September 15, 2016 By FTI Consulting
Brexit, economic sluggishness and the refugee crisis has dented the EU’s reputation over recent months both at home and abroad.
These were the challenges confronting Jean-Claude Juncker – the President of the European Commission – as he contemplated his second annual ‘State of the Union’ speech, which he delivered today at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The EU’s own take on the US President’s ‘State of the Union’ speech has now become an annual affair, where the head of the EU’s administration sets out his priorities for the coming year, as well, of course, as celebrating the Commission’s achievements.
Losing a member of the EU doesn’t rank as an achievement – and wasn’t an issue that Juncker wanted to dwell on in his speech.
His objective, however, was to steady the ship, outline a clear path to resurrect faith and hope in the EU, and ensure his own institution, the European Commission, stood at the centre of that effort.
Juncker was honest about the problems that Europe faced. Fragmentation, nationalism and populism were rife. Having just returned from the G20 summit in China, he knew his international partners were looking worryingly at the EU.
He therefore emphasised the practical actions he wanted the EU to focus on, not the usual long term starry-eyed EU ideology. Europe should offer answers, protection and shelter in uncertain times and increasing globalisation.
He said Europe should focus on creating a more successful digital environment in Europe, of boosting investment – in particular from capital markets and expansion of the European Investment Bank guaranteed financing of infrastructure – and of far greater action to tackle the blight of youth unemployment. The urgency of combatting terrorism across the continent and of living up to the EU’s commitment to tackle climate change were also underlined.
But the EU stalwart couldn’t resist throwing some meat to his federalist and EU-integrationist friends in the audience. He flagged again the report calling for deeper Euro-area integration (currently firmly stuck on a shelf), vented the need for the EU to have a proper minister of foreign affairs and reignited the concept of a defence union, aimed at increasing the defence capabilities of the EU (a move until now strongly resisted by the UK).
The message was met by applause, and welcomed by the main liberal, socialist and conservative political blocs in the EP. But his audience were also sat in the capital cities of Europe. It is these Prime Ministers and Presidents whom he will meet at a summit in Bratislava on Friday organised by the EU’s other President, Donald Tusk (the President of the European Council) to attempt to set a new course for the EU post-Brexit. Tusk had outlined his own vision for this in a letter on the eve of Juncker’s speech, which says the little for the EU’s ability to speak with one voice.
There was plenty of fanfare. Juncker spoke for some 50 minutes. Tweets were frantically published and YouTube videos recorded.
But does this actually matter to businesses who need to comply with the EU’s regulatory demands and who look for certainty to enable them to make their investment decisions? The answer is not immediately.
Juncker has helpfully highlighted those policy priorities that he wants his Commission to focus on – and indeed published proposals today on issues such as copyright and telecoms. The speech also sends a signal of the political priorities that the Commission will focus its energy on: important for companies looking to engage with it and other EU institutions. But while this might provide some comfort to companies – the big questions as to the long term direction of the EU and particularly what happens post-Brexit remain elusive.