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Written by Cian McCarthy

When Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, delivered his final State of the Union address to the European Parliament- an annual speech in which he outlines the Commission’s priorities and agenda for the forthcoming year – it was clear that two key points would be of particular interest to Ireland. First, alongside an image of the Irish tricolour on the official live-stream, he reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to protecting Ireland’s distinct interests in the Brexit negotiations, including taking the necessary steps to avoid a hard border on the island.

Second, was the suggestion that the Council of the European Union should move away from unanimity and towards a Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system when it comes to matters of taxation. This idea would be less welcome in Ireland as it would effectively remove Ireland’s veto on such issues. However, the proposal is unlikely to materialise given that unanimity would be required to institute such a system.

Neither of these, however, were the core points of President Juncker’s address. The central thread running through this fifty-minute speech was the desire for a united European Union, that can speak with one voice and play a leading role on the world stage. While such a statement may not grab as many headlines in Ireland, it still is a significant ambition that will have consequences for Ireland’s ability to project its own foreign policy.

Whereas a common anti-EU argument in the UK is the ‘loss of sovereignty’ that EU membership entails, the opposite is true for Ireland; EU membership has enhanced Irish sovereignty, by allowing us to make a meaningful contribution to some of the most significant global issues, something which Ireland would have not been able to do as a small nation. By focussing on the ways in which the EU can step up on the world stage and potentially even preserve the liberal order, President Juncker was in fact making one of the strongest cases for a European Union that will continue to protect and project Irish interests.

The desire for a consolidated European foreign policy is not all that surprising. To the East, European leaders are increasingly concerned by the threat of Russian and Chinese influence over the EU’s neighbours. For President Juncker, this is why it is vital for the EU to accelerate the process of enlargement for countries of the Western Balkans, or else “others will take it upon themselves to shape our neighbourhood.”

Looking across the Atlantic, the Trump administration’s ambivalence towards NATO, and multilateralism in general, has increased the desire among many EU leaders, including President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, to create a more self-reliant and independent EU. Although President Juncker stressed that he is not calling for a militarised EU, he did call for a European Defence Union, as well as a strengthening of the EU’s external border.

While the speech may have fallen short on solutions to some of the key problems for the EU today – namely the migration crisis, the rule of law problems in Poland and the illiberalism of Victor Orbán in Hungary – it robustly defended multilateralism and reaffirmed the EU’s dedication to supporting a liberal world order.

The speech emphasised that a European Union with a single voice can play a leading role in many other areas, including combatting climate change, space exploration and the promotion of human rights across the globe. Through free trade agreements, the EU believes it can spread its high product and labour standards. By creating a new and balanced partnership with Africa, in which investment and creation of sustainable jobs, not charity, are the key pillars, the EU can help the continent of Africa flourish – and reduce the push factors of migration to Europe. These goals align closely with Irish foreign policy; the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, has spoken numerous times in the past year on the need for Ireland, through the EU, to deepen its relationship with Africa.

However, achieving this enhanced role on the world stage will not be easy. The current requirement of unanimity in matters of foreign policy frustrates the EU’s capacity to achieve anything substantial. This is the context for President Juncker’s suggestion that Qualified Majority Voting also to be brought in for matters of foreign policy. Without mentioning them by name, he used the example of Greece vetoing an EU condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses as an example of the need for QMV. According to him, the lost art of compromise must be revived.

There are likely to be concerns within Ireland about the proposals for deeper defence cooperation, and many other countries may be wary of a move towards Qualified Majority Voting in either tax policy or foreign policy. Nevertheless, the vision for a self-reliant and outward looking European Union could be a positive development for Ireland, for which openness and multilateralism are central components of its foreign policy. The EU provides a vital platform which Ireland can use actively shape the world, and many of President Juncker’s proposals may enhance that capacity even further.