State of the Union

Juncker calls for EU trade, investment policy push

President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.
President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.

(Bloomberg) European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sought to expand Europe's global economic footprint in a sign of growing confidence the political threats posed by Brexit and populism can be contained.

Juncker, who leads the European Union's (EU) executive arm, pushed to start EU free-trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, give the bloc a role in screening foreign investments across Europe and deepen euro-area integration.

The initiatives, outlined in an annual State of the Union speech, come as British Prime Minister Theresa May struggles for leverage in negotiations on leaving the EU, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks set for a fourth term.

The policy rush also follows a series of national ballot wins by pro-EU forces including French President Emmanuel Macron.

"Europe can deliver for its citizens when and where it matters," Juncker said in his televised address on Wednesday in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

"We've been slowly but surely gathering momentum."

New trade talks

The EU wants to snuff out centrifugal forces that have weakened since they propelled the Brexit vote and rattled Europe's mainstream political parties in 2016.

In the same address a year ago, Juncker warned of "galloping populism" and defended the very idea of European integration begun in the 1950s to avoid a repeat of devastating wars on the Continent.

Global developments may also have turned in the EU’s favor. With US President Donald Trump challenging the trans-Atlantic order, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un testing nuclear bombs, Europe is presenting itself as a bastion of stability.

In his speech, Juncker said he would ask EU governments for the authority to begin market-opening negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.

His plan comes on the heels of a provisional EU free-trade accord with Japan and a week before a hard-fought European deal with Canada enters into force.

Juncker also proposed an EU framework to screen foreign investments in Europe when concerns arise about unfair competition, particularly in strategic industries.

A divisive issue among EU governments that could take years to negotiate, the measure is a political reward for Macron after he defeated far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in France's presidential election, and his upstart centrist party secured a majority in a subsequent parliamentary ballot.

"The wind is back in Europe’s sails," Juncker said.

"We have now a window of opportunity."

Get the latest news by signing up to our newsletter, following us on Facebook or Twitter.