Brexit not the end of European Union, Juncker says

The head of the European Union's executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, delivers his State of the Union address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016 (Photo: AP/Jean-Francois Badias)

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, sought on Wednesday to rally support for the European Union, saying the bloc battered by the UK Brexit referendum was not about to break up despite its existential crisis.

In setting out the Commission’s plans for the first time since the UK voted to exit the EU on June 23, Juncker highlighted the British referendum as a warning that the EU faces a battle for survival against nationalism in Europe.

“The European Union doesn’t have enough union,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, noting his own executive was limited in its response to problems by division among states that was the worst he had seen in three decades in EU politics.

“There are splits out there and often fragmentation exists,” he said. “That is leaving scope for galloping populism.”

But he underlined he believed the world’s biggest trade bloc was still an important force. “The EU as such is not at risk.”

Proof of that, Juncker said, was the success of a new European investment fund that the former Luxembourg premier proposed to double to 630 billion euros ($707 billion) by 2022 to help with a sharp fall in spending since the global financial crisis, helping projects from airports to broadband networks.

The 48-minute speech drew a standing ovation from the main parties in an assembly dominated by supporters of closer European integration, but there was scorn from euro sceptics, including Marine Le Pen, the French National Front leader, and Nigel Farage, the triumphant Brexit campaigner from UKIP.

The pro-Brexit British Conservative leader, Syed Kamall was also dismissive: “Today was billed as a relaunch, but sadly it’s fundamentally the same mantra we’ve heard year after year,” he said, criticizing plans for more EU military cooperation - something long blocked by Britain, whose voice no longer counts.

Africa fund

Juncker also wanted to extend the fund to the private sector in Africa to help curb emigration to Europe, starting with a pot of 44 million euros that could also be doubled later on.

An Africa fund was part of Juncker’s efforts to stress a more positive agenda, particularly over the migration crisis that has deeply divided the European Union. He also had veiled criticism of eastern European countries unwilling to take in refugees from North Africa and the Middle East.

“Solidarity must come from the heart. It cannot be forced,” Juncker said.

But the Juncker address offered few clues to the talks with London that the EU insists cannot start until Prime Minister Theresa May formally sets starts a two-year countdown to British departure. Juncker urged that to be done quickly and reiterated the EU negotiating position that Britain could not retain its full EU market access if it blocks free immigration from the EU.

“There can be no a la carte access to the single market,” he said of British hopes to cut immigration and keep free trade.

A summit of the 27 EU leaders in Bratislava on Friday is also unlikely to shed much light on the Brexit issue. Juncker will travel there to urge national leaders to remember the big picture and stop their “bickering”.

“What are we instilling in terms of values in our children. Is this a union that has forgotten its past, has no vision for the future? Our children deserve better,” Juncker said, speaking of his own father, a war veteran who died last month.

Border guards

With Germany and France both facing major elections in the coming year, major changes in the Union are unlikely, but EU officials are concerned that left-right political tensions over fiscal policy in the euro zone or divisions over taking in refugees will jeopardize the cohesion of the bloc.

Juncker also urged states to complete the setting up of a European Border and Coast Guard, a project driven by last year’s chaotic arrival of over a million migrants and refugees, and proposed new cooperation among EU armies, as well as pushing for an acceleration of capital markets union.

Claiming success in fostering investment by the application of seed capital and guarantees from the EU and national governments, the Commission has put the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) at the heart of its economic policy.

Set up last year to run for three years until 2018 with a target of mobilizing 315 billion euros of investment, the current EFSI target is based on 21 billion euros of EU money being leveraged 15 times by other investors.

However, as the EU’s current, seven-year budget program ends in 2020, the total target will rise to 500 billion euros for five years and the Commission will call on member states to add to their contributions.

Brussels says the fund could also serve to bolster Internet connectivity across the bloc.

“We propose today to equip every European city with wireless internet,” Juncker said, revealing the kind of project he hopes can help build some love for the EU among ordinary voters.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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