Greetings from Brussels!
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, made his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday. Acknowledging the "existential crisis" facing Europe, he made efforts to put forward an agenda outlining a list of legislative proposals he felt European Member State leaders could rally around against a backdrop of seemingly endless crisis where there is "little commonality in our Union" and where Brexit looms upon the horizon.
Juncker referred to, and seemed to finger, a growing wave of populism sweeping across Europe and paralyzing governments (as they seek re-election), as a driving cause for Member States putting national interest above the European common good. Europe it seems is jaded from successive years of constant crisis threats from the rumble of financial and currency threats to the more recent migration control challenges. Fatigue has set in. He tried to keep his message positive, articulating his vision for the future, ranging from a common EU defense policy to strategic funding instruments to bolster European business research and infrastructure projects to building the single digital market. On that particular note, Juncker announced plans to roll out 5G telecoms networks, to undertake an overhaul of copyright rules and a pledge that “the main centers of public life” in Europe’s towns and cities should have free wireless internet by 2020.
The suggested telecom reforms are likely to favor the European telecom groups, who largely missed out on the tech sector’s exponential growth in recent times. Among the changes, Juncker wants to amend EU rules that restrict the likes of Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefonica from co-investing or sharing network capacity. The EC would also, as I mentioned in previous MD Notes, expand the rules covering security and confidentiality for phone providers to internet-based communications services.
Juncker said the EU would also help to protect the personal online data of EU citizens through legal framework changes — understand GDPR and Privacy Shield here. He went on to state that being European means the right to have your personal data protected by strong, European laws: “Because Europeans do not like drones overhead recording their every move, or companies stockpiling their every mouse click.” In reference to the GDPR, he maintained that it was a strong, robust law that applies to companies wherever they are based, and whenever they are processing your data. “Because in Europe, privacy matters. This is a question of human dignity,” he emphasized.
With regard to the most significant and seismic challenge to the EU in recent memory Juncker had this to say: “We regret the Brexit decision ... but the European Union’s existence is not at risk.” His hope is for the EU to be a driving force as it moves through the Brexit process and beyond; his goal to create a "better Europe." Juncker firmly believes that with an expanding world, Europe is getting smaller and, as such, Europe needs to ensure that it is more than a soft power player on the global stage; you have to think he might be right on that point.
It appears that Juncker is taking lessons from the recent challenges to the Union saying he would ask his team of 27 EU commissioners to increase the number of visits made to national parliaments to discuss EU policies. “Europe can only be built with the Member States, not against the Member States,” he said. “We do listen to our citizens and we would like to do that more intensely.” Working with Member State Parliaments seems appropriate in this instance, but only in so far that those parliaments in turn are in touch with the hearts and minds of their constituents. This was not the case over the Brexit vote, for example, where the U.K Parliament was overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the EU.
In many respects, you could argue that this is symptomatic of a trend across Europe. One increasingly finds evidence or anecdotal examples of a disconnected political class from the reality of its citizens; this is not a force for good or stability. Politics in Europe is undoubtedly in need of change, not only at a European level but also at national level. To continue along as is without some inward reflection by politicians and citizens alike may well bring stormier weather.
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