The European Union is in its strongest position in a decade, but it must act quickly to capitalize on this and avoid past shortcomings, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has said.
Delivering his keynote State of the European Union address Wednesday, Juncker outlined a number of measures the union must implement in order to build a “stronger, more democratic Europe” by 2025.
Chief among them was the appointment of an overarching European Minister of Economy and Finance to promote structural reforms and step in should any member states be hit by a recession or major crisis.
The new minister would assume the responsibility for all EU financial instruments available in such instances, building on the groundwork laid by the European Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service since 2015.
He or she would also be the chairman of the Eurogroup – the collective term for all Eurozone finance ministers – and report directly to the European Parliament.
“I am not calling for a new position just for the sake of it. I am calling for efficiency,” Juncker noted. “The Commissioner for economic and financial affairs – ideally also a Vice-President – should assume the role of Economy and Finance Minister. He or she should also preside the Eurogroup.”
The announcement comes as part of a wider economic reform agenda, which promoters, Juncker among them, say will help the Eurozone mitigate the risks of suffering another regional downturn like that caused by the financial crisis ten years ago.
This includes integrating the EU’s current European Stabilisation Mechanism (ESM), the Eurozone’s bailout fund, into a wider European Monetary Fund (EMF).
Juncker said further details of the EMF would be outlined by the Commission in December. However, he dismissed the idea, proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, of launching a separate budget and parliament exclusively for Eurozone members, i.e. those member states that share the euro.
“We do not need parallel structures. We do not need a budget for the Euro area but a strong Euro area budget line within the EU budget,” Juncker said.
“I am also not fond of the idea of having a separate euro area parliament. The Parliament of the euro area is the European Parliament,” he added.
The rejection is an attempt by Juncker to prevent divisions among the Eurozone’s 19 member states and the wider group of 27 EU members once Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.
Juncker applauded the EU-27 for their continued commitment to the union, and said this had been reflected in the region’s improved economic performance.
EU economic growth has surpassed that of the U.S. for the past two years, reaching 2.2 percent within the Eurozone and 2 percent across the wider EU, Juncker noted. Unemployment has also hit a nine-year-low.
He also said the union would do more to further integrate Eastern European and newer members, bringing Romania, Bulgaria and, eventually, Croatia, into the Schengen area – an agreement which abolishes passport control among member states.
“The wind is back in Europe’s sails,” Juncker said. “We now have 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.”
To embrace this opportunity, Juncker said the EU must drive ahead with its many prospective trade partnerships.
“Partners across the globe are lining up at our door to conclude trade agreements with us,” Juncker commented, noting that Australia and New Zealand would be at the front of the queue.
“Today, we are proposing to open trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. I would like these trade agreements to be completed by the end of our mandate.
This would mean setting in place a deal by 2019, when Juncker’s first term ends. The President has already stated that he will not seek a second term.
He also proposed striking a political deal on trade with Mexico and South American countries by the end of the year. EU officials are currently in talks to update a 17-year-old free trade accord with Mexico and create its first accord with Mercosur, the collective group comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
This comes as the U.K. is eager to strike its own free trade deals post-Brexit. However, EU rules mean that it can’t sign deals until it has left the bloc.
Juncker said that such new EU deals would be crucial to further job creation within the bloc, but added that they must be built on reciprocity.
“Europe is open to trade but there must be reciprocity. We have to get as much back as we put in,” he said.
Amid talk of further global cohesion, however, Juncker said that the EU would not consider allowing Turkey to join for the “foreseeable future.”
Referencing Turkey’s controversial move to expand President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers, Juncker said the state had undermined citizens’ fundamental democratic rights.
“In Europe, law has muscle, it’s not muscle that lays down the law,” he said.
“Our union is not a state but it’s still governed by the rule of law,” he continued. “And that rules out membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future.”
Here is Juncker’s list of demands as he sets out roadmap for EU growth