STRASBOURG (Reuters) - EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker warned divided Europeans on Wednesday that their Union was in an “existential crisis” after Britain’s vote to quit and said leaders must pull together to stop it unraveling.
In his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, the Commission president said the bloc was not about to disappear - “the EU as such is not at risk” - but its ability to steer common policies was jeopardize by splits, so that it was “at least in part, in an existential crisis”.
Though addressed to mainly sympathetic EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, his message was aimed squarely at the 27 national leaders who will meet on Friday in Bratislava to try and find a way forward following the decision of the absent 28th member state, Britain, to leave the bloc in June’s Brexit referendum.
“Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next elections,” said the former Luxembourg premier, a 30-year veteran of EU politics, referring to eurosceptics across Europe drawing inspiration from the British rejection of the EU.
“There are splits out there and often fragmentation,” he added. “That is leaving scope for galloping populism.”
The coming year sees Dutch, French and German elections, and anti-EU groups are riding high in polls. That limits appetite for big ideas from the Commission, however much Juncker sees his role as delivering proposals that governments can unite around.
While leaders were chasing votes by echoing eurosceptic opponents, Juncker said, only by cooperating to revive growth, strengthen trade, fight terrorism and secure EU borders could they “regain the trust” of citizens in their shared enterprise.
“Europeans are tired of the endless disputes, quarrels and bickering,” he said. “Europeans want concrete solutions.”
In an admission of weakness from a man who a year ago tried, but failed, to force countries to accept mandatory quotas of asylum-seekers as a million arrived in Greece, he conceded he lacked power to impose unity and must appeal to states for solidarity.
As a result, the executive offered a legislative program focused on modest areas of common ground. It included extending the “Juncker plan” for EU seed capital to bolster investment, a smaller scheme to help African business and so, perhaps, ease migration pressure, and reforms to promote the digital economy.
Juncker also highlighted recent EU decisions to show the Union working for ordinary voters - such as by handing Apple Inc a massive tax bill or scrapping planned curbs on mobile phone roaming that were seen as too soft on big telecom firms.
The Commission revived ideas for more cooperation among EU armies, now that British objections no longer count. Not all remaining member states are keen but EU defense projects can mean coalitions of the willing. The focus will be on pooling military equipment and promoting defense research.
Among eye-catching small initiatives was a proposal for a European Solidarity Corps to let young people, many of whom are suffering from stubbornly high youth unemployment, volunteer to help in crises like Italian earthquakes or Greek migrant camps.
There was, too, a promise of “free wireless internet” in every European village by 2020. There was little detail on that and the digital arena remains a battlefield fought over by competing industrial, national and other interests.
Juncker confirmed plans to promote funding of high-speed broadband and 5G mobile networks and to revise copyright for content posted online.
The 48-minute speech drew a standing ovation from the main parties in an assembly dominated by supporters of closer European integration, but there was scorn from eurosceptics, including Marine Le Pen, the French National Front leader, and Nigel Farage, the triumphant Brexit campaigner from UKIP.
The pro-Brexit British Conservative leader, Syed Kamall, was also dismissive of “the same mantra” of more EU integration.
“The more you propagate EU supranationalism, the more nationalism has risen in our member states,” he said.
Le Pen described Juncker’s downbeat assessment of the state of the Union as “like a funeral for the EU”. Farage seized on an ethics probe by Juncker into his predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso for taking a job at Goldman Sachs, to revive his accusation that the EU is run like a cozy club for big business.
Commission officials acknowledge that more ambitious plans to address key problems, such as the stability of the euro zone and coordination of national budgets, remain on hold until after next year’s elections due to a split between a German-led north keen on austerity and a southern bloc with heavier debts.
On migration, asylum and borders issue, the Commission stuck to calls to implement existing policy, including a plan to share out refugees that is opposed by many in the east.
The Juncker address offered few clues to the talks with London that he insists cannot start until British Prime Minister Theresa May formally starts a two-year countdown to departure.
Juncker urged haste on that and reiterated the EU position that Britain could not retain its full EU market access if it blocks free immigration from the EU.
“There can be no a la carte access to the single market,” he said of British hopes to cut immigration and keep free trade.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Alissa de Carbonnel, Jan Strupczewski, Marilyn Haigh, Francesco Guarascio, Foo Yun Chee and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Pravin Char