European Commission head Juncker calls for unity in State of the Union speech, says EU will survive Brexit

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker give a press conference within the framework of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China on Sept 4, 2016.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker give a press conference within the framework of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China on Sept 4, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

STRASBOURG, France (AFP) - European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday (Sept 14) issued a rallying cry for unity after Brexit, saying the European Union was not in danger of splitting up but needed to work together.

Unveiling a host of economic and security policies in his annual State of the Union speech in a bid to find common ground, Mr Juncker urged the bloc to fight back against rising nationalism.

"The European Union still does not have enough union," Mr Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "There are splits out there and often fragmentation where we need further union that is leaving space for galloping populism."

Mr Juncker's speech comes two days before the 27 EU leaders meet in the Slovakian capital Bratislava without Britain, for a summit aimed at drawing up a roadmap for the future after Brexit.

The head of the EU executive urged Britain to trigger its formal divorce as quickly as possible for the benefit of both sides.

"We respect and at the same time regret the UK decision, but the European Union as such is not at risk," said Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg.

He said he wanted ties to "remain on a friendly basis" but warned London could not expect access to the EU's single market if it brings back immigration controls.

But the difficulties of keeping Europe united post-Brexit were underscored on Tuesday when Luxembourg's foreign minister said Hungary should be suspended from the EU for violating democratic values and treating refugees like "animals".

Mr Juncker warned against "nationalism" and called on member states to work together to keep the EU relevant.

"The next 12 months are the crucial time to deliver an EU that protects and preserves the European way of life, that defends our citizens at home and abroad, and takes responsibility," he added.

Mr Juncker meanwhile proposed doubling the size of his signature investment plan to 630 billion euros and announced measures to help young people hit by the eurozone debt crisis, with youth unemployment still at record levels in Greece and southern Europe.

His speech also targeted the digital economy, a key priority for the commission, the powerful executive arm of the EU which draws up policy for and carries out the orders of the EU's leaders.

Mr Juncker also announced an ambitious investment plan for African countries to stem the migration crisis - which has seen more than one million refugees and migrants flee to Europe from Syria and elsewhere - and security in the wake of Islamic State attacks.

The president's performance in front of more than 750 MEPs was closely scrutinised amid speculation about his health, despite strong denials by him and his spokespeople.

EU leaders are trying to steady the ship after Britain's shock June 23 vote to become the first country to leave the union, already buffeted by a perfect storm of globalisation, terrorism and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

At the Bratislava summit, they will start work on a roadmap for the future, including a joint plan by France and Germany for a "more active" European defence policy now that an always reluctant Britain is on the way out.

In a summit invitation letter published late on Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk said it would be a "fatal error" for the EU to ignore the lessons of Brexit and must address concerns about migration.

Former Polish premier Tusk added that the bloc must be less "politically correct" and protect Europeans worried about terrorism, security and globalisation in the wake of Britain's vote to leave.