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Juncker’s State of the Union: Focusing on the future needs to be more than rhetorical

Author: Martin Nesbit

Juncker’s State of the Union: focusing on the future needs to be more than rhetorical

This op-ed is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessary reflect the views of IEEP. 

As he reaches the end of his mandate, Jean-Claude Juncker is looking to the future, and becoming poetic, signing off his speech with this thought:

“The trees we plant today must provide shade for our great grand-children whether they hail from East or West, from South or North. To give them all they need to grow and breathe easily.”

It’s not quite clear if he means this literally or metaphorically – probably metaphorically, because it is the only mention of broader environmental issues in the speech. If it is meant literally, then much remains to be done on air quality, as the European Court of Auditors points out in its recent report:

“EU action to protect human health from air pollution had not delivered the expected impact. The significant human and economic costs have not yet been reflected in adequate action across the EU.”[1]

But it is encouraging that, as we approach the latest opportunity for relaunching the European Union, at Sibiu on 9 May, and in the European Parliament elections later that month, the Commission President has the interests of future generations at the front of his mind.

Climate targets and the EU’s long-term strategy 

It is also encouraging to see that defence of the Paris Agreement is top of Juncker’s mental list when he talks about the EU’s “Global Responsibility”. His vision of climate action needs to be longer term, though. While it is understandable for someone reaching the end of a 5-year mandate to think of the 2030 targets as being some way in the distance, they are only a stepping stone towards the longer-term, more ambitious targets that we know are needed. The Commission’s current work on development of a long-term EU strategy for greenhouse gas emissions reductions [2] needs to be much more at the heart of the next Commission’s political project for the EU; so it is good to see that it is given emphasis in the “Letter of Intent”[3] that President Juncker has sent to the Council and Parliament.

However, it is slightly worrying to hear President Juncker describe the 2030 targets as being “scientifically accurate and politically indispensable”. Pretty much any set of targets on emissions reduction are a trade-off between political feasibility and what is demanded by the science. Commissioner Arias Cañete has, to the contrary, been clear in his public comments over the last year that the current targets are not sufficiently challenging if we are to deliver a 2 degree maximum warning, let alone the 1.5 degree proposed by Paris. We need to set out a clear trajectory towards net zero emissions, and beyond. 

And this is where we need to come back to the interests of our great-grandchildren. Planting trees is one possible contribution towards net zero; but trees are only a temporary store of carbon. We need to put early effort into other negative emissions approaches, so that they can benefit sooner from the sorts of dramatic cost reductions we have seen in solar and wind power. And it’s not just the trees we plant today that future generations will live with, but also the hard infrastructure choices we make. Without an ambitious long-term strategy, translated into clear policy choices that bite on investments being made now, we risk stranded assets in carbon-dependent energy and transport infrastructure. That will not only ultimately increase the cost of decarbonisation, it will make it harder to get the political commitment we need in future for deep decarbonisation.

Environment and trade

A new direction in President Juncker’s speech was a focus on trade with Africa, with a proposed new “Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa”. For longer-term sustainability, and in a changing climate, Africa’s future matters hugely to Europe, so this is encouraging. Low carbon paths to growth have been an element in EU development policies; but environmental issues need to be much more at the heart of EU trade policy, both with developing countries but also developed economies.

Developed economies includes, of course, a new third country, the UK – although as Juncker points out the UK will “never be an ordinary third country”. Juncker’s gently welcoming reference to the UK’s Chequers statement on the need for free trade between the two partners is interesting. To the extent that it suggests the Commission is open to the idea of special access to trade in goods, it means that the need for environmental equivalence and non-regression becomes stronger; because goods are precisely the area of trade where environmental standards have the greatest real and perceived impact.

In summary, the future-focused rhetorical framing of the State of the Union speech is encouraging. It needs to be followed through by the Commission with a renewed emphasis on environmental sustainability. We will be trying to provide ideas for this through our Think 2030 conference in October[4]; and others are working on developing an agenda in advance of the European elections next year. A clear, long-term project for environmental sustainability, focused on delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and with the interests of Juncker’s, and all Europeans’ great-grandchildren at its heart, must be central to the EU’s sense of purpose.


[2] See – and respond to – the current consultation at

[3] Available at:

[4] See

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