By Marine LAOUCHEZ with Danny KEMP in Brussels
Strasbourg, France (AFP) Sept 13, 2017
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday that the "wind is back in Europe's sails" as he issued a rallying call a year after the shock of the Brexit vote.
In his annual State of the Union speech, Juncker said the bloc had become more united following a series of crises including Britain's vote to leave, and insisted economic momentum was picking up.
The former Luxembourg premier urged the European Union to deepen integration across the board, and also said it should try to seal trade deals with Australia and New Zealand by the end of his mandate in 2019.
"All this leads me to believe the wind is back in Europe's sails," Juncker told the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.
"We have now a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails."
Juncker struck a far more optimistic tone than when he stood at the podium in September 2016, admitting then that "it was plain for all to see that our union was not in a good state, battered by a year that shook our very foundations."
But with the rise of populism -- after Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump -- apparently at bay for now, Juncker said leaders of the remaining 27 EU countries had got behind his calls to unite.
- New trade deals -
His call for increased cooperation was however balanced with the need to heal a deepening split with eastern European countries that resist any move to further integration.
Juncker, 62, has less than two years left in office as head of the EU's powerful executive arm to ensure that his legacy is not limited to the departure of one of the European Union's largest member states.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, said Tuesday that Juncker's speech "needs to create a turning point so we go from crisis management to real reform package".
With all EU countries finally recording growth after the traumas of the eurozone debt crisis, and unemployment at pre-crisis lows, Juncker turned to the question of how the bloc pushes forward with what officials called the "change in the wind".
Juncker said the EU should also capitalise on the momentum to strike new trade deals -- a key issue as Britain looks to score its own after leaving the EU.
"Today, we are asking that we open up negotiations with Australia and with New Zealand," Juncker said. "I am asking that we complete these negotiations by the end of our mandate (in late 2019)."
- East-West split -
Juncker also called for "creating a more united Europe" to bring east and west together, as what used to be the brave new frontier with post-communist Eastern Europe turns into a major faultline.
Brussels is increasingly in conflict with right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary over concerns about democracy, while Warsaw and Hungary oppose all further integration as an assault on national sovereignty.
The EU also remains deeply divided by the migration crisis, with a fresh spike in arrivals in Italy from Libya adding to rifts over how to handle the biggest influx of refugees and migrants since World War II.
Time is running out for Juncker's plans, with 2018 being the last full year of his mandate. Britain's official departure in March 2019 and European elections in June 2019 mean the focus will be elsewhere that year.
Istanbul (AFP) Sept 12, 2017
Turkey has signed a deal for its first major weapons purchase from Moscow to buy S-400 missile defence systems, both sides announced Tuesday, in an accord that could trouble Ankara's NATO allies. The purchase of the surface-to-air missile defence batteries, Ankara's most significant deal with a non-NATO supplier, comes with Turkey in the throes of a crisis in relations with several Western s ... read more
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