by Maria Savel
September 20, 2016

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

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Maria Savel is an associate editor at World Politics Review.







European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

delivers his 2016 State of the Union Address,

Strasbourg, France, Sept. 14, 2016

(EU Commission photo).

 


Last Wednesday, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave his annual State of the Union address after one of the most difficult years in the EU's history.

 

Between the ongoing migrant crisis, the continued rise of populism, a series of terrorist attacks and Brexit, there are many reasons to conclude that the EU is in dire straits.

"Let us all be very honest in our diagnosis. Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis," Juncker stated in opening his speech.

 

"Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our union."

With the bloc facing high unemployment, social inequality, public debt and security concerns, he said the next 12 months would be decisive in efforts,

"to reunite our union" and "to overcome the tragic divisions between East and West which have opened up in recent months."

To bridge these divisions and move the union forward, Juncker laid out a series of policy proposals that include,

  • completing work on the so-called Capital Markets Union, which would give EU firms more diversified access to financing

  • a $50 billion investment plan for Africa

  • free wireless internet across Europe by 2020

  • an EU Solidarity Corps for European volunteers under the age of 30

On the security front, Juncker outlined plans for,

  • expanding the EU border guard agency

  • rolling out an automated European Travel Information System to more effectively screen travelers seeking to enter Europe

  • strengthening the EU's defense policy through the creation of a single headquarters for all EU security missions as well as a European Defense Fund to "turbo boost" defense research and innovation

The response to the speech was mixed.

 

Politico EU called Juncker's performance "very controlled," especially compared to the "car crash" that was last year's speech, which drew attention for its stark, blunt tone.

 

The Financial Times praised him for trying to,

"heal some of these wounds of the recent past."

The New York Times, however, was more critical in an editorial.

"Millions of Europeans are coming to the conclusion that the E.U. has let them down," it warned, adding that, "if the European Union is to survive, European leaders must restore people's faith in its ability to address Europe's problems."

Two days after Juncker's speech, EU leaders, with the exception of British Prime Minister Theresa May, met in Bratislava, Slovakia, for an informal summit.

 

Prior to the gathering, European Council President Donald Tusk circulated a letter outlining the challenges facing the EU:

"Following Brexit, business as usual is not an option."

While acknowledging the frustration with the current state of affairs felt by many national electorates - and governments - across the EU, Tusk's letter also claimed that,

"there is ample room for 'real optimism'."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with that sentiment.

"We have to show with our actions that we can get better," she said shortly after her arrival in Bratislava.

 

It is going to take

more than vague policy statements

or free Wi-Fi

to fix what is broken in the EU.

 

 

The assembled leaders were able to present a somewhat united front at the summit, agreeing to a policy "roadmap" for the next six months that focuses on improving European security and boosting the economy.

 

Concrete policy proposals are supposed to be presented at a summit scheduled for March 2017 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the EU's founding treaty.

Tusk painted the summit as a success, saying in a statement that,

"there is hope to renew people's trust and confidence in the EU."

At a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, Merkel offered her own optimism:

"The spirit of Bratislava was very much the spirit of cooperation."

But this picture of unity was short-lived. In a separate press conference, Italian Prime Minister Mario Renzi told reporters,

"I'm not satisfied with the conclusions."

Renzi voiced frustration that some of the biggest issues facing the EU, namely the migration crisis, weren't properly discussed.

"To define as a step forward today's document on migrants would require a form of fantasy, a verbal high-wire act," he added.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also criticized the summit, which he said failed to alter the EU's,

"self-destructive and na´ve" migration policy.

Orban has long been critical of Brussels, and one senior EU official was quoted by Reuters as saying Orban's complaints were,

"clearly about domestic politics."

Yet domestic politics are a major concern across the union.

 

Far-right and anti-EU parties are leading in the polls ahead of elections next year in France and the Netherlands, and a candidate from the far-right Freedom Party is in a run-off vote for Austria's presidency.

 

In Germany, which has been steadfast in its support of the EU, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party is growing in popularity. Its rise, combined with back-to-back disappointments for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union in regional elections, has many in her party worried ahead of next year's federal elections.

The acknowledgement from Juncker and Tusk that the EU is in crisis is a step in the right direction.

 

So is the fact that European leaders like Merkel are actively trying to build unity within the bloc. But it is going to take more than vague policy statements or free Wi-Fi to fix what is broken in the EU.

 

In the next six months, its member states must turn the broad objectives of the Bratislava summit into real policies if they are to restore people's faith in the European project.

 

Given the severity of the challenges facing the EU, though, most people in Brussels and across Europe are not very optimistic on that front.