European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pushed to expand Europe’s global economic footprint in a sign of growing confidence that the political threats posed by Brexit and populism can be curtailed.
Juncker, who leads the European Union’s executive arm, proposed to start EU free-trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, give the bloc a role in screening foreign investments and deepen euro-area integration.
The initiatives, outlined in an annual State of the Union speech, come as British Prime Minister Theresa May struggles for leverage in negotiations on leaving the EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks set for a fourth term. The policy rush also follows a series of national ballot wins by pro-EU forces including French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Europe can deliver for its citizens when and where it matters,” Juncker said in his televised address on Wednesday in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “We’ve been slowly but surely gathering momentum.”
New Trade Talks
The EU wants to snuff out centrifugal forces that have weakened since they propelled the Brexit vote and rattled Europe’s mainstream political parties in 2016. In the same address a year ago, Juncker warned of “galloping populism” and defended the very idea of European integration begun in the 1950s to avoid a repeat of devastating wars on the continent.
Global developments may also have turned in the EU’s favor. With U.S. President Donald Trump challenging the trans-Atlantic order and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un testing nuclear bombs, Europe is presenting itself as a bastion of stability.
“The wind is back in Europe’s sails,” said Juncker, whose hour-long speech prompted numerous outbreaks of applause by members of the 751-seat EU Parliament. “We have now a window of opportunity.”
Juncker said he would ask EU governments for the authority to begin market-opening negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. His plan comes on the heels of a provisional EU free-trade accord with Japan and a week before a hard-fought European deal with Canada enters into force.
He also proposed an EU framework to screen foreign investments in Europe when concerns arise about unfair competition, particularly in strategic industries. A divisive issue among EU governments that could take years to negotiate, the measure is a political reward for Macron after he defeated far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election and his upstart centrist party secured a majority in a subsequent parliamentary ballot.
“If a foreign public business wants to buy a strategic European part of our energy infrastructure or one of our businesses in, for example, defense technology, that can only happen in full transparency via a deep examination and debate,” Juncker said. “This is our political responsibility to know what is happening here in order to be able, if we need, to protect our collective security.”
Saying the EU was recovering from its “battered and bruised” state in 2016, he signaled the U.K. would regret its decision to leave the bloc in March 2019 and said the step would mark a “a very sad and tragic moment.”
Juncker alluded to an ongoing EU dispute with Poland over democratic standards that some observers believe could be as big a threat to the bloc as Brexit.
Poland is subject to the commission’s first-ever probe of an EU country over the rule of law because of concern that the governing Law & Justice party is undermining judicial independence. The inquiry includes a threat to strip the Polish government of its EU voting rights.
“In Europe, law has muscle,” Juncker said. “It’s not muscle that lays down the law. And that means that, in Europe, the law is safeguarded by an independent judiciary.”
Other overhauls to the bloc that Juncker proposed:
-The creation of a European finance and economy minister post that would merge the role of the European commissioner for economic affairs and the chair of the group of euro-area finance ministers
-The election of a single EU President, by merging the roles of the chair of EU summits — the European Council president — and the commission president
-The establishment of a European cyber security agency
-Equal pay for posted workers and the creation of an EU labor authority
-Common standards for consumer products sold anywhere in the EU
-Opening the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania
-Scrapping the unanimity required for legislation related to value-added tax, digital taxation and financial transaction; decisions would be taken by a weighted — or “qualified” — majority of the EU’s 27 remaining states
-Transition the European Stability Mechanism, the euro area’s financial backstop, into a European Monetary Fund