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    EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rings the bell as he opens the college of commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, May 23, 2018

    Highlights of Juncker's State of Union Speech at European Parliament

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    BRUSSELS (Sputnik) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual State of the Union speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, outlining the bloc's agenda for the next 12 months.

    This year's speech, titled The Hour of European Sovereignty, comes ahead of the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament and in the context of the ongoing debate about the future of the European Union after the United Kingdom's exit from the bloc in March next year.

    The speech focused on a number of key topics, including trade, immigration, Brexit and foreign policy.

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    Unanimity Rule

    Juncker proposed suppressing the rule of unanimity and moving to qualified majority voting to boost the European Union's "ability to speak with one voice when it comes to our foreign policy."

    "This is why today the Commission is proposing to move to qualified majority voting in specific areas of our external relations. I repeat what I said last year on this matter. We should move to qualified majority voting not in all but in specific areas: human rights issues and civilian missions included," Juncker said.

    READ MORE: United Europe Has Become an Unavoidable Force in World Trade — Juncker

    A qualified majority voting system requires 55 percent of EU member states, representing at least 65 percent of the EU population.

    However, at the moment, the Council of the European Union has to vote unanimously on a number of sensitive matters, including common foreign and security policy.

    Global Role of Euro

    The European Commission president called on the European Union to promote the euro as an international currency challenging the US dollar.

    "The euro is 20 years young and has already come a long way – despite its critics. It is now the second most used currency in the world with 60 countries linking their currencies to the euro in one way or another. But we must do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international scene," Juncker stressed.

    According to the diplomat, it is "absurd" that Europe pays for 80 percent of its energy imports in US dollars with only about 2 percent of its energy imports coming from the United States.

    "This is why, before the end of the year, the Commission will present initiatives to strengthen the international role of the euro. The euro must become the face and the instrument of a new, more sovereign Europe. For this, we must first put our own house in order by strengthening our Economic and Monetary Union," Juncker underlined.

    Brexit

    As for Brexit, the European Commission president avoided going into details of the ongoing negotiations with the United Kingdom, in which London and Brussels have faced a number of thorny issues such as the Irish border and customs arrangement.

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    Juncker said the talks were being "masterfully handled" by EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and outlined three key principles which he thought should "guide" the bloc's work on Brexit in the coming months.

    "First of all, we respect the British decision to leave our Union, even though we continue to regret it deeply. But we also ask the British government to understand that someone who leaves the Union cannot be in the same privileged position as a Member State. If you leave the Union, you are of course no longer part of our single market, and certainly not only in the parts of it you choose," Juncker noted.

    Second, the diplomat stressed the need to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, stressing that the EU member states "will always show loyalty and solidarity with Ireland."

    Third, Juncker underlined that after March 29, 2019, the United Kingdom would never be "an ordinary third country for us" but rather "a very close neighbor and partner" in terms of politics, economy and security.

    Immigration

    When speaking of the issue of migration, Juncker praised EU efforts pointing at the decrease in arrivals in Eastern Mediterranean by 97 percent and by 80 percent in the Central Mediterranean.

    "However, Member States have not yet found the right balance between the responsibility each must assume on its own territory; and the solidarity all must show if we are to get back to a Schengen area without internal borders. I am and will remain strictly opposed to internal borders," he noted.

    READ MORE: EU Plan to Distribute Migrants Will Increase Threat of Terrorism — Hungarian FM

    Juncker urged for "lasting solidarity" of the EU member states when it comes to the migration issue, and proposed to further develop the European Asylum Agency, speed up the return of irregular migrants as well as strengthen the European Border and Coast Guard.

    Africa

    Juncker described Africa as Europe's "twin continent," stressing the need to increase EU investment in its relations with the African nations.

    "Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much… Today, we are proposing a new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa. This Alliance – as we envision it – would help create up to 10 million jobs in Africa in the next 5 years alone," he said.

    He also suggested that Europe should develop the multiple European-African trade agreements into "a continent-to-continent free trade agreement," based on an economic partnership between equals.

    Syria

    As of the conflict in Syria, Juncker focused on the situation in Idlib, Syria's last insurgency stronghold.

    "What is happening in Idlib in Syria now must be of deep and direct concern to us all. We cannot remain silent in face of this impending humanitarian disaster – which appears now all but inevitable. The conflict in Syria is a case in point for how the international order that served Europeans so well after World War II is being increasingly called into question," he said.

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    European Parliament Elections

    Juncker voiced hope that next year's elections would be "a landmark for European democracy" and urged for rejecting "unhealthy nationalism."

    "We should never forget that the patriotism of the 21st Century is two-fold: both European and national, with one not excluding the other… Patriotism is a virtue. Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit," he pointed out.

    Juncker also stressed the need to protect free and fair elections from "manipulation by third countries or private interests."

    "By the elections, we must show that Europe can overcome differences between North and South, East and West, left and right. Europe is too small to let itself be divided in halves or quarters. We must show that together we can plant the seeds of a more sovereign Europe," the European Commission president stressed.

    Other Matters

    Speaking of security issues, Juncker proposed getting terrorist content off the web within one hour, the critical period of time in which the greatest damage is inflicted.

    Juncker also expressed concern over the developments in some EU member states with regard to the rule of law, stressing the need to launch a disciplinary process, known as Article 7, when needed.

    Earlier on Wednesday, the European Parliament supported triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union against Hungary accusing it of violation of EU values.

    Tags:
    immigration, Brexit, European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, Syria
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