‘EU needs to sort itself out first!’ Not all on-board Juncker’s grand vision of closer integration

The European Commission President has painted an ambitious image of a federalist Europe during his state of the union address, urging the EU to “catch the wind in its sails.” But outside Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker's plans will face uncompromising opponents as well as hidden reservations from among stated allies.

Among the key proposals put forward by Juncker were compulsory Euro membership for the remaining eight European states outside the bloc, for new countries to join the Schengen zone, plans for closer defensive cooperation leading to the creation of a European army in the next decade and easier ratification of EU-wide trade treaties with foreign powers.

Juncker has also resurrected the idea of merging his own post with that of the President of the European Council, who currently represents the interests of its member state governments, saying it would be easier if “one captain was steering the ship.” Such as president would be chosen in an EU-wide vote. A powerful new EU-wide economy minister has also been touted, one which would have power to whip dissenters in line with a common EU vision.

The most predictable opponent of the hour-long speech, met with stirring applause, was UK MEP Nigel Farage.

"The message is very clear: Brexit has happened, new steam ahead… More Europe in every single direction and all to be done without the consent of the people,” Farage told the floor.

“The way you’re treating Hungary and Poland already must remind them of living under the Soviet communists. All I can say is thank God we’re leaving because you’ve learned nothing from Brexit."

While Junker suggested that Donald Trump’s isolationism gave the EU a “window of opportunity” to become the world leader, a member of Poland’s Eurosceptic ruling PiS party suggested the plan is optimistic in view of the ongoing crisis with migration, unemployment, stagnation and terrorism.

“We need to get the EU’s house in order before there can even be a discussion on centralizing even further,” said Ryszard Legutko, a PiS MEP.

Opposition also came from members of the European parliament’s left-wing coalitions.

“When I listen to [Juncker’s speech] with the ears of many people who feel left behind by the current macroeconomic policies that we have, then I have my doubts because he still pushes for free trade deals that basically are tailor-made for multinationals,” Philippe Lamberts, of the Greens-European Free Alliance group told the Daily Express.

But the most detailed and principled attack on Juncker’s plans came from Harald Vilimsky, of Austria’s Freedom Party, which prompted Juncker to leave mid-speech.

“What Mr Junker wants de facto is to force the European union into a single state, and we know that the euro is not a success story. The second thing Mr Junker wants is de facto to actually get rid of all the internal borders, we see 10,000, 100,000, millions of African and Arabs are going to be coming to our continent,” said Vilimsky, who serves as the vice-chair of the Europe of Nations and Freedom party within the European Parliament.

“They talk about having a defense union, but no we don’t want that. What we want is Austrians, we’re a neutral country in Austria, we do not want to participate in the defense union. The right road for Europe can only be the road where there is more democracy left to the people, more democracy left to the citizens where people can vote whether or not they want to have Schengen maintained or not, whether they want their borders or not. The vote has to be left to the citizen.”

‘Juncker is a romantic, I am pragmatic,’ says Dutch PM

But while his diehard opponents were never likely to be swayed by anything short of a resignation speech from Juncker, he should be more concerned by the polite silence or a vague endorsement for his plans, leading to no action, from leaders of nominally pro-EU nations.

“Juncker is a romantic. We all have our own style, but I am more pragmatic,” said Netherlands PM Mark Rutte in response to the speech, adding that those “too concerned with vision should visit an eye doctor.”

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said he was against creating an EU-super-president, tweeting “Let’s not mix roles and competences. Need European Council President as voice of member states."

In Germany, a country that has had to bail out numerous Euro partners and absorb immigrants who have streamed into the country, the response was rather muted. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Chief-of-Staff Peter Altmeier praised the speech as “forward-looking” but characterized it as a “starting point of a dedicated debate.”

Other parties keen to capitalize on anti-EU sentiment at the expense of the ruling CDU also criticized the speech which came ahead of the country’s national election scheduled for September 24. Merkel, who had previously supported the idea of a two-track Europe, where countries are allowed to integrate at whatever pace it finds comfortable, will likely to have to enter a coalition with an even less pro-Brussels party.

Germany and France, the two foundational powers in the union, are preparing to submit their own plans for EU reform by the end of 2017, and while their current leaders remain in favor of the EU, it is unlikely that either will endorse Juncker’s federalism without a mandate from their respective electorates.