Britain will soon regret voting for Brexit, but the European Union will move on, the European Commission president has insisted. In a speech setting out the future direction of the bloc, Jean-Claude Juncker said the UK’s exit would be a “sad and tragic” moment, but it was “not the be all and end all”.
Juncker evoked the Queen to describe how Brexit helped to make 2016 an “annus horribilis” for the European project. But during the annual state of the union address, he insisted the “wind is back in Europe’s sails” and countries were knocking on Brussels’ door to do trade deals with the EU.
Setting out hopes for closer integration, Juncker announced plans to increase passport-free movement around the EU, expand use of the euro and boost the number of member states. But the hour-long speech, which ranged over areas as diverse as the quality of fish fingers to plans to create a super-presidency role, Brexit was given a notably short slot near the end.
Mr Juncker said: “This will be a very sad and tragic moment in our history. We will always regret this, and I think that you will regret it as well, soon.”
“Nonetheless we have to respect the will of the British people. But we are going to make progress. We will move on because Brexit isn’t everything, it’s not the future of everything, it’s not the be all and end all.”
In a letter circulated as he made his speech, Juncker said the past 12 months had been “challenging” for Europe.
He wrote: “2016 was in many ways an ‘annus horribilis’ for the European project. From the Brexit referendum, to the terrorist attacks, to slow growth and continued high unemployment in several of our member states, to the ongoing migration crisis, Europe was challenged in many ways.”
Juncker said he wanted use of the euro, membership of the Schengen agreement – which abolishes internal borders, and the banking union set up after the euro zone crisis to become standard. He insisted it was “high time” that Romania and Bulgaria were included in the passport-free travel area and Croatia should follow soon.
He said the Euro is destined to become the common currency of the “entire” European Union. Juncker set out proposals to merge his role with the presidency of the European Council, currently held by Donald Tusk, saying it would make EU institutions clearer and more efficient.
Addressing the Parliament in response to Mr Juncker’s speech, Mr Nigel Farage said: “All I can say is, ‘Thank God we’re leaving’.”
“You have learned nothing from Brexit. If you had given (David) Cameron concessions, particularly on immigration, the Brexit vote – I have to admit – would never, ever have happened.”
“And yet the lesson you take is that you are going to centralize and move on to this very worrying, undemocratic union.”
Mr Farage said Mr Juncker’s vision for the future EU of 27 included a single powerful president, a finance minister with authority to intervene in nation states and “a stronger European army in a militarized EU with a stronger and perhaps more aggressive foreign policy”.