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Five LL.M students attended the 2016 Norbert Schmelzer lecture given by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

On Thursday 3rd of March 2016 the 14th Norbert Schmelzer, organized annually by the CDA party, took place in the Hague. This year the lecture was given by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

In his speech, Mr. Juncker addressed a multitude of issues constituting what he called a “polycrisis” in Europe. The hardships Europe is faced with, ranging from the eurozone to the refugee crisis, from the “Grexit” saga to the question of a “Brexit”, have caused serious division among the Member States and called into question European unity and values. In the wake of such distress, both national governments as well as citizens often point the finger to “Brussels”. However, as President Juncker emphasized, the European Union is only as strong as the Member States allow it to be. The Commission does not have the role of an almighty government and cannot go against the collective will of the Member States. Blaming “Brussels” for shortcomings is, in his words, essentially the same as blaming ourselves.

With regard to the refugee crisis, the Commission President finds that Europe, with its 500 million inhabitants, can easily absorb 1 to 2 million refugees, referring in that context to the great numbers of refugees taken in by countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Nevertheless, he stressed the need to differentiate between those fleeing from war and economic migrants. Juncker went on to underline the threat of a humanitarian crisis in Greece and the importance of handling the refugee influx by cooperating with Turkey, which the EU agreed to support with € 3 billion.

He also voiced his concerns about the Dutch referendum next month concerning the EU association agreement with Ukraine, clarifying that the agreement “is about trade, and not about potential accession of Ukraine to the EU as many Dutch people mistakenly believe”. He predicted that it would take at least 20 years before Ukraine would become a member of the EU or NATO, and warned that a potential “no” by a trading nation like the Netherlands could bring about destabilisation in Europe.

Closing his speech with the notorious Brexit issue, and noting that the Commission and himself are largely “unpopular” in Britain, Mr Juncker called Brexit a self-created problem that he hoped would be quickly part of history. He took the opportunity in this context of euro-skepticism to remind the audience that the EU was initially rooted in a peace project, an evident idea if one would only visit the Second World War cemeteries. Peace is neither ever-lasting nor guaranteed in Europe, as recent examples such as the situation in Ukraine have demonstrated.

Finally, when asked about how young people can be convinced to participate more in the European project and not take for granted European values and achievements such as the past decades of peace, President Juncker replied that in order to do so, the young European generation will need to shift its paradigm. While indeed the European project and the rhetoric surrounding it are rooted in the past, young Europeans need to understand that Europe is now more than ever about the future and about preserving unity in an increasingly unstable world. 

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