Last Wednesday, the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker gave his speech on the State Of The European Union in front of the Parliament. His address was centered around the belief (indeed a fact according to his words) that after a disastrous 2016, finally Europe is gathering a new momentum and a window of opportunity is disclosing in front of it.
Mr. Juncker was surely right when he said that the EU is in a much better shape today than a year ago, both from a political and an economic point of view, yet, he might have been a bit too much optimistic in how we are dealing with our problems. Especially for what concerns political stability and illegal immigration.
With regard to political stability, the President of the Commission seems pretty confident that the clouds of populist movements have finally disappeared over the blue sky of Europe, blown away by the Dutch elections and the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France. However, it is worth noticing that far-right parties, though not successful in their attempts to win elections, are still growing while traditional ones are struggling to stay in power. France is explicative in that sense. The Front National may not have won the elections, but it succeeded in achieving the most important electoral result in its whole history and, maybe more striking, neither of the two historical French parties, Les Republicains on the right and Le Partie Socialist on the left, was able to reach the second round of the presidential election. This stands as an unicum in French recent history and it is not confined to that country. In the Netherlands, where the victory of the conservatives was hailed as the signal of Europe’s resistance to the rhetoric that triumphed in UK for the referendum on the EU and in US for the presidential election, the Labour Party nearly disappeared and the Party for Freedom of Mr. Geert Wilders managed to secure the second place with 13% of the votes and an increase of 5 seats in the Parliament.
But that’s not all. Spain is struggling to maintain its control over Catalonia were the regional government has called for a referendum for independence on the 1st of October, although Spanish Supreme Court has ruled out such a possibility and the government of Madrid has underlined multiple times that it will not consider it as valid and that it would do whatever is in its power to prevent it from taking place.
Finally, the open dispute with Eastern European countries, like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland should not be forgotten. These states have come to clash with European guidelines and laws especially on the issue over the relocation of refugees arrived in Italy and Greece, with the European Court of Justice ruling against Hungary and Slovakia over their decision not to accept the quotas set in 2015. On the other hand, Poland has been strongly criticized for its government’s attempts to centralize power, reducing the autonomy of judges with a controversial constitutional reform, that eventually was not approved in its integrity.
The attritions with these countries could be fatal to any further integration process, especially if the possibility of a multi-speed Europe is not considered as a viable path, as Juncker has explicitly stated. However, if the risks of having some countries integrating more and more while others are left behind are real and clear to all, the idea that all 27 countries will set aside their disputes and move towards a financial and political Union is at least a bit naïve. The last ten years of stasis of the integrating process should have taught us that the EU has given too much importance to widening instead of deepening, at the expenses of the latter.
Then, we come to the issue of illegal immigration. Mr. Juncker has been very clear during his speech in delineating Europe’s (and Italy’s) efforts in rescuing and hosting refugees, focusing on the importance of solidarity (it is remarkable that he repeated this word 9 times in a bunch of seconds). To his merit, he has also been very clear in proposing new ways to open legal pathways to come to Europe in order to reduce illegal ones, and in denouncing the conditions in which immigrants are treated in Libya. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that the EU backed the accords with Libyan factions to prevent immigrants from reaching the shores of the country and sail to Italy, although the fact that this would have resulted in extensive human rights violations was clear since the beginning (as it happened in 2008, when an accord was signed between Italy and Qaddafi’s regime). On this issue, Europe acted incoherently, failing to acknowledge the entity of the problem and to listen more carefully to the proposals of the Italian government to look for a broader cooperation with the involvement of North African countries until these last months.
In conclusion, the European Union does not seem in such good shape as described by President Juncker, but the message of its speech remains a potential turning point of its history. Moreover, what the President argued concerning economic expansion is true, and the proposals for a common Labour Authority can be a first step for the solution of convergence problems between Western and Eastern member states.
Although one can disagree, as I do, on some of his arguments, his courage in relaunching European integration can only be welcomed with warm and hope in a better future. “We started to fix the roof. But we must complete the job now that the sun is shining and whilst it still is” concludes the President of the Commission, explaining that Europe must take advantage of this new wind before it is too late and the storm strikes back, as it will do if nothing changes.