Commentary: State of the Union Address 2018

Vladimír Bartovic, Martin Michelot, Zuzana Stuchlíková, Christian Kvorning Lassen, Vít Havelka, Jana Juzová, Alexandr Lagazzi and Kateřina Davidová react to Juncker's State of the Union Address 2018 from the perspective of the future of the EU and the Czech Republic's role in it.

Vladimír Bartovic | Juncker: The wind in Europe's sails is fading


In last year's SOTEU speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the wind is back in Europe’s sails. The European Union, however, has not moved forward all too fast in the past year. On the one hand, it should be appreciated that the European Commission is fulfilling the tasks that it has commissioned and expresses visions of how European integration should evolve in different areas. The change in the Commission's attitude towards EU enlargement represents a powerful positive symbol of this. On the other hand, it seems that the European Union is stuck in its current place and is unable to move forward. This is seen most clearly in its inability to reach a solution on the reform of the asylum system and the Dublin regulation. There is also no agreement on the reform of the Eurozone, and that is only a taste of the tensions that will surround the negotiations of the post-2020 budget.

So what is the situation today? Yes, the wind is still on Europe’s sails, but it is getting weaker. Europe is still doing well economically and employment is peaking. It seems, however, that we are not able to translate such economic achievements into satisfaction of the people. On the contrary, the growing frustration of the population only increases the support of radical parties in many countries all over Europe. The external environment is also becoming more challenging. The unpredictability of the US president and Russia's open aggression threaten Europe more and more. There is a risk that the wind that sails across Europe could change its direction anytime.

It seems that President Juncker and his Commission are well aware of this. The SOTEU speech that Juncker presented to the MEPs calls for accelerating the reform of the Union when the opportunity arises After the UK leaves, the Union must not only maintain but even strengthen its unity and cohesion, in order to push through the difficult times ahead and prevent other members from leaving. The Juncker Commission is in its last year of existence, and the time for deal-making may be much shorter. Surprisingly enough, we don’t have too many debates to settle, but there is still the need to realize that European strength and resilience to external threats directly depends on its unity, and that no EU Member State will prosper if the EU as a whole is weakened.


Martin Michelot | On defense, no new is good news 


It is noticeable that the part of the speech about defense is to be found under the header of “European sovereignty”. It is clear that the Commission seems to have heeded the warnings by European leaders about American disengagement from certains areas and global responsibilities, a feeling certainly compounded by President Juncker’s complicated dealings with President Trump himself. While the header may be revealing, the language of the President’s speech contains nothing novel, which is as a matter of fact very good news: it means that the efforts that have been started in the current term of the Commission, specifically the European Defense Fund and Permanent structured cooperation, are on track to be fully operational or are already developed. As these represent major developments by EU defense standards, it is a measure of realism that no major new initiatives would be presented in the SOTEU speech, given that member states are still grappling with the implementation of the ongoing ones. These initiatives will therefore serve as a clear legacy marker for the Commission, and leave open the path for its successor to move forward on the next key dossier in the defense realm, such as the financing of military missions, the usability of European battlegroups. It will also be the responsibility of the next Commission to operationalize QMW voting on certain CSDP issues, which may well be the next real contentious dossier in European defense.


Zuzana Stuchlíková | The end of daylight-saving: misunderstood subsidiarity  


One of the most concrete proposalsof president Juncker’s last SOTEU speech was to get rid of the daylight-saving system, following an EP resolution and a public consultation supporting the change which attracted the most attention in EU history. This gave Juncker a legitimate impulse to pushfor a change – supported by the fact that his Commission now has its last shot at impulsing a change to be recognized by citizens. However, the proposal to leave the final decisionof implementing the time change to Member Statesraises  some eyebrows.

The European Commission interprets this decision as an example of Juncker being big on the big things, while leaving it to Member States to take decisions where they are best placed to do so, according to the subsidiarity principle. But are the Member States in this position when it comes to time change? The EU already extends across threetime zones, and this could theoretically rise up to six if states are unable to harmonize. This creates a potential for deep disruption in the transport and business sector that Juncker would certainly shun as a legacy marker. 

The timeframe of the change is also challenging. The EU would be in a good position to make the change now, being backed by the results of the consultation and the EP resolution. It has the competences and legitimacy. Juncker’s plan now, however, is to encourage a consultation on national and EU level in order to ensure that member states come up with a harmonized solution. While subsidiarity remains a loaded political discussion, time changes in Europe seem to represent a field where a unified European approach would be beneficial.


Christian Kvorning Lassen | SOTEU on Migration – Unlikely to satisfy neither the disenfranchised nor those seeking long-term sustainable solutions 


Juncker’s SotU speech contained several proposals designed to address some of the most pressing concerns raised in recent years around migration; strengthening of the European Border- and Coastguard from 1300 to 10.000 men to protect the external borders, strengthening of the EASO, and optimization of the Blue Card Directive and repatriation procedures for rejected asylum seekers. All framed as necessary to save Schengen and allow the abolition of the internal borders erected in the aftermath of the refugee crisis while simultaneously addressing complaints made by Eurosceptic populists. 

However, without a reform or replacement of the now largely discredited Dublin Regulation, migration will remain a challenge borne unevenly by member states as responsibility will either be borne by the initial recipient country or become a ball to be thrown around between member states. This necessitates a fundamental reorientation of the EU’s approach to migration lest it fragments permanently into two blocs; those that seek solutions, and those de facto rejecting solutions due to capitalizing on lack thereof. Does the EU want to become Fortress Europe or remain a bastion of human rights in an increasingly unstable world? Juncker’s proposals do not address this, his noncommittal call for ‘sustainable solution on a balanced migration reform’ to the Council futile given that opposition to migration has become a question of ideology rather than policy, thus making EU-assistance in dealing with migration construed as an infringement on national sovereignty. 

It’s a Catch-22 for the EU. In regard to migration, Juncker’s speech primarily served to highlight the hypocrisy of Eurosceptics by providing band-aid fixes rather than addressing the core issues and envisioning a long-term sustainable path forward.


Vít Havelka | The multi annual financial frameworks: stormy times ahead?


The President of the European Commission expressed his wish to finish the negotiations about the new Multiannual Financial Framework beforethe May 2019 Council meeting in Sibiu, assertingthat Europeans “deserve stability and predictability”.

Uncertainty can only be prevented if the MFF isenacted prior to the end of 2019. This means that a deal must be on the table no later than the European elections next year, making itotherwise impossible to reach a broad agreement on time. It will take at least half a year until the new Commission and Parliament become fully operational,and it mightalsohappen that the negotiations will have to start from scratch if the newly elected Parliament were to differ significantly from the previous one. 

Although Mr. Juncker would publiclydisagree, as of now, it seems that the Union’s race against the clock will be unsuccessful. The Austrian presidency is due to publish its first MFF draft in December,leavingno more than half a year to approve the bill. The member states are also digging intotheir positions without any sign of willingness to compromise, making it appear thatthe MFF will simply be left to deal with for Juncker’s successor.


Jana Juzová | Enlargment: too little, too geopolitical


President Juncker’s call for unity, echoing through the entire speech, is a central themethat was also echoed inhis remarks on enlargement policy. In spite of the attention the EU enlargement, specifically towardsthe Western Balkans, has been receiving throughout the last year, the part of Juncker’s speech dedicated to it is surprisingly brief, especially coming from the head of the institution leading this agenda. While calling the previous enlargements “success stories”, even in the little space given to this topic Juncker strictly embedded it in a very realist-tuned, pragmatic and grim frame – calling foraunited approach in the face of the dangers posed by other powers asserting their influence in the neighboring region,in case a divided EU will remain paralyzed. This unfortunate reduction of the enlargement agenda to a simple power struggle stands in contrast to the optimism and encouragement offered in the “Enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans” released by the Commission in February. Hopefully, it will not prove to be a sign of the recent enlargement awakening withering away.


Alexandr Lagazzi | On free trade, the EU remains a leader 


President Juncker opened his SOTEU speech remembering the 10thanniversary of the 2008 crisis, contrasting the infamous year with some rather warming figures of the present state of the EU economy: growth ‘for 21 consecutive quarters’, returning jobs ‘with almost 12 million new jobs created since 2014’. Notably, employment was cited as being the highest in history, whilst youth unemployment – despite being ‘still too high a figure’at 14.8 % – as the lowest rate in 18 years. Then, in line with last year’s speech, he emphasized the importance of the Union as a trade power – one that exports not only goods, but its own values and standards.

Already hinting it by citing Lehman Brothers, the protectionist recipient of Juncker’s critique was clear. The Union, picking up the baton from the US, is ‘working for peace, trade agreements and stable currency relations’. Within the relay race of multilateralism and free trade, Juncker envisaged the future as passing on the baton to Europe’s twin continent– Africa. There, Juncker stressed the present role of the EU as the importing frontrunner for African exports – outpacing both China and the US. 

If reading through the lines of Juncker’s suggestion of a continent-to-continent free trade agreement, the attention in Africa is also drawn towards China, as there is a double strategy left for the next Commission to implement: (1) competing with Beijing’s already established and rather strong presence in Africa, whilst (2) counterbalancing Trumpian [in]activities and preserving an open economic world order through cooperation with China. Overall, to make the EU a necessary component of the global trade engine, Juncker’s successor was reminded of the role of the euro as a global currency that requires the support of a stronger Economic and Monetary Union, calling for swifter adoption of related legislative proposals – both domestic and international.


Kateřina Davidová | Even after a summer of heatwaves and draughts, climate policy is sidelined 


Juncker’s SOTEU speech, delivered after an exceptionally hot and dry summer, which caused millions of euros in damages from Sweden to Greece, was surprisingly bland on climate change. 

While he proclaimed that we have to leave “a healthier planet behind for those that follow”, he was shy of mentioning any concrete measures of how to achieve it. He also missed a good opportunity to outline the EU’s long-term climate strategy, which is to be unveiled in November. Without concrete targets, any talk of combatting climate change rings hollow and this year’s speech contained even fewer concrete announcements than those in previous years. 

One mention deserves commendation, however. Juncker backed the proposal of the Energy Commissioner to raise the emissions reduction target to 45% by 2030. This is more ambitious than what many member states are calling for. However, it still falls short of what is actually needed to keep global warming in check.
Overall, this one line was easily lost among the many other topics that were given a higher priority in this year’s speech.


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#State of the Union Address 2018 #Jean-Claude Juncker #SOTEU #Future of the EU #migration #defence #EU enlargment #free trade #cimate policy #MFF

Zuzana Stuchlíková
Associate Research Fellow

Expertise: Central Europe, EU Institutions

Martin Michelot
Senior Associate Research Fellow

Expertise: NATO and transatlantic security, European foreign policy and defense, French politics, elections and society, Visegrad Four and Central Europe, EU institutional issues

Alexandr Lagazzi
Associate Research Fellow

Expertise: Diplomacy, EU foreign policy, Italy, China, International security, Terrorism, Behavioural Economics

Christian Kvorning Lassen
Deputy Director & Head of Research

Expertise: Migration/European migration crisis, EU foreign policy, Scandinavian politics, populism, EU enlargement policy

Jana Juzová
Senior Research Fellow

Expertise: regionalism, Visegrad cooperation, democratization and European integration of the Western Balkan countries, EU enlargement

Vít Havelka
Senior Research Fellow

Expertise: EU institutional relations with member states, europeisation, transformation role of EU

Kateřina Davidová
Senior Research Fellow

Expertise: EU climate and energy policy, environmental protection

Expertise: EU institutional issues, Economic and Monetary Union, € and European budget, Brexit, EU foreign policy, EU enlargement with the focus on Western Balkans, Slovak foreign and domestic policy and economic issues

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