EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said the bloc is not at risk from Brexit, in his first State of the Union address since the UK’s unexpected vote to leave the EU.
And he warned the UK that it could not expect access to the EU’s internal market without free movement of people. There could be no “a la carte access”.
Mr Juncker also called for the formation of a common military force.
“We must have a European headquarters,” he added.
The UK has always resisted the idea of a so-called EU army because of the potential conflict of interest with Nato. But its decision to leave the bloc has given added impetus to plans for greater defence co-operation.
“This should be in complement to Nato,” Mr Juncker said. “More defence in Europe doesn’t mean less transatlantic solidarity.” A European Defence Fund would stimulate military research and development, he said.
Much of his speech was devoted to the effects of Brexit. Splits had led to “galloping populism” and Europe had to be protected from them, he said.
In a blunt criticism of recent attacks on immigrants in the UK, he said he would “never accept Polish workers being beaten up and harassed on the streets of Essex”.
He urged a renewed focus on the union as a “driving force that can bring about unification – for instance in Cyprus”.
“Above all, Europe means peace – it is no coincidence that the longest period of peace began with the formation of the European community,” he said.
EU leaders meet in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava on Friday – without UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Late on Tuesday, their leader in the European Council – Donald Tusk – made his own intervention into the debate on the EU’s future.
In a letter traditionally written to leaders ahead of a summit, Mr Tusk suggested the EU should be mindful of its own ambitions in light of the Brexit vote.
“The keys to a healthy balance between the priorities of member states and those of the Union lie in national capitals,” Mr Tusk said.
“The institutions should support the priorities as agreed among member states, and not impose their own ones.”
That remark contrasted with Mr Juncker’s insistence on Wednesday that “too often, national interests are brought to the fore” in Europe.
There were several other themes in Mr Juncker’s speech, including:
- The Union’s role in maintaining stability and sharing the burden of economic downturn, such as, he proposed, extending the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and creating an investment fund for Africa
- The need for solidarity in the Union – he urged protection for unaccompanied minors migrating to the EU – but said this must “come from the heart” and could not “be forced or imposed”
- Promoting security including strengthening the EU’s borders and promoting greater security co-operation between member states.