Jean-Claude Juncker has declared that the “wind is back in Europe’s sails” in an at times deeply personal State of the Union speech in which he gave his vision for the future of the European Union after the UK makes its “tragic” departure in 2019.
The European commission president said he would always deeply lament the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “This will be a very sad and tragic moment in our history, we will always regret this”, he said before responding to heckling from Nigel Farage, by retorting: “I think you will regret this soon, I might say.”
Calling for a special summit in Romania on the 30 March 2019, the first day of an EU of 27 member states rather than 28, Juncker said he hoped the continent would “wake up” that day to a new more unified bloc.
“We have to respect the will of the British people”, he said. “We are going to make progress. We will keep moving. We will move on because Brexit isn’t everything. It isn’t the future of Europe. It isn’t the be all and end all… On the 30 March 2019, we will be a union of 27 and I suggest we prepare very well for that date.”
He added: “I have lived the European project through my entire life. I have fought for it, I have worked for it. I have been through good times, and I have been through bad times … I have sometimes suffered with Europe and agonised over Europe.
“I have been through thick and thin with the European Union and never have I lost my love for the European Union. As we all know there is no love without disappointment, or very rarely.”
Juncker’s annual address to the European parliament in Strasbourg was notably more upbeat about the future than his speech a year ago, with economic growth outstripping the US and unemployment at a nine-year low. The commission president and former prime minister of Luxembourg, insisted the bloc should seize the moment to make widespread reforms. “As Mark Twain wrote, years from now we will be more disappointed by the things we did not do, than by the ones we did,” he said.
Juncker proposed more help for all EU countries to join the euro, so that it could be truly “the single currency of the European Union”, along with a wide range of institutional changes, including the creation of an EU finance minister and the widening of the Schengen area, in which passport-free travel is allowed.
In a call for the presidencies of the European commission and the European council, the body comprising the member states’ leaders, to be combined and directly elected in the future, Juncker said the EU needed to be more flexible and streamlined. “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship,” he said.
He also put his weight behind calls for the European parliament seats previously held by British MEPs to be elected on a transnational basis.
Juncker added that the council should adopt qualified majority voting, rather than unanimity, on foreign policy issues and drive forward in European defence. “By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European defence union,” he said. “We need it. And Nato wants it.”
He also added the EU would establish a European cybersecurity agency. “Cyber-attacks know no borders and no one is immune,” he said.
Juncker told MEPs he intended to start trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, and promised to legislate to protect strategic interests from foreign purchases through industrial screening.
A joint statement from the French, German and Italian governments following the speech endorsed the move. The German minister for economic affairs, Brigitte Zypries, said: “We must avoid other states benefiting from our opening to advance their own industrial policy interests.”
Juncker added that the EU would respond to the “collapse of the ambitions in the US” on climate change by stepping into the vacuum and ensuring that Europe protected the world. “Let’s catch the wind in our sails”, he told MEPs.
However, he ruled out Turkey’s accession to the EU in the “foreseeable future”, and, in his strongest comments to date on the issue, he condemned the country’s slide into authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Turkey has been moving away from the European Union in leaps and bounds,” Juncker told MEPs. “Journalists belong in editorial offices amid a heated debate, and not in prison. I appeal today to the powers that be in Turkey: let our journalists go, and not just our journalists.”
Juncker was also scathing about Poland’s recent judicial reforms, which have been criticised as an attack on the judiciary, although he did not mention the country by name. Brussels has threatened to trigger a process under which Poland could lose its voting rights in the council of ministers unless it rethinks a series of recent legislative reforms.
Juncker said: “The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. Accepting and respecting a final judgment is what it means to be part of a union based on the rule of law.”
The EU is also to step up its deportation of illegal immigrants, improve its “pathways” for legal migration and tackle the “inhumane conditions” in Libyan reception camps, which, according to some reports, are reminiscent of second world war concentration camps.
Farage, the former Ukip leader, told the Strasbourg chamber that Juncker’s speech was “worrying”. “More Europe in every single direction and all of it to be done without the consent of the people,” Farage said. “All I can say, is thank God we are leaving. You have learned nothing from Brexit. If you had given [David] Cameron concessions, particularly on immigration, the Brexit vote, I must admit, would never, never have happened.”