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Juncker tries to heal rifts as he gives way on refugees

Brussels yesterday (Wednesday) publicly backed down over its plans to force eastern EU states to accept refugee quotas.

Published: 15th September 2016 08:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th September 2016 08:32 AM   |  A+A-

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker prepares to address a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels. |AP

STRASBOURG: Brussels yesterday (Wednesday) publicly backed down over its plans to force eastern EU states to accept refugee quotas in an attempt to heal the continent's growing East-West rifts ahead of a crucial Brexit summit in Bratislava tomorrow.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, used his annual State of the Union address to declare that accepting refugees "must be voluntary, it must come from the heart, it cannot be imposed".

It represented a major concession to eastern EU countries, led by Poland and Hungary, who have rebelled against attempts by Berlin and Brussels to impose refugee quotas on them.

The olive branch came a day after Donald Tusk, the European Council president, warned Poland against "rocking the European boat" over demands for treaty change to reverse the EU superstate and return power to European capitals.

As the heads of 27 EU governments prepared to meet in the Slovakian capital today, Mr Juncker said it was time to stop the "endless disputes, quarrels and bickering" and focus on shaping a new post-Brexit future for the EU.

Acknowledging that Europe is more divided than at any time in his memory, Mr Juncker said that splits on the euro, EU values and migration were an "existential crisis" for Europe. "Never before have I seen such little common ground between our member states," he said.

With the British vote to leave having shaken the EU, Mr Juncker proposed a series of measures designed to restore confidence that Europe could deliver real prosperity and security, not the ongoing austerity and uncontrolled migration of recent years.

EU Army

Europe needed a military headquarters and "should work towards a common military force", Mr Juncker said, but was quick to add that any efforts to create what critics dub an "EU army" must "complement Nato".

"More European defence in Europe doesn't mean less trans-Atlantic solidarity," said Mr Juncker in another nod to restive eastern European and Baltic states who view Nato as the cornerstone of their security in the face of an increasing Russia aggression. Other security measures included stronger EU border checks, a bolstered EU Coastguard and a new EU visa scheme.

Jobs and investment

Mr Juncker acknowledged Europe's citizens, particularly its young, were suffering from chronic unemployment and risked becoming the first generation to be worse off than its parents.

Among a raft of popular measures designed to ward-off the "galloping" forces of anti-EU populism, Mr Juncker proposed doubling his flagship investment fund to euros 630 billion (pounds 537?billion) by 2022 to try to create jobs and improve infrastructure.

Other measures included promising 5G mobile phone networks as early as 2018 and equipping "every European village and every city with free wireless internet access".

Brexit

On the subject of Brexit, Mr Juncker urged Britain to begin withdrawal talks as soon as possible and reiterated the European Commission stance that there would be no "a la carte" deal.

"Only those can have unlimited access to the internal market who accept that there will be free access for persons and goods," he said, adding that while Brussels regretted the British vote to leave, "the European Union as such is not at risk" from Brexit.

However, in a sign of his anger at what the Commission sees as Britain's irresponsible encouragement of populist forces during the referendum campaign, he singled out the murder of a Polish man in Essex as an example of Europe failing to live up to its values.

Response

Mr Juncker's critics accused him of recycling old ideas in his speech and failing to learn the lesson of Brexit - which conservatives and Eurosceptics said was that the people of Europe wanted less Europe, not more.

Syed Kamall, the British MEP, said Mr Juncker was ignoring the "voices of discontent" in Europe that Brexit represented. "They are asking for more military integration, more requests for money from member states, more debt to keep today's socialists happy. But the more Europe you build, the more detached its citizens feel," he said.

However, Guy Verhofstadt, the arch-EU federalist appointed by the European Parliament to negotiate Brexit talks, said "more Europe" would quash populist forces, not stoke them.

In the end, there was only one point of absolute agreement - that Mr Juncker, known for giving three-hour speeches - had surprised everyone with his brevity at only 46 minutes.

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