European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of the Union speech at the European Parliament on September 12, 2018 in Strasbourg, eastern France. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN
Europe must become a “global player” with a muscular foreign policy to match its economic strength, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Wednesday, in his annual address to the bloc’s parliament.
Juncker used his State of the EU speech to the Strasbourg body to call for Europe to stand up for the international order in the face of “trade and currency wars”, in a swipe at US President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach.
Europe’s ability to take strong diplomatic action is often hampered by the need to get agreement from all 28 member countries so, in a bid to simplify the process, Juncker announced plans to abolish the need for unanimity on some foreign policy issues.
With Brussels and Washington at loggerheads on a host of major issues from trade tariffs to the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Juncker said it was time for Europe to play a more influential role on the world stage.
“We must become a greater global actor,” the head of the EU executive told lawmakers in French, before switching to English to add: “Yes we are global payers, but we have to be global players too.”
The EU must do more to push the euro as a world currency, Juncker said, questioning why Europe pays 80 percent of its energy bills in dollars when only two percent of energy imports come from the United States.
Boosting the role of the euro as a reserve currency would also boost Brussels’ diplomatic power by creating a means of skirting US sanctions that it disagrees with, such as those slapped back on Tehran by Trump when he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year in the face of bitter European opposition.
A European diplomat said in advance of the speech that Juncker knows it is a “critical” moment to prepare Europe for a world in which Trump’s United States is an unpredictable foreign policy friend and a protectionist trade rival.
Juncker urge the EU to strike a “new alliance” with Africa that would create millions of jobs and include a free trade deal — a move Brussels hopes would both showcase its international influence and help to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.
10,000 border guards
Juncker’s showpiece speech is his last before May elections that will pit Europe’s rising populist forces against his centrist supporters, and he issued a rallying cry to maintain a “continent of tolerance and openness”.
Populist, nationalist and eurosceptic forces have gained ground in many countries, and the polls for the European parliament could well bring in more of Juncker’s opponents to rock the boat just as he tries to consolidate what he sees as real successes in restoring forward momentum to the European project.
As part of efforts to tackle the issue of illegal immigration, which has done much to fuel populist sentiment since the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, Juncker confirmed plans to revamp the bloc’s border protection.
“The European Commission is today proposing to strengthen the European Border and Coast Guard to better protect our external borders with an additional 10,000 European border guards by 2020,” Juncker said.
The set-piece speech was Juncker’s fourth such state of the union. He leaves office on October 31 next year after a term marked by crisis after crisis: a refugee influx, soaring debt and Brexit.
Juncker said he respected Britain’s choice to leave, but undermined a key part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to quit the bloc, warning London it cannot expect to selectively remain in parts of the single market.
“We… ask the British government to understand that someone who leaves the union can not be in the same privileged position as a member state,” he said, while welcoming May’s proposal for an “ambitious new partnership” based on a future free trade agreement.