The Whitehouse Consultancy

By Sabrina Huck, Political Consultant

The UK has the Queen’s speech – the European Union has the annual State of the Union address.

Delivered by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker’s performance might be lacking pomp and circumstance in comparison to the State Opening of Parliament, but it serves a similar purpose in setting out the framework for the Commission‘s political work in the upcoming year.

Yesterday, President Juncker addressed MEPs in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, setting out his vision for Europe’s future.

Opposing a European Union of two speeds

Juncker made clear that, if he gets his way, a multi-speed Europe – the idea that certain member states can go ahead with further integration whilst others may opt out – is dead in the water.

In a relatively bold and ambitious speech, he called for the combination of the presidencies of the Commission and Council to make the EU more transparent and accountable, also insisting on the need for a European Defence Union by 2025 and the creation of a European Finance Minister. He also argued the Euro was created as the single currency to “unite not divide.” Every member state should join the Euro according to Juncker – helped by a newly-established Euro-accession Instrument – and the Banking Union.

Sailing through stormy waters

Despite Juncker‘s efforts to deliver a positive and uplifting State of the Union speech, political developments in Hungary and Poland are still a huge cause for concern in Brussels. The EU, Juncker argued, will do more to bridge the gap between Western and Eastern Europe, but in return, member states need to fulfil their responsibilities and uphold the rule of law too.

The migration crisis – despite vanishing from the headlines in many member states – continues to play a significant role for those states at the front line. Italy and Greece particularly, but also Spain and Bulgaria, struggle as the first point of entry for refugees and asylum seekers. Juncker called on more solidarity from other member states, emphasising that common borders also mean common responsibilities.

Brexit as the closing act

Poland and Hungary are more likely to jeopardise Juncker’s vision than Brexit. Brexit was only mentioned at the end of the speech, when Juncker called for a summit of the EU27 to be held on 30 March 2019, the day after Britain will officially leave the bloc.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year sent shockwaves through the Brussels establishment. It was clear that this historic moment put the EU at a crossroad: either it will come out of Brexit stronger and revitalised, or the political damage could threaten the collapse of the project.

UK eurosceptics believe Brexit could economically damage the EU to such an extent that negotiators would eventually give in and grant Britain favourable trade terms in an exit deal. But instead of doing everything they can to keep Britain as close as possible, it has become clear that the EU has understood that “Brexit means Brexit” – and it will make the most of it.

Brexit is understood as not a disaster, but as the opportunity to push for closer cooperation and deeper integration. And for some member states, Brexit is not the most pressing issue on their own political agenda anyway. This is the mindset which has driven EU negotiations from day one – much to the surprise of UK politicians and commentators.

This could be bad news for UK negotiators. Those who believe that the EU will eventually accept a Brexit deal which will grant Britain full access to the single market without abiding by all its rules need to understand that the integrity of the European project is paramount to EU negotiators.

For many European leaders, the European project is about more than just trade. They see the EU as a union of shared values, based on freedom, equality and the rule of law.

No salvation from Germany

Throughout its EU membership, the UK grew accustomed to special treatment. Opt-outs from Schengen and the Euro, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s infamous rebate, were granted to the UK as a member state, but it is unlikely that such privileges will be awarded to Brexit Britain.

It’s time to face the music: British negotiators need to understand that European big-hitters such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron will not come to Britain’s aid over trade if it risks European reform and unity. The pair are expected to roll out plans for far-reaching European reform after the German elections in a bid to revitalise the Franco-German friendship as the driver behind European integration.

In his speech, Juncker called for the creation of a European Minister of the Economy and Finance and advocated for all EU members to eventually join the Euro. Whilst some prominent political figures in Britain are penning thought pieces based on a fictional scenario in which the EU would reform freedom of movement for Britain to better manage European immigration, Juncker is advocating to fully open the Schengen area to Bulgaria and Romania immediately. Instead of restricting worker’s mobility across the Single Market, he wants a common Labour Authority to ensure employers are playing by the rules.

Whilst Brexit will be a “sad and tragic moment”, in its history, the bloc is ready to move on. Brexit might be a big issue, but it certainly isn’t everything.

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