AFP – 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 back against “galloping populism.”
In his annual State of the Union speech, Juncker unveiled a raft of economic and security proposals to find common ground after a year of crisis, including a European Union defense headquarters.
“The European Union still does not have enough union,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “There are splits out there and often fragmentation where we need further union, that is leaving space for galloping populism.”
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 head of the EU executive urged Britain to trigger its formal divorce as quickly as possible so that both sides can move on to face the challenges of a dangerous and uncertain world.
“We respect and at the same time regret the UK decision, but the European Union as such is not at risk,” said Juncker, who spoke in a mixture of German, French and English during the speech.
The 61-year-old former Luxembourg prime minister called for ties to “remain on a friendly basis” but warned London could not expect “a la carte” access to the EU’s single market if it brings back immigration controls.
Juncker also hit out 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.”
With Europe increasingly divided by issues ranging from the migration crisis to terrorism, Juncker’s speech focused on security and the economy to find ways that EU nations can work together.
Juncker said there “must be a European HQ and work toward a common military force” — both plans that Britain had long been hostile to 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 euros ($708 billion), and announced measures to help young people hit by the euro zone debt crisis.
With Europe facing its biggest migration crisis since World War II, Juncker 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.
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 won polite applause for his speech from MEPs, but was savaged by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party which led the push for Brexit.
“Having listened to you, I am pleased we voted to leave,” Farage said. “It was the usual recipe, more Europe — and in this particular case, more military Europe.”
Juncker’s performance in front of 751 MEPs was meanwhile closely scrutinized amid speculation he has health concerns, despite strong denials by him and his spokespeople.
EU leaders are trying to steady the ship after Britain’s shock June 23 vote to become the first country to leave the union, already buffeted by a perfect storm of globalization, terrorism and mass migrant flows.
At the Bratislava summit, they will start work on a roadmap for the future, including a joint plan by France and Germany for a “more active” European defense policy now that an always reluctant Britain is on the way out.
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 and urged the bloc to be less “politically correct” on migration.