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Reading between the lines of Juncker’s State of the Union speech

26th September 2017

Brussels traditionally empties for the month of August, with EU diplomats, lawmakers, lobbyists and lawyers departing for mimosas in sunnier climates. However, one light stayed on throughout the summer recess, buried deep within the European Commission Berlaymont building. Enter Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech writers and private advisors.

The European Commission President’s State of the Union address is one of the most important political moments of the EU’s annual calendar. Setting the course for the EU’s political and policy priorities for the year to come, it generally contains high-level rhetoric about ever deeper integration and collaboratively addressing EU-wide challenges. This year was a little different.

Against the backdrop of Brexit, migration challenges and a growing drift from a US under Donald Trump, Mr Juncker made his State of the Union speech on 13 September. He started with a forthright message that compared to last year, the EU is in a strong position. Rattling off impressive statistics about economic recovery and growth, record-low unemployment, falling public deficits and increased investment capacity, Mr Juncker sought to send one message from the outset: the Single Market is back in business, and growing. He highlighted (debatable) legislative progress in five key areas of integration: energy, security, capital markets, banking and digital, noting that 80% of reforms have been tabled and the remaining 20% will come by May 2018.

He noted that Europe is a top priority for foreign countries in terms of securing trade deals, signalling Australia and New Zealand as the next negotiations. He touted the extension of the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania and the euro to all Member States, voiced support for possible enlargement to the Western Balkans, but confirmed that Turkey’s accession requests will be met with a flat “non”.

In a departure from previous years, Mr Juncker’s address referenced many new concrete policy initiatives, such as measures to screen foreign direct investment in the event of security concerns and to reform the financing of political parties and NGOs. In doing so, Mr Juncker positioned the EU as a platform for efficient economic and societal change rather than an anachronistic bureaucracy marred by inefficiencies and inequalities – something for which it has long been criticised.

Britain’s withdrawal was mentioned exactly once, at the very end. This appears to have been deliberate, with Mr Juncker declining to reference the ongoing negotiations with Westminster or the EU’s priorities. By describing Brexit as a   “very sad and tragic moment”, but one which the EU will respect, he sought to take the moral high ground rather than going on the offensive. The latter, of course, is widely viewed as the EU’s strategy behind closed doors. By refusing to directly address Britain, or the British people, this year’s State of the Union’s message seemed loud and clear: ‘You’re leaving, we’re sad, but we will survive and be stronger for it.’ While pubic political speeches will not drive the Brexit negotiations, it does give a useful insight into the mindset in Brussels as we head into further negotiations.

Grayling Team

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