STRASBOURG (AFP) – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a flagship speech yesterday that the “wind is back in Europe’s sails” after last year’s shock Brexit vote, an act he insisted Britain would regret.
In his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Mr Juncker said the troubled bloc had become more united in the past 12 months and stressed that economic momentum was picking up.
The former Luxembourg premier urged deeper integration across the board, calling for more states to join the euro and the passport-free Schengen area, and proposing a single EU chief and dedicated pan-European finance minister.
“All this leads me to believe the wind is back in Europe’s sails,” Mr Juncker told MEPs in the French city of Strasbourg, in a speech that mixed English, French and German.
“We have now a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails.”
Mr Juncker did not utter the word “Brexit” until the very end of his 80-minute speech, saying that “we will regret it, but you will regret it too”, earning jeers from British eurosceptics in the chamber.
“We must respect the will of the British people, but we will move forward, we will move forward – because Brexit is not everything, because Brexit is not the future of Europe,” the veteran politician added.
British eurosceptic leader Nigel Farage responded to Mr Juncker’s plans by telling him: “Thank God we’re leaving – you’ve learnt nothing from Brexit.”
While a future EU-UK trade deal remains a distant prospect, Mr Juncker called on the bloc to seal trade deals with Australia and New Zealand by the end of his mandate.
The 62-year-old has two years left in office as head of the EU’s powerful executive arm to ensure that his legacy is not limited to the departure of one of the European Union’s largest member states.
He struck a far more optimistic tone than when he stood at the podium in September 2016, admitting then that “it was plain for all to see that our union was not in a good state, battered by a year that shook our very foundations”.
With the rise of populism – after Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump – apparently at bay for now, and growth returning after the debt crisis, Mr Juncker said there were reasons to be cheerful.
He looked ahead to the day after Britain’s departure on March 29, 2019, saying Europe should “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the harbour” – and have another summit, in Romania.
Mr Juncker called for an elected “single president” to lead the EU, merging his job as head of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, and the president of the European Council of member states, currently held by Donald Tusk.
He said Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia should all finally become full members of the Schengen zone, which allows free movement of people and open borders between European countries.
The eurozone should meanwhile be expanded beyond the 19 countries that currently use the single currency, in line with the EU’s treaties that say all states must join the euro.
Mr Juncker furthermore backed French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a pan-European finance minister, a big step towards deeper integration of the eurozone, whose proponents want to see further united to tackle any future crisis.
His call for increased cooperation was however balanced with the need to heal a deepening split with eastern European countries that resist any move to further integration.
Mr Juncker nevertheless lashed out at EU countries that breach the “rule of law” – a swipe at Poland and Hungary which have been at odds with Brussels over democratic standards.
Turkey was also on the receiving end of Mr Juncker’s barbs, as he urged Ankara to “let our journalists go” following the jailing of several European reporters.
“Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons. They belong where freedom of expression reigns,” Mr Juncker said.
Turkey’s own long-stalled membership bid was ruled out “for the forseeable future” as a result of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown following a coup attempt last year, he said.