Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
Next week sees one of the EU’s set-piece events, when Jean Claude Juncker makes his last State of the Union speech before stepping down in 2019.
It is an opportunity for him to define his legacy, highlight what he sees as his successes and spell out the path that he believes the EU should take in the future. He is expected to talk about the big issues of trade, migration, climate change, security, the EU’s role on the global stage and how to increase turnout in the European elections.
On a personal level, I have always found Juncker to be courteous and, while we often disagree, he is a man I am able to work with. Without doubt, he is a skilled politician.
But when he stands up before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, MEPs from our European Conservatives and Reformists Group will be interested to hear what he believes the EU has learned from one of the defining moments of his presidency – the UK’s decision to leave the EU. If, indeed, he mentions it at all. The gossip around Brussels is that the subject was not even raised during the commissioners’ away-day to discuss the speech’s contents.
In a meeting this week with myself and fellow European Parliament political group leaders, Juncker was pressed to spell out the consequences of a no-deal scenario and if and how the EU was preparing for no deal. As the deadline for negotiations to conclude approaches, politicians from more EU countries, as in the UK, are becoming increasingly concerned by the prospect of no agreement.
While most fellow MEPs regret the decision by the British people to vote to leave the EU, they understand the frustration with an EU that does not listen to their concerns, which fails to keep its promises and often behaves as though Brussels knows best. Other electorates have taken up the theme and eurosceptic parties are set to make gains in next May’s European elections, making next week’s State of the Union the most important for years.
Yet it all started so well. In 2014, Juncker stood before MEPs and declared it to be a new start for the European Union. He promised a pragmatic approach and an end to divisive ideological debates; policy-making by consensus; budget responsibility and greater transparency.
It was the right agenda but, over the past four years, Juncker has failed to deliver in some key areas.
Instead, the Commission stands accused of pursuing a federalist agenda regardless of what citizens want; championing the most divisive and unsupported migration policies of the past 20 years; proposing an increase in spending for the new seven year budget, despite the departure of the UK, one of its biggest net contributors; and the EU’s own ombudsman this week found the Commission guilty of four instances of maladministration in the secretive appointment of Martin Selmayr – Juncker’s former Chief of Staff – as Secretary General.
No wonder voters are increasingly willing to take risks at the ballot box if there is a chance of electing someone who shares their vision.
I have spent more than a decade trying to work constructively with colleagues across the political spectrum to make the EU a better, more prosperous, more open place. I am excited by Britain’s post-Brexit prospects but will not stop caring about the EU when I close my Brussels office door for the last time in March. As a current member and a future neighbour, I hope a prosperous, outward-looking, global Britain will continue to trade and cooperate with our EU neighbours
So the European Conservatives and Reformists would suggest a few things to Juncker as to what he could say next week to avoid being remembered solely for losing one of its largest member states and for being in office while the rules were bent to secure a top job for a close associate.
Firstly, he should promise to spend his last six months in office listening, really listening, to what electorates are saying.
Then he needs to return to his 2014 pledge to create an EU that does less but does it better, which is big on the big and small on the small things, not one that seeks to replace national governments. Those big things must include a firm but fair, consensual immigration and asylum system, continuing to prepare for the digital revolution, creating a business-friendly environment, effective security co-operation and cutting waste.
Finally, while he will be remembered as having been in office as the UK leaves the EU, he can also be – if he so chooses – the Commission President who laid the ground for a constructive, co-operative and more honest relationship with the UK as we cease to be uncommitted tenants and become good neighbours.
All this is possible, but it will probably not happen. Which is one reason why British MEPs will not be in Strasbourg to hear the State of the Union speech in 2019