The State of the (European) Union

by George Hatjoullis

Listening to Jean-Claude Juncker give the State of the Union speech I got the distinct impression he had read my blog posts on the irrelevance of the EU and decided to act. The WordPress break-down of reader origins does list a regular reader from a country called ‘EU’ so maybe he has been taking note (what is this entity referenced as the EU by WordPress?)! Whatever prompted him, he does address the charge of irrelevance.

The focus of his speech is the refugee crisis. At first I thought this was an experiment to see how much hot air it would take to float a lead balloon. The speech started on a tricky note. JCJ reiterated his desire to lead a very political commission. This is less controversial than it might sound. The European Commission is more than a civil service (mischievous Tweets from me notwithstanding). The EC controls the legislative agenda sent before the European Parliament. The power to set the agenda is political power. His desire to use this power more than his predecessors says more about them than JCJ.

The telling line from JCJ was that there is not enough union in this Union. He states boldly that in relation to the refugee crisis the EU must act as a Union and not a collection of states and that the people of many countries that reject refugees now have experienced being refugees. Indeed the whole of Europe has known what it is to be refugees. Building barriers will not keep desperate people out so it is time to (pro-actively) manage the crisis. It turns out that the EU has already legislated common standards for dealing with asylum seekers. Who knew? Certainly not obvious from what has been seen in the media. JCJ is suggesting the EC will now enforce these standards (begging the question why it has not already done so).

The frontline states (Hungary, Italy and Greece) will no longer be expected to cope without support (why were they ever?). There can be no religion or ethnicity when it comes to refugees so selectivity will not be tolerated.Winter is approaching so action needs to be substantial and prompt ( if four years late). Refugees will be separated from economic migrants using  safe country status (he has been reading my blogs!). This does not deprive individuals of the right to asylum but it does allow the authorities to prioritise those from countries that we know are unsafe (Syria and Libya I guess though I would add Yemen). JCJ added the reminder that countries that are not viewed as safe by the EU will not be considered for membership, so it best not to be on this list if you have ambition to join. JCJ also acknowledged that the Dublin system, whereby asylum applications are dealt with by the first country of entry, needs fundamental reform. JCJ wants a permanent refugee policy and greater security for the EU borders. He also speaks of a more assertive EU foreign policy. Amen to this!

The ambition of JCJ is correct. Success however is not guaranteed as there are many member states that are hostile to what he is proposing. It is a humanitarian crisis and many humans will suffer if the JCJ fails to galvanise the EU into being more of a union. For many years we thought that the eurozone crisis was a defining moment for the EU. The refugee crisis is the defining moment.