• Juncker says Brexit can’t stop EU’s future

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    BRUSSLES: European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday that Britain’s departure would not hold the EU back, as he unveiled plans for the bloc’s post-Brexit future.

    Juncker laid out five possible scenarios including reducing the European Union to just a single market, returning some powers to member countries and creating a “multi-speed” Europe.

    “However painful and regrettable Brexit may be, it cannot stop the European Union on its march to the future,” Juncker said as he presented his White Paper to the European Parliament in Brussels.

    Juncker also urged national governments to “stop the Brussels-bashing” in a bid to win over increasingly eurosceptic voters, saying the commission had stopped meddling in issues like “toilet flushes or the height of children’s swings”.

    EU leaders will now consider Juncker’s options ahead of a summit in Rome on March 25 marking the bloc’s 60th anniversary, where they will make their own declarations about the way forward after Britain’s expected departure in 2019.

    The foreign ministers of France and Germany signalled that Juncker’s “multi-speed” option had their backing, saying it would allow some members to move forward with projects like closer defence cooperation without waiting for reluctant countries to get on board.

    “Without calling into question what we have accomplished, we must also find ways of better taking into account the different ambition levels of the member states so that Europe can respond better to the needs of European citizens,” Jean-Marc Ayrault and Sigmar Gabriel said in a joint statement.

    Since the shock Brexit vote last June, the other 27 EU states have been soul-searching about how to deal with challenges including rising populism, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and an increasingly assertive Russia.

    Rome should “not simply be a birthday celebration, it should also be the birth moment of the European Union at 27,” Juncker said.

    Five ‘pathways to unity’

    But Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister who took the helm at the EU’s powerful executive arm in 2014, said the EU should be clear about its limitations.

    “We should not make people believe that we can deliver the sun and the moon if we are only able to deliver a telescope,” he said.

    Juncker said he hoped EU leaders could draw their first conclusions based on his suggestions by the end of the year, and decide on a course of action by European Parliament elections in June 2019.

    The plans have already met resistance from poorer, newer Eastern European states like Poland which fear they could be frozen out by the traditional “big guns” of France and Germany, particularly on issues of immigration.

    There has also been grumbling about the timing of Juncker’s plans shortly before crucial elections in The Netherlands and Germany, and particularly in France where far-right leader Marine Le Pen is riding high in the polls.

    Along with allowing integration at different speeds, another of Juncker’s five “pathways to unity” is to concentrate on finalising the EU’s single market of what will be 450 million people after Brexit, in a bid to end the economic crises that have beset the euro currency.

    Further scenarios would be to defy the eurosceptics and follow the dream of a fully federalised Europe, or to follow the American model and focus on a reduced agenda which leaves lesser matters to member states.

    Finally he suggests keeping the status quo, with EU countries trying to stay more unified, but with the downside that it would mean more bitter arguments on issues like migration.

    Elections in France, Germany

    Leaders will discuss Juncker’s blueprint at the Rome summit but will not go into depth as “we can’t create divisions” at this stage, a European source told AFP.

    The 27 EU leaders are eyeing a further summit in Brussels on April 6 after British Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggers the two-year divorce process, EU sources said.

    Analyst Janis Emmanouilidis, of the European Policy Centre, said Juncker’s White Paper was an attempt to have a say in the discussion “before the hot phase starts.”

    “Before November or December not much can be decided because of the elections in France and Germany,” Emmanouilidis told AFP. AFP

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