European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker addresses the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, to outline his reform plans for the European Union in the so-called State of the Union debate, Sept 13, 2017. (JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS / AP)
STRASBOURG – European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker urged EU governments on Wednesday to use economic recovery and Brexit as springboards towards a closer union, built on an expanded euro zone and a pivotal role in world trade.
In his annual State of the European Union speech, Juncker sketched out a vision of a post-2019 EU where some 30 countries would be using the euro, with an EU finance minister running key budgets to help states in trouble.
Tax and welfare standards would converge and Europe, not the United States, would be the hub of a free-trading world.
We will keep moving on because Brexit isn't everything, it is not the future of Europe.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President, European Commission
The EU chief executive stressed his wish to heal divisions between eastern and western states. He sees that as vital to countering a drive, including by founding powers France and Germany, to set up new structures within the bloc that would exclude some poorer, ex-communist members in the east.
"The wind is back in Europe's sails," Junker told the European Parliament, citing economic growth and the easing of a succession of crises -- Greek debt, refugee inflows, the rise of euro skepticism reflected in Brexit - that seemed to threaten the EU's survival.
"Now we have a window of opportunity, but it will not stay open for ever," he said, emphasizing a need to move on from and even profit from the British vote to leave the bloc in 2019.
"We will keep moving on because Brexit isn't everything, it is not the future of Europe," he said in a speech that Brexit supporters said showed they were right to take Britain out of a bloc set on creating more powerful, central institutions.
In a carefully balanced, hour-long discourse in Strasbourg, he called on nationalist eastern leaders -- though not by name-- to stop defying EU courts over civil rights, and on westerners to drop attempts to keep out cheaper eastern workers or palm off inferior food products in poorer national markets.
EURO FOR WHOLE EU
But his core proposal for countering what is known as a"multispeed Europe" by encouraging all states to join the euro and other EU structures faces resistance in both non-euro zone countries and potentially in Paris and Berlin, where the newly elected President Emmanuel Macron and about to be re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel are readying their own plans.
Macron plans to present his ideas for reforming the19-nation euro zone on Sept. 26, two days after the German election, a French diplomatic source said. EU officials hope leaders may discuss the issues at a dinner on Sept. 28 before a summit in Estonia.
"If we want the euro to unite rather than divide our continent, then it should be more than the currency of a select group of countries," Juncker said. "The euro is meant to be the single currency of the European Union as a whole."
He noted that only long-standing EU members Britain and Denmark have a legal right not to adopt the euro. EU officials say that with Britain leaving, and the eight remaining non-euro states accounting for only 15 percent of EU GDP, Juncker sees it as natural for EU and euro zone policy to operate in unison.
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For that reason, he rejected proposals, led by France, for a special euro zone budget, finance minister and parliament. These functions, he said, should be filled instead by a vice president of the Commission, chairing the Euro group of 19 euro zone finance ministers and managing a euro zone budget that would be part of the budget for the whole EU, overseen by Parliament.
While Denmark in fact pegs its crown closely to the euro, a drive to push the likes of Poland and Sweden into the euro would be a hard sell in those countries, while Germany, France and others have been skeptical about letting poorer states join yet.
Juncker proposed EU funding and technical help to encourage non-euro members to get themselves into a position to join.