Jean-Claude Juncker takes to the European Parliament podium in Strasbourg Wednesday to address the state of a union at once more powerful and more divided than ever.
The Commission president recognized as much in a speech to the Parliament last October, when he started his term by saying this is the “last‑chance Commission: either we will succeed in bringing our citizens closer to Europe, or we will fail.” Now he must face the music, amid several ongoing crises.
Those words are likely to come back to haunt Juncker Wednesday as he endures a grilling from parliamentarians across the political spectrum, including the charismatic Euroskeptics Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
Success will not bring much relief, but failure may see the speech remembered as the moment the European Union began to disintegrate.
Here are five things to watch as the speech unfolds:
Unlike the annual U.S. State of the Union speech, which is broadcast in prime-time on major networks, the EU’s version takes place at 9 a.m. and airs live on only a few channels— mainly the subscription-based Euronews, which is partially EU-funded, and on a website set up by the EU institutions. (POLITICO will offer a live stream of the speech as well as extensive coverage).
So as Juncker tries to get across the message that the EU is important to peoples’ lives, the key question will be: Is anybody out there watching it?
While the Parliament has created a dedicated website for the speech to spark a continental conversation, it does not seem to be catching on. A large chunk of the 3,000 tweets tagged with #SOTEU as of mid-afternoon Tuesday have been written by the EU’s own publicity arms and national offices. Criticism of previous SOTEU speeches by Nigel Farage is by far the most popular SOTEU social media content.
Yet there are plenty of powerful ears paying attention. Ministers in many EU countries use cues from the annual speech to calibrate their own policy and spending plans for the year ahead. A 2015 example is that of Romania, which has declined to take a stand on the refugee crisis until Juncker lays out his new plan.
Parliament claims it will hold Juncker accountable for the priorities he announced before taking office last November.
The assembly’s civil servants have already armed MEPs with a research guide to where they think Juncker has succeeded and failed on his priority issues. The briefing contends that the Commission president has real achievements to his credit, such as the rapid shepherding of the Juncker Investment Plan through the EU’s institutional maze.
Additionally the Parliament’s research argues that Juncker has largely met the first five of his ten commitments, including establishing plans to improve energy and digital networks. However, these achievements are overshadowed by efforts at a “deeper and fairer monetary union” that have flopped — and by the headline-consuming Greek crisis.
Migration, transatlantic trade, and justice plans are also falling off-track, according to the Parliament’s guide.
Juncker’s task will be to prove that his team has remained focused on the list of priorities and made progress despite crises, and show how things will get better in 2016. The priority list is thus the pivot for both looking back and looking forward to the Commission’s list of new initiatives for 2016, finalized in Strasbourg Tuesday afternoon in time for the speech.
Every State of the Union needs a headline-grabbing announcement, but with Juncker constrained by his 10 existing priorities and especially by the Greek and migration policy headaches, there is little room to create any other news. The successes are not new; the failures are deep-set.
Sources close to Juncker expect migration, an issue on which Juncker has pushed a more compassionate EU approach for months, to take center-stage. That view is backed up by leading national newspapers such as Bild, Le Monde and La Vanguardia, which have previewed the speech only in terms of that one issue.
The Commission’s new migration plan will be finalized Tuesday, ready for announcement during the speech. It is expected to include three key elements: 1) addressing the sources of the migration flow – for example via a trust fund made available to African nations that do more to stop people smugglers; 2) paying countries that accept refugees around €6,000 per person to help with the extra costs of housing and other support; and 3) a permanent mechanism of relocation, modifying the current “Dublin regulation,” which mandates that asylum claims are handled by the first EU state reached. The plan will also push EU countries to resettle 160,000 refugees, up from a previous proposal of 40,000.
Juncker planted the idea that the EU is at breaking point, and now the Parliament is running with it, creating a doomsday video to whip up interest in the speech and the debate that follows. Parliamentary leaders are also creating pressure.
Socialist group leader Gianni Pittella on Monday echoed Juncker’s earlier pronouncement, saying “either we act now or Europe will have failed.”
As he prepared for this speech, Juncker was told by other commissioners not to ignore the EU’s shortcomings by focusing on the usual pro-European boilerplate. But if Juncker strikes too negative a pose in the speech it will be interpreted by many as an admission of defeat — particularly alongside the negative responses that political opponents are poised to make in the long debate that follows the speech.
The U.K.’s Nigel Farage says Europe is in a “state of disunion”; France’s Marine Le Pen will relish her first opportunity as an official European party leader to highlight the bloc’s flaws. Even arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Parliament’s liberal faction, is framing his pre-SOTEU rhetoric negatively, complaining that European Council President Donald Tusk “refuses to do his job” by not forcing himself into the program.
Juncker will have to avoid starting a tsunami in what is already certain to be a sea of negativity. So while he will probably be critical of member states in general for not stepping up to the migration crisis, he will probably avoid naming and shaming individuals and individual European countries.
Juncker will however, allude to the problems caused by those who do not do their share in addressing common problems, and those who turn their back on “European” values. He stress-tested some of those messages in an op-ed article last week, with such lines as: “It also worries me to hear politicians from left to right fanning a populism that brings only anger and not solutions” and “turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe.”
Expect more in that vein.
Juncker is set to give the first trilingual State of the Union speech, after delivering much of his 2014 acceptance speeches (when the Parliament confirmed his nomination as Commission president) in French and German. Adding languages tends to lengthen a speech, so it will be unlikely that Juncker finishes in less than 32 minutes (the current record for shortest SOTEU, set in 2010), and more likely that he takes 45-50 minutes.
With many advisers, colleagues and political associates providing input to the speech, it will be a challenge to maintain a consistent, soaring rhetorical tone. Instead, expect to see Juncker relying on his natural style of relaxed informality — unafraid to demonstrate humor, a deep knowledge of those in the audience and a sense that he’s seen it all before.
In addition to his chief of staff Martin Selmayr, top political strategist Ann Mettler and outgoing (Catherine Day) and incoming (Alexander Italianer) Commission secretaries-general, Juncker has had a team of three speechwriters working on the prepared text.
The team is headed by veteran writer Myriam Sochacki, who previously wrote mostly French texts for President Barroso; Karen Kails, a former Deustche Welle journalist and assistant to a social democrat MP; and Martin Mevius, a Dutch European history professor.
Juncker’s main English language speechwriter, Jack Schickler, left to join the team of Financial Services and Capital Markets Commissioner Jonathan Hill in June.