After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope.
How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?
The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena.
Just as in the United States, the European State of the Union speeches are rarely memorable for honest and reflective insights into the current state of the EU. The speeches are primarily an opportunity to have the attention of all European media for at least an hour, and are therefore often used as a way to sum up political achievements and to lay out future visions of the European project. In an interview with Politico, Juncker said that this year’s speech was more “a personal manifesto” so “the advice he received from his commissioners at an annual retreat last week will not necessarily be adopted”. Also, as Politico noted, “the speech is his last chance to lay the ground for being remembered as the Commission president who healed the bleeding wound caused by the first ever exit of an EU country”. In other words, this year’s State of the Union speech may have been more of an attempt to save Juncker’s reputation than an accurate description of the current situation of the EU.
This is not to say that the speech was a vain attempt by Juncker to save face, nor did it only contain wishful thinking. There are actually signs that the EU is in a better state than it has been in a while. The economies are growing in every EU Member State, unemployment is on the retreat practically everywhere, and the influx of refugees is not as much of a pressing issue as it was a year ago. The election of Macron in France and the re-election of Angela Merkel in German are also signs of a changing mood in (Western) European sentiments about the EU. Perhaps most importantly, the EU has not disintegrated further after the UK referendum, and there are no signs it will in the near future. But not disintegrating does not mean that “the wind is in our sails” nor does it imply a “momentum”.
In fact, a more candid and inclusive reflection on the state of the European Union can be read between the lines in Juncker’s speech. Because between all optimistic proposals and statements, the speech could also be read as a warning against further polarization between the older and younger Europe, or the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Member States. When Juncker said that “the rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must”, one cannot help but think of the current situation in Hungary and Poland, where the rule of law is under substantial threat from governments with authoritarian tendencies. When Juncker argues that “the Euro is meant to be the single currency of the European Union as a whole”, it is clear that the reluctance of some Member States to adopt the Euro, and consequently deliberately avoid matching the criteria, shows that there are still significant issues surrounding the European currency. When Juncker stated that “open trade must go hand in hand with open policy making”, it sounds like a mea culpa of the Commission for massive protests surrounding the free trade deals with Canada and the United States.
But the fact that Juncker does mention these issues only becomes clear with some imaginative reading, for he does not mention these problems explicitly. The proposals he did put forward explicitly were all rather boldly optimistic. To merge the position of the President of the Commission and Council might benefit the EU’s efficiency, but these positions were put in place to safeguard the division between EU and national interests. To obscure this division only a year after the Brexit vote seems unnecessarily risky. The Prime Ministers of the Netherlands and Denmark were quick to condemn the idea. Reforms in the field of debt in the Eurozone are also likely to be met with fierce resistance from various Member States. It might sound like the classical reactionary trope to say that the time is not right, but it does not take a staunch conservative to see that these proposals show that Juncker is out of touch with today’s zeitgeist. The fact that the EU is slowly recovering from the blow of Brexit is laudable, but the recovery is fragile and under threat from various forces. To claim that the wind is in the EU’s sails requires an outlook so optimistic that it is almost naïve.