In recent months, calls have grown within the European Union to enhance the bloc's strategic autonomy. In our 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast, we said the European Union would look for ways to become more politically and economically independent and would also propose a change in voting mechanisms to improve the efficiency of its policymaking. Now, the president of the European Commission has put forth a series of proposals that align with our analysis.
On Sept. 12, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlined the EU executive arm's main policy goals for the coming months in his annual "state of the union" speech. Juncker put forth plans that most member states will agree on, such as enhancing the protection of the bloc's external borders, but he also mentioned proposals, such as ending unanimous voting on foreign policy and taxation, that will create controversy in Europe.
Among the many topics of his speech, Juncker called for a united and more autonomous European Union that would play a bigger role in global affairs. He urged member states to increase their defense and security cooperation and said that the euro should have a bigger role on the international stage. (Juncker called it "absurd" that the European Union pays for most of its energy imports in U.S. dollars and promised initiatives to strengthen the euro's international role by the end of the year). These statements align with the European Union's ongoing push to increase its strategic autonomy at a time of increasing uncertainty about the global order and the future of EU-U.S. ties.
Immigration also featured prominently in Juncker's speech, as he promised to strengthen the European Border and Coast Guard, accelerate the return of irregular migrants to their countries of origin and increase political and economic cooperation with African countries. With these announcements, he implicitly acknowledged the nationalist and Euroskeptic political parties across the Continent that have been using immigration as a central topic in electoral campaigns. With Europewide elections for the European Parliament taking place in May, Juncker is sending the message that the European Union is doing more on the issue.
Finally, Juncker called to replace unanimity with qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues. Member states like France and Germany have long criticized the policy requiring unanimous decisions on issues like imposing sanctions on non-EU countries, which gives every member state veto power. (Early this year, for example, Italy threatened to veto EU sanctions on Russia.) Notably, Juncker suggested expanding the qualified majority voting system to apply to tax-related issues as well. This will be controversial; low-tax countries like Ireland and Hungary have already been resisting recent tax-related proposals, such as homogenizing the bloc's corporate taxes or introducing an EU-wide tax on digital companies.
The goal of replacing unanimous voting with a qualified majority is to render decision-making more efficient. But the problem is that even making that change to the voting mechanisms requires unanimity first. The European Union will struggle to gain that unanimous support, since many countries see unanimity, and the veto power that comes with it, as a way of protecting their national interests.
In the coming months, the European Commission will make formal policy proposals connected to the issues mentioned by Juncker, but the final decision is in the hands of the European Council, which represents all member states, and the European Parliament. And the European Parliament elections and the appointment of a new European Commission next year could end up changing the bloc's policy priorities. Still, even if he can't be sure that all his ideas will be implemented, Juncker's main goal with this latest speech was to reinvigorate the European Union at a time of when member states are facing global uncertainty as well as internal frictions.