Juncker vows Brexit won’t kill off European Union, unveils plans for military headquarters
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday issued a rallying cry for unity after Brexit, saying the EU is not in danger of splitting up but must fight “galloping populism”.
In his annual State of the Union speech, Juncker unveiled plans including a European Union defence headquarters in a bid to find common ground after a year of crisis and division in the bloc.
“The European Union still does not have enough union,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, adding that the “next 12 months are the crucial time to deliver”.
“There are splits out there and often fragmentation where we need further union – that is leaving space for galloping populism,” he added, in a speech that mixed German, French and English.
Juncker’s keenly-awaited speech comes two days before the 27 EU leaders meet without Britain in the Slovakian capital Bratislava, for a summit aimed at drawing up a roadmap for the future after the British vote to leave the bloc.
The head of the EU executive warned Britain it could not expect “a la carte” access to the EU’s single market if it brings back immigration controls, signalling a wider hardening of Europe’s position ahead of negotiations with London.
“We respect and at the same time regret the UK decision, but the European Union as such is not at risk,” said Juncker, who officially launched the Commission’s Brexit “task force” on Wednesday.
Juncker also hit back at rising nationalism and racism, referring to the recent killing of a Polish man in Britain with the words: “We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered on the streets of Harlow.”
But his speech was greeted with disdain by populist leaders in the European Parliament, who accused the EU of failing to deal with a raft of problems including the migration crisis and a stagnant economy.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party which led the push for Brexit, criticised the focus on “military Europe” and said that “having listened to you, I am pleased we voted to leave”.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said Juncker had “refused to listen to the huge desire of European people to get their independence back”.
With EU nations deeply divided in particular by the continent’s biggest migration crisis since the second world war, Juncker’s speech focused on security and the economy to find ways of working together post-Brexit.
“We must have a European HQ and ... work towards a common military force,” said Juncker, referring to plans that have long faced British hostility and which will come up at Friday’s summit.
He stressed however that this should be “complementary with Nato” in reference to concerns that the EU will be treading on the toes of the US-led military alliance, which is also based in Brussels.
Juncker meanwhile proposed doubling the size of his signature investment plan to €630 billion (US$708 billion), and announced measures to help young people hit by the eurozone debt crisis.
He also called for a new EU border and coast guard force to start work quickly with 200 guards and 50 vehicles deployed in Bulgaria by October, after a year in which more than a million refugees and migrants reached the EU.
He announced an ambitious investment plan for African countries to stem the migration crisis, too.
But the difficulties of keeping Europe united were underscored on the eve of Juncker’s speech when Luxembourg’s foreign minister said Hungary should be suspended from the EU for treating refugees like “animals”.
Juncker’s performance in front of 751 MEPs was closely scrutinised amid speculation he has health concerns, despite strong denials by him and his spokespeople.
His speech sets the stage for Friday’s Bratislava summit where leaders will study a joint defence plan by France and Germany and other post-Brexit security plans.
In a summit invitation letter published late on Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk said it would be a “fatal error” for the EU to ignore the lessons of Brexit and urged the bloc to be less “politically correct” on migration.