EU Commission President Outlines Vision for Bloc's Integration Future, Trade Agenda

14 September 2017

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a series of proposed initiatives and priority areas for the EU’s executive arm to take on through the end of 2018, while making unity, efficiency, strength, and economic growth among the key themes of his annual “State of the European Union” speech on Wednesday 13 September.

“The vision of a more united, stronger and more democratic Europe I am outlining today combines elements from all of the scenarios I set out in March. But our future cannot remain a scenario. We have to prepare the Union of tomorrow, today,” said Juncker to the bloc’s parliamentarians.

The speech, given at the European Parliament’s Strasbourg headquarters, was being closely watched to see how the chief of the EU’s executive arm would address his vision for the bloc’s future – particularly as Brexit negotiations get well underway.

Along with the speech, the Commission concurrently released a “letter of intent” from Juncker to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Estonia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

“2016 was in many ways an ‘annus horribilis’ for the European project. From the Brexit referendum, to the terrorist attacks, to slow growth and continued high unemployment in several of our member states, to the ongoing migration crisis, Europe was challenged in many ways,” said Juncker in the letter.

However, he suggested that the bloc has managed to make progress already on a “positive agenda,” with promising signs of economic recovery that could help fuel advances on a series of initiatives, either through the end of next year or even further down the road to 2025. These are also outlined on a “roadmap” from now through the June 2019 European Parliament elections.

Trade deals: Australia, New Zealand talks, investment court

Juncker’s speech included a series of items on trade and investment, including proposals for formal negotiating processes, as well as a pitch for greater transparency in those processes.

“I want us to strengthen our European trade agenda. Yes, Europe is open for business. But there must be reciprocity. We have to get what we give,” said Juncker.

Talks with Oceanic nations Australia and New Zealand are also expected to begin over the coming months, pending the completion of each sides’ internal processes, with Juncker proposing in his speech that both negotiations be launched. The countries involved have already been undertaking preparatory work towards that end. (See Bridges Weekly, 7 September 2016)

Furthermore, Juncker referred to a timeframe for such negotiations, calling for them to be wrapped up “by the end of this mandate.”

While not mentioned directly in his speech, Juncker’s letter to Tajani and Ratas called for a draft mandate for a “Multilateral Investment Court System,” along with draft mandates for the above-mentioned trade talks. The multilateral investment court is an idea that has already been touted by Commission officials in recent years, and the EU’s planned trade accords with Canada and Vietnam already have included a new investment court system that could be a precursor to such an initiative. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 March 2017)

The EU leader also pledged to take additional steps on transparency, in a bid to better inform the public on how trade deals are progressing, and thus help build buy-in. In this vein, he said that the EU’s executive arm will make public “draft negotiating mandates” that it submits to the Council for approval, and urging the latter body to do the same once those mandates are confirmed.

“Citizens have the right to know what the Commission is proposing. Gone are the days of no transparency. Gone are the days of rumours, of incessantly questioning the Commission’s motives,” said Juncker.

The bloc already has a busy trade agenda underway, with the stated goal of concluding negotiations with South American customs bloc Mercosur and the modernisation of an existing trade deal with Mexico later this year – targets that Juncker reaffirmed on Wednesday. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 July 2017 and 27 July 2017, respectively)

The EU is also aiming to finalise its trade negotiations with Asian economic heavyweight Japan, having announced an “agreement in principle” at the political level earlier this year. That accord, which was publicly lauded as proof that both sides were holding strong in their commitment to “free trade,” still needs to see resolution on issues such as investment dispute settlement. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 July 2017)

Meanwhile, the EU’s trade accord with Canada will be provisionally applied as of next week, with full application pending the ratification by the bloc’s individual member state legislatures. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 July 2017)

Priority areas, preparing for a post-Brexit Union

Beyond trade, Juncker also made a series of other pledges, including a promise to release a proposal on slashing transport-related carbon emissions; opening the Schengen zone to include Bulgaria, Romania, and eventually Croatia; expanding the euro area and the Banking Union to cover the entire EU, and providing the support to do so; and combining the Council and Commission presidencies into one role.

He also called for changing some decision-making processes in the EU from full consensus to a so-called “qualified majority,” such as with issues relating to the bloc’s single market or certain foreign policy topics.

Underlying all of these proposals, and various others, were again the objectives of unity and strength, along with promoting greater equality among and within member states, as well as freedom and rule of law.

“Our values are our compass. For me, Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values,” he told parliamentarians. He also suggested that for the moment, Turkey’s accession to the EU is not an option, citing issues with rule of law and freedom of expression.

The proposal to merge the Council and Commission presidencies would also help the bloc “function better,” adding that it would also “reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens.”

While Juncker’s speech was relatively light on Brexit references, the impending exit of the UK from the European Union loomed over this year’s event, having already prompted a series of summits, reflection papers, and debates on how the bloc will show its continued unity; convince the public of its long-term potential; and address questions and concerns over future integration approaches.

Brexit negotiators are slated to begin their fourth round of plenary negotiations in late September, ahead of an EU Council summit in October. The latter event is expected to see leaders evaluate the talks’ progress to see whether and when the process can move from the first phase, focusing on exit issues such as the UK’s “Brexit bill,” to a second phase involving the details of the future UK-EU relationship.

The UK’s exit is due to take effect from 29 March 2019, shortly ahead of European Parliament elections. Juncker’s term as Commission chief is due to end later that year, and the former Luxembourgish prime minister has previously indicated that he does not plan to stand for a second five-year stint.

“My hope is that on 30 March 2019, Europeans will wake up to a Union where we all stand by our values,” he said, suggesting that a “special summit” be organised by the Council leadership on that occasion.

ICTSD reporting; “Juncker will not seek second term as European Commission President,” EURACTIV, 11 February 2017.

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