State of the (European) Union 2016: What a British audience needs to know

Just over 24 hours ago, President of the European Union Commission Jean-Claude Juncker made his second State of the Union speech. The text can be found here. For a country that has recently voted to leave the bloc, these ramblings may seem thoroughly unimportant. In fact, there are three reasons why it is worth paying closer attention to. The speech outlined the policies that the EU will take in the coming year; it permits one to draw conclusions on the overall health of the Union; and it highlighted how the media continues to misrepresent the news. But first, what is the speech?

Question: what lasts an hour, spans three languages and has its own hashtag?

Top marks if the answer you gave was Juncker’s State of the Union speech. Properly, the speech was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty (2009). It is designed to be a yearly speech made by the President of the European Commission to the Members of the European Parliament. Essentially, it is the EU telling the Member States what it is thinking, thereby increasing transparency by permitting anyone to foresee where the EU will head in its next legislative cycle.

It should be remembered however, that this newly-constituted ritual goes beyond a mere speech. It acts as the staging ground for the (often forgotten) State of the Union debate, in which the European Parliament debate the principle policies of the coming year.

A Year An Hour

The advice often given to public speakers – your speech should be shorter than the attention span of your audience – seems to have been taken to heart by Juncker, who gave the State of the Union speech in little less than an hour. The President of the Commission addressed many of the major themes facing the EU, such as populism, Brexit and the refugee crisis. However, below are five key policies which British readers should be aware of:

  1. Foreign ministry

Despite much talk of the ‘European army’ (see below), the creation of a post for an “EU foreign minister” piques my interest most and thus takes the top spot. It marks a shrewd move by Juncker to increase intergovernmental relations. Leaders of European Union nations already meet through the European Council and Ministers routinely attend the Council of Ministers. But such a post would require the constant collaboration of Foreign Ministers, deepening links between States.

It also represents a move towards one thing that all the States can agree on with regard to the refugee crisis: better management at the EU’s border is necessary. For this reason, calls to beef up Frontex were met with positive noise from the hall.

  1. European army

The development of the European army agenda comes in at second place because of its shock factor. In this speech, Juncker proposed a joint headquarters and a joint procurement policy, coming far short therefore of an army to use willy-nilly, as many headlines would have you believe. Pooling procurement cuts costs to individual Member States allowing them to maintain their military capabilities for a fraction of the cost. This is one benefit. A second benefit, would be the increase in efficiency of the missions that the EU is undertaking under the Common Security and Defence Policy it has. These missions include countering piracy off Somalia, training the armies of Somlia, Mali, and the Central Africa Republic and targeting migrant-traffickers in the Mediterranean.

The UK – always seeking to cosy up to America – has just as consistently made noises about how such a force would undermine NATO. Even where there is no evidence that this would be the case. Now that the UK has bowed (or fallen) out of the room where such discussions are held expect to see things progress much more rapidly.

  1. Infrastructure investment

If the EU holds true to the vision outlined by Juncker, the next ten years will be a period of reinvestment into areas around Europe. “Today, we propose to double the duration of the [European Investment Fund and double its financial capacity” trumpeted Juncker. Furthermore, ears flicked up when it was proposed “to equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centers of public life by 2020”.

Of course, the UK is likely to miss out if the calculations of the British government are anything to go by with regarding to Wales, which will be £245 million per annum worse off. But this is important because it means an increase in productivity on the continent with which the British Isles must contend.

  1. Solidarity core

Modeled on Americorps, Juncker proposed a “Solidarity corps“, with the aim of bringing together young people from across the EU to tackle topical problems across the globe. Some 100,000 young Europeans are hoped to take part by 2020. Sure, it might take a while to rival its American progenitor: which has seen almost 1 million members donate more than 1.2 billion hours since 1994. But it marks exactly the kind of move towards interaction with the young voters and citizens of tomorrows the EU must do. It comes in as fourth because although a great opportunity for tomorrow’s pre-University students, it is unclear whether it will be open to non-EU citizens (e.g. a Brit).

  1. No “à la carte” menu choice for negotiations

Directly relevant to all countries seeking to negotiate a break from the EU (i.e. only the UK), Juncker made crystal clear that one could not choose “à la carte” which parts to keep and which to leave in a break up with the EU. No freedom of movement means no free access to markets. One wonders whether the EU could be any clearer than this. One rather suspects not. This is a vital point for those in Britain interested in the negotiations – but it comes last because it was already crystal clear.

Fit to serve?

There may be some concerns about the fitness of the two American candidates for President, but there are far greater concerns on this side of the Atlantic regarding the health of the Union which holds together 28 (soon to be 27) nations in the European Union. Did the speech reassure or reek of desperation?

Juncker did not shy away from identifying difficulties. He freely admitted that the EU is facing “splits out there and often fragmentation exists”. Indeed, for many he went further and did not hesitate to point to examples where this fragmentation leads to violence, in no uncertain terms referencing the murder of a Polish man in Harlow: “Europeans can never accept Polish workers being beaten up, harassed or even murdered in the streets of Essex.” In this speech, Juncker accepts the difficult of squaring the circle: listening to the voice of the people, even when that voice appears to be nationalistic to the point of xenophobia.

Of course, such statements gave far right MEPs the chance to go starry eyed at the prospect of the EU’s collapse: Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, described the speech as a “funeral for the European Union” and was cheered by her UK counter-parts, UKIP.

Le Pen (and UKIP MEPs) were wrong to interpret these comments as a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary. It is a sign that, at last, the institutions of the European Union are awaking to the importance of listening to the population they seek to represent. Much like when you or I suspect that there is something wrong with a loose tooth, squaring up to heading to the dentist is braver than trying to struggle on, Juncker’s admissions should be seen as an attempt to square up to the rising populism amongst EU countries. Despite the 8 million jobs created since 2013, 140 trade agreements and the success of COP21, Juncker is aware of the mood of Europeans. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council is certainly aware of the importance of treating Brexit as a symptom of the rise of populism.

Media, media, when will you learn?

At best, the speech represented a far-ranging vision of the year to come, clearly and steadily keeping an eye on approaching dangers. At worst, it was provocative and thin on details. However, it is disappointing to read of the BBC’s (we won’t touch the Express or the Daily Mail) title: “Brexit: Juncker fails to impress Europe’s media“.

For many Britons, they won’t do much more than read the title or the article. So they won’t know that this is an unfair comment. Although referencing Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s negative coverage, the BBC’s article goes on to reference the positive coverage of Der Spiegel, Le Monde and Rezecspospolita. Going further, Tim King writing for Politico, a leading media outlet focusing on the EU, gave a mostly positive review.

Why does this matter? Because the British public will continue to be misinformed and under prepared for the realities of life in the 21st century, when its media continues to portray the picture the public wants to hear of the EU. We just have to hope that the the British press will turn elsewhere, allowing the EU institutions to get on with their job rather than face tiresome trite tirades.

Facts over fiction. It seems that Juncker learned his lesson from his 2015 speech but the British media has not.