AS snubs go, this was a resounding one. Setting out his vision of a strong, successful and even more integrated European Union to the European Parliament last week, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waited until the almost-end of his long speech to make a brief mention of Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29, 2019 as a “sad and tragic moment”.

Europe was not made to stand still. So the really significant event was not Brexit but the day after, he proclaimed, when “we will be a Union of 27”.

There will be a special EU summit organised in Romania on March 30, 2019 to mark Europe’s changed membership and, as Juncker put it, “the moment we come together to take decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe.”

And what will this re-energised Europe “with the wind in its sails” look like?

Juncker was not short on optimistic ideas: it will be a place “where we all stand by our values. Where all member states firmly respect the rule of law. Where being a full member of the euro area, the banking union and the Schengen area has become the norm for all EU member states. Where we have shored up the foundations of our economic and monetary union so that we can defend our single currency in good times and bad…where our single market will be fairer towards workers from the East and from the West…where terrorists have no loopholes to exploit”.

Also, “where we have agreed on a proper European Defence Union. Where a single president leads the work of the Commission and the European Council, having been elected after a democratic Europe-wide election campaign”.

The Commission chief’s agenda for the remaining two years of his presidency is breathless — and breathtaking. The long address had important messages for friends and foes, admirers and critics, for Europeans and those watching Europe from the outside. Here are some key points:

First, that Juncker and the Commission are back — with a bang. Member states, led by Germany and France, have taken the lead in recent years, with the EU executive body being sidelined and overlooked. With Berlin and Paris coming out with new ideas for Europe’s future, the Commission chief has made clear that he and the institution he heads are back in the EU driving seat. Or at least sitting (very close) next to the driver(s).

Not surprisingly, many EU leaders have balked at his calls for further integration by proposing the appointment of one “EU president” who combines the jobs of the current president of the European Commission and his counterpart who heads the European Council. For eurozone members, Juncker proposed a “European Minister of Economy and Finance” who would chair the Eurogroup while also being Commission vice president and work to promote structural reform in member states.

For EU citizens, Juncker promised more efforts to prevent cyberattacks through the creation of a European Cybersecurity Agency, continuing efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants, an emphasis on returning those who have no right to protection, more sharing of intelligence to stop terror attacks by setting up a European intelligence unit — and also opening up “legal pathways” for migrants.

There were other messages too. US President Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned by name — in fact there was no reference to the “transatlantic alliance” — but Juncker’s message to the US president can be paraphrased thus: you may be doing your best to destroy US democracy, but Europe isn’t impressed. In fact, said Juncker: “three principles must always anchor our Union: freedom, equality and the rule of law”. And oh yes, President Trump, while you may believe in the law of the strong, in Europe it’s about “the strength of the law”.

China’s President Xi Jinping wasn’t mentioned by name either, but the Chinese leader knows that Juncker’s proposal for a new EU framework for investment screening is aimed at ensuring that key sectors — energy infrastructure, ports and defence technology — aren’t allowed to fall into Chinese hands. “Europe must always defend its strategic interests…we are not naïve free traders,” said Jucker.

Turkey was mentioned and told that it could put its hopes for joining the EU in the freezer “for the foreseeable future”. No matter that Ankara was helping to stem the flow of Middle East refugees coming to Europe, Turkey was “taking giant strides away from the EU for some time”. And there would be no further EU enlargement to include the Western Balkans either at least until 2019. But “thereafter the EU will be greater than 27 in number”.

But the strongest message was for Britain’s fervent Brexiteers. As the beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May gets ready to make her much-heralded speech on Britain’s future relations with the EU on September 21, Juncker couldn’t have been clearer: it’s been a barrel of laughs but it’s time to go. So long and take care.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017

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