Rated: Did Juncker deliver on his State of the Union promises?

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker stood before MEPs last September and delivered an upbeat, 6,000-word speech about the bloc’s achievements and aspirations.

His use of a nautical theme — it began with a claim Brussels had the “wind in its sails” — was perhaps an attempt to divert away from the choppy waters of Brexit.

But a year on how well did the EU ship sail? Did Juncker’s pledges stay afloat or sink without trace?

Here we look at four key areas Juncker focussed on last year and, with the help of experts, assess how well he performed.

1. Have more trade deals been done?

What he said: “We have a political agreement with Japan on a future economic partnership. And by the end of the year, we have a good chance of doing the same with Mexico and South American countries. Today, we are proposing to open trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. I want all of these agreements to be finalised by the end of this mandate.”

What happened: Brexit and a deteriorating trade relationship with the US has given the EU the impetus to look elsewhere, according to Johan Bjerkem, a trade policy analyst at the European Policy Centre think tank.

It saw Brussels sign one of the world’s biggest free trade deals with Japan in July.

Proponents of the agreement say it will remove €1 billion of duties paid each year by exporters to the Asian island nation.

Talks have also opened with Australia and New Zealand while the pace of talks with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have accelerated in recent months.

Bjerkem told Euronews it was too early to say whether Juncker will get his wish of concluding all the deals by the time he leaves office next year.

“They’re definitely moving ahead on trade deals and it’s one of the key points on the EU’s agenda at the moment as a champion of multilateral and bilateral trade,” said Bjerkem.

“They have certainly done better than what we could have expected.

“But the big elephant in the room is the trade relationship with the US, which is really difficult right now.”

US President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium and threatened the same on European cars. But he came back from the brink after Juncker went to Washington to hold talks with him over the summer.

Brexit has also played a role in propelling the EU into getting trade deals done as Brussels is keen to show everyone they are still functioning well in this area, added Bjerkem.

2. Has Europe’s car industry come clean?

What he said: “I am proud of our car industry. But I am shocked when consumers are knowingly and deliberately misled. I call on the car industry to come clean and make it right.”

What happened: Juncker is referring to Dieselgate, a scandal that saw Volkswagen admit to cheating diesel emission tests in the US. This meant the vehicles involved were polluting more than they should have been.

But three years on from the carmaker’s admission, things have not been put right, according to William Todts, executive director of Brussels-based campaigners Transport and Environment.

He told Euronews the legacy of Dieselgate is 40 million cars — not all Volkswagen's — on Europe’s roads that are over-polluting.

Todts said while Volkswagen has recalled some vehicles, there is little transparency on how it is putting the situation right.

Todts, when asked if the car industry had come clean, added: “No and Juncker shouldn’t call on the car industry to come clean. He’s the regulator, he has the power to make them come clean.

“The experience of the last 40 or 50 years is that whenever it’s about environmental regulation they [the car industry] are not going to play along.”

Nevertheless, he said, the European Commission had been very active in responding to the Dieselgate scandal.

For example, new emission standards were introduced on September 1, although these pre-date Juncker’s 2017 speech.

But overall, he said, Brussels is too susceptible to lobbying from the car industry because of the power it wields as a key European employer.

Volkswagen did not immediately respond to Euronews’ request for comment on this article.

A spokeswoman for the European Automobile Manufacturers Association said the industry had invested heavily to achieve "significant achievements in emissions".

"Research by FuelsEurope and the Association for Emissions Control by Catalyst (AECC) also shows that the latest generation of diesel vehicles will continue to play a major role in helping reach future CO2 targets," she added. "Likewise, these vehicles will also have a positive impact on improving air quality, along with other local measures, in areas where exceedance of NO2 remains a concern."

3. Is Europe a leader in the fight against climate change?

What he said: “Set against the collapse of ambition in the United States, Europe must ensure we make our planet great again. It is the shared heritage of all of humanity.”

What happened: Brussels has been very active in putting laws in place that include the climate commitments of European countries in the run-up to the Paris agreement in 2015, an expert has told Euronews.

The summit saw agreement to limit global warming to well below 2℃.

But we are still waiting for the European Commission to look at what the EU would need to do to fulfil pledges made in Paris three years ago, Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe, said to Euronews.

“It’s potentially something Juncker could address in the statement on Wednesday because the commission has been tasked by heads of state and government to develop a long-term strategy that would actually look at how Europe could contribute to achieving a 1.5℃ temperature limit,” Trio added.

“You could say Juncker and his team have focussed on implementing what has already been decided in 2014.

“Very little new ideas have been coming forward.”

The commission has acted to propose new CO2 emissions for cars and vans and is expected to do the same for trucks.

“Europe has been the regional bloc that has been pushing climate policies for a very long time and supporting the international negotiations,” Trio said.

“But we can say for the last 10 years that leadership role has gone down and Europe is banking on the fact that they were the first to act and they have this kind of advance compared to other countries.

“Would I say we are leaders? We’re not leading at this moment but we can still be in front of the rest if new action is taken.”

4. Has the EU got a grip on migration?

What he said: “We have managed to stem irregular flows of migrants, which were a cause of great anxiety for many … in doing so, we have drastically reduced the loss of life in the Mediterranean.

“We must also urgently improve migrants' living conditions in Libya.

“When it comes to returns, I would like to repeat that people who have no right to stay in Europe must be returned to their countries of origin. When only 36% of irregular migrants are returned, it is clear we need to significantly step up our work.

“We will also work on opening up legal pathways. Irregular migration will only stop if there is a real alternative to perilous journeys.”

What happened: The number of migrants coming into Europe via the Mediterranean continues to fall but there are several caveats.

Firstly, while the volume of arrivals via Italy and Greece has fallen since Juncker’s speech last September, they are on the rise into Spain.

Secondly, although numbers have dropped it is not necessarily down to the EU, according to Bernd Parusel, an expert from the European Migration Network. For example, the drop in the number of those coming to Italy is mainly down to Rome refusing to let migrant-carrying vessels dock at their ports.

Finally the proportion of migrants that are dying trying to cross the Mediterranean has gone up, as this article outlines in more depth.

A key reason for the higher rate of deaths is a reduction in the number of NGOs operating migrant rescue missions between Libya and Italy.

It has also meant fewer migrants leaving Libya and a subsequent worsening of their living conditions, according to Parusel.

Juncker said last year that he wanted to urgently improve in this area.

“I’ve not been to Libya but from all I hear and read the conditions have not really improved,” Parusel said.

“They have probably got worse recently because there is increased fighting between militias and an unknown number of migrants are trapped there.

“Migrants that wanted to come to Europe but are now trapped in Libya. It’s also harder for NGOs and the UN’s refugee agency to operate there.”

What about the number of migrants returns, another area in which Juncker called for improvements?

There are no figures for 2018 yet but latest Eurostat data shows a decrease in the number of individuals being returned.

There were 214,150 returnees in 2017, compared with 250,015 the previous year.

“I think we are having to deal with many problems here: like irregular migrants don’t have travel documents; in some cases countries of origin don’t want to readmit them; and then in some countries the security situation is so problematic that it is difficult for law enforcement agencies to carry out returns.”

On Juncker’s last pledge — to work on opening up legal pathways for people to get to Europe — Parusel said for those trying to flee desperate situations there were still “very few opportunities”.

Juncker, in an exclusive interview with Euronews' Darren McCaffrey, said the fact member states could not agree how to respond to the migration problem had made him sad but that it was not the fault of the European Commission.

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