CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — In a state of the union speech to a fractured Europe, European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday denounced the rise of “unhealthy” nationalism and called for building stronger ties with Africa.
It was Juncker’s last state of the union speech before the European Parliament, meeting this week in Strasbourg, France, for a plenary session. Juncker is the head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch.
Juncker laid out numerous proposals, among them investing more in Africa, bolstering Europe’s border patrol force by adding 10,000 agents and making Europe a more central player in world affairs.
His speech was a rallying call for unity within the bloc and painted the EU as a force for good in the world.
“Today’s world needs a strong, united Europe,” he said.
A central theme in the speech was tension between nationalism and European unity. In recent years radical right parties have grown across Europe.
“But above all, I would like us to reject unhealthy nationalism and embrace enlightened patriotism,” he said. “To love your nation is to love Europe. Patriotism is a virtue. Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit.”
His speech comes at a turbulent time for Europe.
The EU, while economically showing new strength, is strained by a number of forces.
They include growing discontentment — exemplified by a rise in radical-right parties — against transnational EU policies; the pending departure of Great Britain from the EU, and allegations that Eastern European members, in particular Poland and Hungary, are in the hands of authoritarian political parties.
Europe’s politics also are divided over the question of how to handle tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants fleeing impoverished and war-torn nations in Africa and Asia. The split is between those calling for harder borders and tougher immigration policies and those who say Europe needs to welcome refugees and people fleeing harsh conditions.
Juncker took aim at Italy’s new government, which has refused docking privileges to ships carrying refugees and immigrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
“We cannot continue to squabble to find ad hoc solutions each time a new ship arrives,” he said. “Temporary solidarity is not good enough. We need lasting solidarity, today and forever more.”
He added: “Europe will never be a fortress, turning its back on the world or those suffering within it. Europe is not an island.”
He called on Europe to look toward Africa as “Europe’s twin continent.”
“We have to stop seeing this relationship through the sole prism of development aid. Such an approach is beyond inadequate, humiliatingly so. Africa does not need charity; it needs true and fair partnerships.”
Juncker said big investment plans by Europe would lead to 10 million jobs in Africa in the next five years alone. He noted that 36 percent of Africa’s trade is with the EU, and called for a “continent-to-continent free trade agreement” with Africa that would be “an economic partnership between equals.”
After his speech, European parliament members spoke, and painted a much less rosy picture of Europe.
Udo Bullmann, a German parliamentarian and chairman of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats parliamentary group, said Europe was fractured.
He cited high unemployment in southern Europe and lack “of a decent future” for people in Eastern European countries. He said the EU needs to come up with better solutions for these parts of the union.
“It’s not only these societies, the east and the south, that are falling apart,” Bullmann said. “Look at the north.”
He cited Great Britain’s move to leave the EU and a rise in a far-right political power in Sweden as troubling signs.
Then Ryszard Legutko, a Polish parliamentarian and leader in the European Conservatives and Reformists parliamentary group, blasted Juncker and said the EU was to blame for creating so much division.
“The real question that you should ask yourself: Is the European Union in better shape now than it was when you took office? I think the answer is no,” Legutko said. “Unity is no longer there.
“The number of people dissatisfied, deeply dissatisfied, is increasing. You cannot deny responsibility for that.”
Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian parliamentarian and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary group, called Legutko’s expressions of nationalism “terrifying.” Contrary to Legutko’s portrait, he said Europe was united.
Nigel Farage, an anti-EU British parliamentarian and leader of a faction known as Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, described Juncker’s speech as more evidence that the EU wants to take power away from national governments.
“What you are talking about is a deeper centralization of power,” Farage said. “People do not have a profound sense of European nationalism. We prefer to live in nation-states.”
Juncker responded by telling Farage that patriotic feeling for Europe and an individual nation “does not exclude the other.”
“I continue to be a patriot, but an enlightened patriot,” Juncker said. “I don’t want to live in a world made of hatred.”