State of the Union: Juncker urges new impetus for EU reforms

Financial Times Financial Times

2 hours ago by: Jim Brunsden

Brussels is urging EU leaders to seize a 12- to 18-month “window of opportunity” to drive forward reforms, signalling a federalist policy push after this month’s German elections.

Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in his annual State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, identified trade policy, security and migration among a list of priorities ahead of the 2019 European elections. Expanding the borderless Schengen area and the list of countries using the common euro currency were also on his list of priorities.

Brexit, he said, is “a tragic moment”, but “not the be all and end all”.

Brussels is looking ahead beyond the German elections, hoping that the end of campaigning will make it easier for leaders to focus on difficult EU reforms. He pledged a reinvigorated trade policy, saying that countries are “queuing up” to do deals with the bloc, and a tougher stance on overseas investment, with Brussels proposing measures to screen contentious takeovers.

“We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open for ever,” Mr Juncker said. “Let’s make the most of the momentum.”

The commission president also said it was time for Romania and Bulgaria to join Europe’s borderless Schengen area, as he set out a sweeping agenda to advance development of the EU.

His comments will be received warmly in Sofia and Bucharest, which have agitated for years to join Schengen, seeing is as one of the main benefits of EU membership, but the process has been held up by other governments on concerns that the countries have not done enough to tackle corruption and organised crime.

Mr Juncker also signalled that he wanted to see all remaining EU states join the euro, adding that Brussels would set up a “pre-accession” support service.

He also backed the idea of appointed “European Union ministers of economy and finance” who would “co-ordinate all EU financing instruments and step in whenever a member state is facing the threat of a recession or fundamental crisis.”

But Mr Juncker rejected a push for French president Emmanuel Macron to set up a separate euro-area budget.

The State of the Union speech is an opportunity for Mr Juncker to try and shape the EU’s agenda over the coming months, which Brussels sees as a fertile policymaking terrain as a string of difficult national elections will end this month.

Nonetheless, it still left room for some more esoteric concerns; The commission president railed at differing food standards in Europe, saying: “There can be no second-class consumers. Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers, Czechs less cacao in their chocolate.”

Mr Juncker set out a far-reaching agenda that he said would transform the European Union in a way that would make it simpler, more understandable, and better able to protect its citizens. The main innovations he set out included combining the EU’s two most senior posts: the presidency of the European Commission and the presidency of the European Council.

Europe “needs one captain at the helm”, he said.

He also urged the EU to do away with national vetoes in the areas of foreign policy and taxation, setting a target date of March 2019, when Britain leaves the bloc, for the changes to be set in motion.