The annual State of the European Union speech is an occasion for the President of the European Commission to take stock of the world and try and advance their agenda. While it would be wrong to suggest that all Europe is agog with anticipation at this event, it is an important point in the EU’s calendar, especially in recent years when things have looked problematic.
This year’s effort – Jean-Claude Juncker’s third – is best seen in this light: looking forward, rather than back and with an eye to what member states might be willing to work on.
Importantly, that doesn’t mean Brexit.
There was some consternation that the speech made almost no mention of the UK’s departure from the organisation, as if Juncker was somehow avoiding the issue. But this is to misunderstand both the speech and the EU.
The view in Brussels and in the capitals of the EU27 is that Brexit is under control: the Commission’s Task Force 50, led by Michel Barnier, has a mandate to negotiate with the British, and he is getting on with that. If there’s a difficulty, then it’s that the UK hasn’t yet decided what they want, but that’s their problem. In short, the UK is leaving and that’s that.
In the meantime, the EU continues. As Juncker noted in the first part of his speech, there is a period of relative quiet on the way, with few major national elections to delay and distract from dealing with the various problems the Union faces.
Put differently, for most of Europe, Brexit isn’t that important, but running maintenance of the EU is.
However, all this runs into two major difficulties.
The first is the question of what to do.
Juncker’s approach is essentially one that he has taken from his predecessors, namely of gathering up the many ideas that built up and setting them running once again. From joining together Commission and Council presidencies, to protecting fish fingers, there was someone for everyone to latch on to, and little that was genuinely novel.
The objective here was two-fold. Not only was Juncker reminding people of the existence of these ideas, but also demonstrating that he, and the Commission, take the big picture in their approach to governance.
This is most simply illustrated by the fish finger story. In Central and Eastern Europe, there is much genuine concern and annoyance that West European companies are selling sub-standard versions of food products in their countries. The companies deny that they do this, but it speaks to a broader sense that the EU is becoming a vehicle for treating the new members as second-class citizens. Just as most Europeans never really understood the British obsession with bendy bananas, so it is here, and it is a perfect opportunity for the Commission to demonstrate that it cares.
But all of these points – as much as they might have viable individual logics – do not hang together. IT was telling that Juncker chose to dress his speech not in the rhetoric of further integration, but of resolving problems, ‘fixing the roof’ while ‘the wind is in our sails’ in his somewhat mangled metaphor.
And this speaks to the second big challenge for Juncker. Even if the ideas are there, who will support him in making things happen?
Here, there is a basic paradox. After years of problems, things are looking up in the EU: the migrant crisis looks more manageable; the eurozone is returning to more obvious growth; the populist tide seems to have abated. After more years of more emergency European Councils than anyone cares to remember, plenty of national politicians would be happy to stay away from things European, rather than getting stuck back into a new reform agenda.
In short, if one takes the view that European integration tends to advance most in times of crisis, then right now looks more like a moment to take the foot off the gas than anything else.
Of course, these things are relative, and there is much feeling that the EU has simply moved from a hyper-crisis mode to a normal-crisis mode, but the point still stands. Member states have other things to get on with and the EU is not a priority agenda point for most of them, especially if it means going back to treaty reform and all the pain that has brought over the past 25 years.
And this brings us back to the question of Brexit and its place in the scheme of things. The speech really highlighted the limits to the UK’s weight in the system. As much as leaving will have impacts on finances, policies and preferences, it is manageable. Indeed, one might paraphrase Juncker slightly and argue that it opens up some new possibilities for the EU, where previously the UK might have led opposition (such as the various extensions of Commission competences).
What the coming months will show is the extent to which other member states used the UK as a convenient excuse. The departure of the British certainly does not mean that the Union will be filled with just pro-integrationists – consider Poland, Hungary or Greece – and there are many more difficult debates to be had.
The wind might be in Juncker’s sails, but the sand is also shifting under his feet.
By Dr Simon Usherwood, UK in a Changing Europe research investigator and reader in politics at University of Surrey.