be an external policy strategy (“we are not naïve free traders”, he said). Alongside investment, the idea is to make the industry stronger and more competitive as well as being the leader in fighting climate change. More and more signals of the projection of the leadership of the Union in the world.

2. As far as migration, external borders and the Schengen area are concerned, migration will remain a priority. So will the support to Italian authorities who are “saving Europe’s honour in the Mediterranean”. In parallel, the Commission wants to work on legal pathways to end illegal activities like trafficking at the same time it calls for solidarity in welcoming refugees. This is a novelty. After Germany’s policy of opening doors, now the EC looks like the new leading actor in this matter. Contrary to the position of his political family, which never clearly came out, President Juncker took on a stand closer to the approach of S&D. It will be interesting to follow the next parliamentary debates and what the EPP’s reaction will be, even though its following remarks were in a more agreeable way to these terms. Finally, suggesting that Romania, Bulgaria and soon Croatia should become members of the Schengen area is a political movement on a critical region where Russia has been growingly active. The idea seems to be to overpower its influence there – the direct reference of the 100th anniversary of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania proves just that.


3. On the future of Europe or the sixth scenario, President Juncker defended a Union of values: freedom, equality and rule of law. Again, social concerns appeared high regarded in the speech – including the creation of a Labour Authority! Europe as a democratic system (free of oppression; of equal workers; of fundamental rights) is the sum of the concept of a Union of values. The powerful metaphor of “breathing with both lungs” indicates that divisions and multiple-speeds integration are not an option. That is a rejection of the “Those who want more do more” scenario in the White Paper. Interestingly, this was a scenario which gained heavy support(ers) in Germany and France.

4. “Europe is more than just a single market”. With this, President Juncker also rejects the scenario of “nothing but the single market”. His proposal involves using qualified majority voting on tax issues; the creation of a European Minister of Economy and Finance – who would be a Vice-President of the Commission, which has democratic legitimacy positive impact and accountability before the EP –; and the dismissal of a Euro area parliament as a consequence (an idea Thomas Piketty, for instance, had foreseen). The EMU and the Euro are set to be unifying factors, that is why he pushes it to be the currency of all EU. Here President Juncker assumes a federalist-inspired approach in order to bring the citizens and the Member States closer.

5. Social rights, Turkey and transnational lists for the EP. Linked to the social and federalist-inspired approach, the fight against social fragmentation and social dumping in the EU is considered highly important. In times of rising populism, it appears that the EC desires that welfare rights turn into a shield in favour of fairness and equality against extremisms. Apparently social protection will be the means to achieve political goals. Similarly, political participation was a highlighted theme. The argument is to use transnational lists in the European elections in the future so that people will take part in real supranational, democratic voting. Lastly, the preoccupation with democracy is also taken abroad with a firm statement about ruling out talks on EU membership for Turkey as the rule of law and the justice system are under threat in that country. That position matches the one Angela Merkel upheld in the debate with Martin Schultz recently during the German campaign. There are two issues that could represent incoherencies: the compliment President Juncker gave to the reduction of irregular arrivals of migrants “thanks to the agreement with Turkey” and the absence of a similar conduct within the Union of values he mentioned while Hungary and Poland are not the finest examples of respect for fundamental rights.

6. The merge of the presidents of the Commission and the Council. This is an impressive case made by President Juncker. Cleverly, he does not advance with a proposal to shut down the Council or to turn it into a Senate. Instead, he suggests to merge the presidencies of the Commission and of the Council because “it would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens”. Once again he expressed his federalist-inspired approach in order to enhance the image and the contents of the supranational democracy following the EP election. By having one president – the leader of the political family with most votes/seats in the Parliament –, European citizens would be represented by one voice directly chosen (specially with the transnational lists) and it would possibly hinder the transference of accountability from national politics disputes (Council) to the European level. It could become clearer that both failures and successes are both national and European as they are interconnected – EU law embraces the two levels of public authorities.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the EC ignited the debate on the future of the EU and it has stepped forward with its own vision – social, federalist-inspired in accordance with the origins and the evolutions of the Union. It is fulling its mandate, for which it was elected. Not only that, it is opening the discussions with the citizens in advance for the next EP election so that we all have a say on the kind of Union and life we cherish for the future. Its standing is not neutral, nor it should be – and that is maybe a virtue as it provokes the debate. It is undoubtedly a democratic approach. If Member States governments and political parties agree or disagree with it, they must come out of the shadows and be transparent about their plans. President Juncker’s intention not to run for a second term seems to have liberated him to act and publicly discuss issues that would normally stress the electoral relations of the system. On the other hand, it may also compromise his ability and margin for manoeuvre to implement his views.  It might be a good turning, starting point for integration after crisis, but it may also fall apart if he is left alone.

Picture credits: Untitled  by Gutolima.

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