#SOTEU 2016 – More of the same?
In his annual address to the European Parliament on 14 September, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attempted the delicate exercise of mitigating Europeans’ expectations on the role of the Commission in finding solutions to Europe’s structural problems while re-assuring his audience that he holds the key to these challenges.
Did he succeed? The jury is still out… Similarly to last year, he did not address a full house, gathered scattered applause from time to time although when his speech finished the audience gave him what seemed to be a rather enthusiastic round of applause.
However, on can question this enthusiasm, considering that, as President Juncker admitted himself “a year ago, I highlighted some shortcomings of the EU. […] A year later, this assessment still holds, despite some progress”.
This leaves us wondering, what is President Juncker’s plan to take Europe out of its “existential crisis”?
The Pillars of Change
Instead of reflecting over the past year, when admittedly very little has change, President Juncker decided to focus on Europe’s future and its Youth, and emphasize on the issues that would affect them. By concentrating on the needs of Europe’s young generation and announcing the strengthening of initiatives such as the EU Youth Guarantee or the creation of the European Solidarity Corps, he tried to demonstrate that changing Europe will require a long term vision and commitment, involving the younger generations that will ensure the EU will survive over the next decades to come. To do that, he identified the following areas where action is required:
- Investment – As expected, President Juncker called for a reform of capital markets and taxation and suggested the extension of the European Fund for Strategic Investment until 2020. The objective would be to strengthen investment in European excellence. Creating the foundations for a reformed financial market would enable companies in all sectors to innovate and grow; helping Europe boost its global competitiveness.
- Trade – In a globalized world, President Juncker could not ignore the impact global trade has on Europe. He called for the completion of free trade agreements with non-EU countries, from the controversial (/dead?) TTIP, to Canada and Singapore. The benefit: open new markets for Europeans while ensuring European companies remain protected from unfair competition.
- Connectivity – Since the beginning of his mandate, President Juncker has continuously promoted the importance of new technologies for Europe’s future. This is the reason he reiterated his commitment to reforming the telecommunications market, deploy a 5G network and overhaul copyright rules. Good timing – his commitment was materialized almost immediately with the Commission presenting its telecommunications package, almost as the speech was taking place.
- Climate – “Walking the talk” on climate action will be another one of the Commission’s areas of action. Delivery on COP21 goals will be an incentive to breed innovation, grow new sectors, and mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
- Brexit and the European identity – Although absent from his official written speech, President Juncker did not ignore the “elephant in the room”. He suggested the EU-UK relationship should remain friendly; however, he reiterated that “there is no access à la carte”. Ahead of an election year for many European states including in France and Germany, he made it clear that the European identity should be based on “solidarity”, covering this way social inclusion and youth unemployment; issues that are expected to dominate electoral campaigns in the coming months.
2016 SOTEU speech vs. 2015 SOTEU speech: More of the same?
State of the EU 2016
State of the EU 2015
Comparing and contrasting the 2015 and 2016 SOTEU speeches, it seems not much has changed. The challenges the European executive is facing are very much the same as the last years’. While in 2015 President Juncker was preaching that “this is not the time for business as usual”, in 2016, he was yet not able to demonstrate where Europe managed to fundamentally reform itself and make significant progress.
At a time when citizens across Europe increasingly show skepticism towards the EU progress and feel tempted by populism and nationalism, Juncker’s general speech didn’t seem to address what citizens expect: strong leadership, solutions and action.
In his closing statement, President Juncker wondered about Europe’s legacy. In the next year it’s not only Europe’s legacy but also his that will be at stake. Halfway through his mandate, he will become increasingly under pressure to deliver on his commitments. A year of elections will make this feeling particularly potent; President Juncker has only a few months left to show he can find concrete solutions to Europe’s growing angst.
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