The European Union should have its own military headquarters and Brexit talks should begin “as soon as possible”, the President of the European Commission has said, adding that the European Union is facing a battle for survival against nationalism in Europe.
Delivering a “State of the Union” speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which sought to ease tensions and rally support for the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker warned the bloc is facing an “existential crisis”.
The speech has been heavily anticipated as the EU struggles with multiple crises, from the influx of refugees over the past year, multiple terror attacks and Britain’s shock June referendum to leave the EU.
Mr Junker called for a joint command headquarters for EU military missions and greater defence cooperation, reviving long-running efforts to reduce reliance on the United States.
He said no single EU government had a military large enough to deal with security challenges facing Europe, from Islamic militants to a more hostile Russia and echo a plan put forward this week by France and Germany.
“We must have a European headquarters and so we should work towards a common military force,” Mr Juncker told the European Parliament, although officials stressed this did not amount to an EU army.
“This should be to complement NATO,” he said, also outlining proposals for a common defence fund.
EU integration cannot be left to the interests of individual member states alone, said Mr Juncker insisting that “too often national interests are brought to the fore” and the EU “still does not have enough Union”.
“A year ago I stated that the state of the European Union leaves much to be desired... It still applies,” Mr Juncker began. “The scope in which we cooperate together is far too small”.
“We want to construct. We want a better Europe. Europe is not going down the path of nationalisation, it can never become that type of national area, but there splits out there and often fragmentation exists where we need further effort from the union, and that is leaving room for galloping populism.”
“We can’t accept that because populism doesn’t solve problems. Populism creates problems, and we have to be aware of that and protect ourselves against it.”
Directly referring to Brexit, Mr Juncker sought to quell fears that the EU was in turmoil.
“Many are wondering whether Brexit is the beginning of the disintegration process of the EU,” he said.
“Allow me to state, we respect and at the same time regret the UK’s decision, but the EU as such is not at risk.”
Mr Juncker also repeated previous assertions made by several EU leaders that Britain “could not have a la carte access” to the benefits of the EU after Brexit, and that the UK should trigger Article 50 “as quickly as possible”.
In a further reference to the UK, Mr Juncker condemned recent incidents of hate crime in the country, which have surged in the wake of Brexit.
“Europe can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered in the streets of Essex,” he said, referring to the recent attack on a Polish man in Harlow and receiving applause from the chamber.
He was setting out the Commission’s plans for the first time since the UK voted to exit the EU.
Mr Juncker also touched on the refugee crisis in Europe, saying he aims to create a “European solidarity corps” to respond to emergency situations like the refugee crisis.
“By 2020, I want to see 100,000 Europeans taking part,” he said.
He added that accepting refugees “must be voluntary, it must come from the heart, it cannot be imposed”, in what has been perceived as an allowance to countries like Hungary, which is due to hold a referendum to reject refugee quotas in October.
In a series of cutting remarks towards Apple, which is embroiled in a bitter row with the EU after it called on the tech company to pay £11bn taxed to Ireland, Mr Junker said: "A fair playing field ... means consumers protected from abuse by powerful companies – no matter how big or small, must pay its taxes when it makes its profits.
“I promised you I would fight tax evasion and many of you did not believe me ... but this Commission is fighting tax evasion.
“We have to get to work. The next 12 months are the crucial time to deliver a better Europe.”
Mr Juncker was expected to announce a major extension to the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), as well as a new fund to foster the private sector in Africa as way of curbing emigration to Europe, along with initiatives to promote the expansion of high-speed Internet and a single market in digital services, EU officials said.
He was also expected to argue for the benefits of the Union as a mechanism for maintaining peace and evening out economic hardships, stressing a positive agenda to try and reconnect with voters disillusioned by years of austerity and fearful of terrorist violence and mass immigration.
But the Juncker address was expected to offer few clues to the negotiations with London that the EU insists cannot start until Prime Minister Theresa May formally sets starts a two-year countdown to British departure. A summit of the 27 EU leaders in Bratislava on Friday is also unlikely to shed much light on the Brexit issue.
Additional reporting by other agencies
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