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9th Jul 2020

EUobserved

Juncker, the 'sad and wiser' man of Europe

  • 'Such is the fate of a Commission with just a five-year mandate to make a real difference,' Jean-Claude Juncker admitted (Photo: European Commission)

The image was symbolic. Jean-Claude Juncker back to his seat after his State of the Union speech, quickly bowing in response to polite standing applause and then sitting with a grave, bewildered face.


The address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (12 September) was "surely not my last speech", the European Commission president noted.

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But it was his last "SOTEU" before the end of his term next year, and one could not help feeling it sounded like a farewell speech, an 'avant-la-lettre' political testament.

For Juncker, who claimed when he took office in 2014 that he would lead a "political commission", there were two obstacles to avoid: presenting a shopping list of proposals he would not have time to get through the EU decision-making process, and meandering in general comments about what he did and what the EU should be.

He only half avoided these obstacles.

"The time has not yet come to pass judgement on the commission I have the honour of presiding over. This is why I will not today present you with an overview of the last four years' achievements," he told the MEPs.

But Juncker, often stumbling on words he read with monotony, spent a long time at the start of his speech reciting the conventional incantation on EU peace and prosperity. He added to it the bloc's commitment to multilateralism and the need for unity.

At a time of rising hostility to the EU in its own members states, of Brexit and of growing instability in the world order, these reminders are always useful.

But Juncker's speechwriters made them sound hollow with empty catchprases such as "a strong and united Europe is what allows its member states to reach for the stars", "we will always be a global payer but it is time we started being a global player too," or "the trees we plant today must provide shade for our great grandchildren."

A certain idea of Europe

In 2017, the title of his State of the Union speech was "catching the wind in our sails".

A year on, and about a year before leaving the helm, he often sounded like the old mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem: "He went like one that hath been stunned - And is of sense forlorn - A sadder and a wiser man".

The commission chief insisted on the "modesty and hard work" of his institution - four years after he said it would be the "last chance commission".

"Such is the fate of a commission with just a five-year mandate to make a real difference," he now admitted.

At the same time, he expressed again his frustration at member states over their failure to follow the commission's proposals, and he called on them to take decisions.

"We cannot continue to squabble to find ad-hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives," he said about the discussions to reform the asylum system.

"Heated exchanges amongst governments and institutions are becoming more and more common," he noted later, warning that "harsh or hurtful words will not get Europe anywhere."

But Juncker, who was already a minister when the Berlin Wall was standing and the EU still the European Economic Community, is not a man to completely give up his personal fight for a certain idea of Europe.

"A few years ago, standing in this very same spot, I told you that Europe was the love of my life. I love Europe still and shall do so forever more," he told MEPs.

Beyond the downbeat atmosphere of his speech, Juncker planted several important ideas for the future of the EU.

Breaking taboos

"The geopolitical situation makes this Europe's hour: the time for European sovereignty has come," he claimed, borrowing the flagship idea of French president Emmanuel Macron's campaign to renovate the EU.



And for that, Juncker, the disgruntled institutional leader, dived straight into two of the last bastions of EU states' sovereignty: the currency and diplomacy.

"We must do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international scene," he argued, adding that is was "absurd" that EU countries pay for their oil, gas and even European planes in dollars, and not in euros.

He therefore announced upcoming proposals to "strengthen the international role of the euro" but warned that they would imply a strengthening of the Economic and Monetary Union - one of the issues that still pits many EU countries against each other.

Juncker then went even further, by calling on breaking the last taboo in Brussels: dropping the veto in foreign affairs issues, and moving to qualified majority voting in specific areas.

"It is not right that our Union silenced itself at the United Nations Human Rights Council when it came to condemning human rights abuses by China. And this because not all member states could agree," he argued.

"It is not right that one member state was able to hold the renewal of our arms embargo on Belarus to ransom, or that sanctions on Venezuela were delayed for months when unanimity could not be reached."

Eight months before the next European elections, however, there is little chance that these two political hot potatoes will be picked up by member states.

Managing Brexit, getting as close as possible to an agreement on the next multiannual budget, laying out a compromise on eurozone reform, and finally agreeing on a long-term migration policy will be the EU leaders' priorities in the coming months.

History passes by

The other, overarching, priority will be the containment of far-right and anti-EU forces that could cripple the next EU parliament and risk a fragmentation of the EU itself.

Juncker called on Europeans to "reject unhealthy nationalism and embrace enlightened patriotism".

"To love Europe, is to love its nations. To love your nation is to love Europe," he insisted. "Patriotism is a virtue. Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit. In short, we must remain true to ourselves."

A few hours before MEPs voted in favour of launching an article 7 procedure over the rule of law in Hungary, Juncker clearly suggested he approved the move against his fellow EPP member, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.



But about the looming fight between Orban plus Italy's Matteo Salvini on one side and Macron on the other (a battle that Christian Democrats and Social Democrats say is not so clear-cut) Juncker said nothing, as if he already wanted to stay out of the fray.

"At times, history moves forward only haltingly but it is always quick to pass us by," the veteran Luxembourgish politician noted.

In many ways, he was already placing himself as a man in history, more than in the present.

Juncker calls for 'global' Europe

In his final State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker warned of "exaggerated nationalism" in Europe - and said the EU should play a more dominant role in shaping world events, as the US withdraws from the global stage.

Visual Data

What Juncker said. A look at numbers.

"World" and "time" are the words the European Commission chief used the most in his last State of the Union address on Wednesday, amid a far-right surge and Trump's isolationism.

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