European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual state of the union address on Wednesday, in which he laid out his grand vision for federalist Europe, and urged European Union governments to use economic recovery (i.e., Mario Draghi's nationalization of the bond market), the political weakness in the US and Brexit as "springboards" toward a closer union, built on an expanded euro zone and a pivotal role in world trade. The allegedly unintoxicated Juncker sketched out a vision of a post-2019 EU where 30 countries would be using the euro, with an EU finance minister running key budgets to help states in trouble.
Among the key proposals put forward by the EU Commission president were compulsory Euro membership for the remaining eight European states outside the bloc, for new countries to join the Schengen zone, plans for closer defensive cooperation leading to the creation of a European army in the next decade and easier ratification of EU-wide trade treaties with foreign powers. Tax and welfare standards would converge and Europe, not the United States, would be the hub of a free-trading world.
In short, a blueprint for a United States of Europe.
“The wind is back in Europe’s sails,” Junker told the European Parliament quoted by Reuters, citing economic growth and the easing of a succession of crises -- Greek debt, refugee inflows, the rise of eurokcepticism reflected in Brexit - that seemed to threaten the EU’s survival.
Juncker has also resurrected the idea of merging his own post with that of the President of the European Council, who currently represents the interests of its member state governments, saying it would be easier if “one captain was steering the ship.” Such as president would be chosen in an EU-wide vote. A powerful new EU-wide economy minister has also been touted, one which would have power to whip dissenters in line with a common EU vision.
In his best infomercial salesman immitation, Juncker urged Europeans to hurry, or else the generous offer may not last: “Now we have a window of opportunity, but it will not stay open for ever,” he said, emphasizing a need to move on from and even profit from the British vote to leave the bloc in 2019 according to Reuters.
Some promptly backed Juncker's blueprint: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that Juncker’s plan to build a closer European Union based on an expanded euro zone was largely in line with Germany’s vision for the bloc. The German also said that Juncker had discussed with Chancellor Angela Merkel his annual State of the EU speech in which he spoke of a vision of a post-2019 EU where some 30 countries would be using the euro.
“It is good that he is putting pressure (to expand the euro zone) but the preconditions (for joining the euro zone) must be fulfilled,” Schaeuble told the ARD broadcaster in an interview. “It is in fact so that EU countries who fulfill the preconditions become members of the euro under the Lisbon Treaty”. However, the German who in the summer of 2015 nearly kicked Greece out of the Eurozone, added that EU countries wishing to adopt the single currency should not do so before their public finances and economies are sound enough as they could face the fate of Greece, which had to be bailed out by the EU and IMF in 2010.
* * *
Desperate to put the Brexit humiliation in the rearview mirror, Juncker said that “we will keep moving on because Brexit isn’t everything, it is not the future of Europe," Brexit supporters promptly said his speech showed they were right to take Britain out of a bloc set on creating more powerful, central institutions. The most predictable opponent of the hour-long speech, met with stirring applause by a mostly zombified audience, was UK MEP Nigel Farage.
"The message is very clear: Brexit has happened, new steam ahead… More Europe in every single direction and all to be done without the consent of the people,” Farage told the floor.
“The way you’re treating Hungary and Poland already must remind them of living under the Soviet communists. All I can say is thank God we’re leaving because you’ve learned nothing from Brexit.
It wasn't just the Farage: Juncker's core proposal for countering what is known as a “multispeed Europe” by encouraging all states to join the euro and other EU structures was met resistance in both non-euro zone countries and potentially in Paris and Berlin, where the newly elected President Emmanuel Macron and about-to-be-re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel are readying their own plans.
Poland’s Eurosceptic ruling PiS party, which is embroiled in a bitter legal fight suggested the plan is optimistic in view of the ongoing crisis with migration, unemployment, stagnation and terrorism. “We need to get the EU’s house in order before there can even be a discussion on centralizing even further,” said Ryszard Legutko, a PiS MEP.
Opposition also came from members of the European parliament’s left-wing coalitions.
“When I listen to [Juncker’s speech] with the ears of many people who feel left behind by the current macroeconomic policies that we have, then I have my doubts because he still pushes for free trade deals that basically are tailor-made for multinationals,” Philippe Lamberts, of the Greens-European Free Alliance group told the Daily Express.
However, the most focused and principled attack on Juncker’s plans came from Harald Vilimsky, of Austria’s Freedom Party, which prompted Juncker to leave mid-speech, and once again demonstrated the deep splinters within the core of the Union, splinters which make the integration Juncker is seeking impossible.
“What Mr Junker wants de facto is to force the European union into a single state, and we know that the euro is not a success story. The second thing Mr Junker wants is de facto to actually get rid of all the internal borders, we see 10,000, 100,000, millions of African and Arabs are going to be coming to our continent,” said Vilimsky, who serves as the vice-chair of the Europe of Nations and Freedom party within the European Parliament.
“They talk about having a defense union, but no we don’t want that. What we want is Austrians, we’re a neutral country in Austria, we do not want to participate in the defense union. The right road for Europe can only be the road where there is more democracy left to the people, more democracy left to the citizens where people can vote whether or not they want to have Schengen maintained or not, whether they want their borders or not. The vote has to be left to the citizen.”
Aside from his traditional adversaries whose opposition was expected, what was more troubling is that Juncker's "grand vision" also appeared to get the cold shoulder from leaders of nominally pro-EU nations. “Juncker is a romantic. We all have our own style, but I am more pragmatic,” said Netherlands PM Mark Rutte in response to the speech, adding that those “too concerned with vision should visit an eye doctor.”
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said he was against creating an EU-super-president, tweeting “Let’s not mix roles and competences. Need European Council President as voice of member states."
Meanwhile, Germany and France, the two foundational powers in the union, are preparing to submit their own plans for EU reform by the end of 2017, and while their current leaders remain in favor of the EU, it is unlikely that either will endorse Juncker’s federalism without a mandate from their respective electorates.
In short, Juncker's speech like virtually everything else out of Brussels in recent years, was just more hot air.