Juncker rallies support for EU in State of Union address

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Jean-Claude Juncker has used his State of the Union speech to attack populism and urge unity within the EU. He also outlined an agenda for the future of the bloc for the first time since the UK Brexit referendum.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sought to reassure EU leaders on Wednesday that the bloc was not about to break up, despite uncertainty triggered by Britain’s vote to leave.

“We respect and at the same time regret the UK (Brexit) decision. But the EU as such is not at risk,” Juncker said in his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Still, he stressed that the Brexit referendum on June 23 should serve as a warning that nationalism in Europe poses a threat to unity.

“The European Union doesn’t have enough union,” Juncker told lawmakers. “Far too often national interests are brought to the fore…there are splits out there and often fragmentation exists where we need further effort from the union, and that is leaving room for galloping populism.”

The 61-year-old head of the EU’s executive arm called on Britain to take steps as soon as possible so that official divorce negotiations could begin. He said he wanted ties with London to “remain on a friendly basis,” but added that the UK should not expect to get the same access to the EU’s unified market as it did before.

The highly anticipated speech comes at a challenging time for the EU. Besides carving a way forward without Britain, the bloc is also grappling with the threat of terrorism and the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Policies for the future

In his speech, Juncker also unveiled a number of measures aimed to boost prosperity and security in the EU. He proposed doubling the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) to 630 billion euros ($707 billion) by 2022 in a bid to boost the economy.

“Investment means jobs. Today, we propose to double the duration of the fund and to double its financial capacity,” he said.

He also put forward plans for a new fund with an initial pot of 44 million euros to foster the private sector in Africa as way of curbing emigration to Europe.

Juncker called on EU leaders to show more solidarity in confronting the migrant crisis, and urged states to complete the setting up of a European Border and Coast Guard.

He also said the EU needed to be more “social,” and needed to do more to help young people hit by the eurozone debt crisis in southern Europe.

Meeting in Bratislava

Juncker’s address before European Parliament aimed to set the scene for a special summit of the 27 EU leaders in Bratislava on Friday. At that meeting, leaders are set to start working on a roadmap for the future, including a joint initiative by France and Germany for a “more active” European defense policy without Britain.

In a summit invitation letter published late Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk said it would be a “fatal error” for the EU to ignore the lessons of Brexit, adding that Bratislava should be a “turning point” for securing the EU’s borders.

nm/kms (Reuters, AFP)

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