Csaba Kiss: A light of hope, but is it still in time?

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A note about the State of the Union speeches 2017 and 2018 of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

Csaba Kiss, J&E Network Coordinator


Speeches of politicians are sometimes good indicators of the historic times they live in. Sometimes they even change things - let us think back to Martin Luther King, Jr. The State of the Union speeches of the actual President of the EC are not of such type - they do not change the course of history and are rather more stock-taking than emotionally moving. But it is not only the words, but the timing of topics mentioned, and most importantly.

If we look back on the 2017 SOTEU speech of President Juncker and compare it with 2018, we see certain development, a trajectory that shows improvement on several issues. Is environment among those issues? Hardly, but let us see the details.

According to the President in his 2017 address, the Union was not in a good state. However, he boasted of a 2.2% growth, and an unemployment of a 9-year low. He gave partial credit to the European Investment Plan and confirmed that Europe’s stability is coming back 10 years after the 2008 crisis. Mr. Juncker wanted to see a more democratic Europe by 2025 and wanted to strengthen the European trade agenda. This was one of the areas where the environment was mentioned, since – according to him – trade is also about exporting our standards, including the environmental ones. He wanted more policy-making transparency, the citizens to know what the EC is proposing. Wanted a stronger and more competitive industry and called on the car industry to clean itself from misleading the consumers, in the shadow of the Diesel Gate scandal. Buzzwords of the speech were a) de-carbonisation and b) the EU wants to be a leader of the climate change fight. Based on the the Paris Agreement, Europe will make the planet great again, echoing the well-known slogan from across the Atlantic. He pledged that the EC will propose measures for reduction of greenhouse gases from transport. Surely there was lengthy mention of migration, as well as reinforcing that freedom and democracy are core components, and that the EU is a union of values, not only money. It is a union of freedom, a union of equality and rule of law is a must, he said.

So almost all environmental references were about climate change, de-carbonisation and a bit about exporting our EU environmental standards via trade. In my understanding this is all about business again, and not just business as usual: these references to environmental problems have very close ties to industry and real business. Climate change to the energy industry, de-carbonisation to transport, environmental standards to exporting more goods and boosting commerce. No mention of loss of biodiversity, bad air quality in European cities, obsolete chemicals or plastic waste. Surely not, since these hardly produce any profit.

We could hope that the growing number of signs of crisis, or rather, the growing body of evidence that behind most of the crisis signs there are environmental causes, would fundamentally change the tone of the 2018 SOTEU speech. But did it happen?

In 2018, the President welcomed the fact that Europe had been able to achieve economic growth for 21 years, despite the crisis in 2008. Welcomed the 12 million new jobs and mentioned that he wants to leave a healthier Europe for the coming generations. The climate objectives of the Paris Agreement are to be attained by 2030. He wants to champion multilateralism and wants a strong and united Europe. Promised that a ban on plastics in 2019 will come. Promoted the Energy Union. Expressed the need for a balanced migration reform and here mentioned that speaking of the future is speaking of Africa: the EU is planning a large-scale program for raising quality of life in Africa. He mentioned no environmental commitments, but rather trade-related ones. He mentioned the strong support of the Erasmus program, of research, of defense, of Africa again, and the role of the euro in all this. Finally, he reiterated that the rule of law is important and Art. 7 procedures should be undertaken if needed. “We are all responsible for the Europe of today. And we must all take responsibility for the Europe of tomorrow.”

As a matter of fact, I do believe that this speech was a bit more constructive and open-minded than the previous one. Whether it was necessitated by the number of signs that could not be hidden any longer or it shows a different approach to the problems of a unified Europe, we don’t know yet. But surely, the acknowledgement of environmental changes, amongst them the problem of plastic pollution, or a clear shift from talking about the magnitude of migration to mentioning Africa and offering the continent a partnership, all in the same sentence, are clear signs of an awakening to be welcomed. In addition, a warning to the illiberal regimes (or hybrid democracies) like Hungary, above all, or Poland, or lately Italy and Austria flirting with such a political system, is absolutely an indicator of a more enlightened policy on the side of the Commission. The talk was rather on the causes than on the effects only, compared with last year’s speech. Whether it is a sign of a more balanced policy-making coming our way from the EU, or it was just a bitter address from an outgoing President who will not run for another term, we don’t know yet. Time will tell…

The story was first published in J&E Newsletter Network News, Issue 2018/3, 5th October 2018.



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