Brexit a ‘wake-up call’ but no threat to EU, Juncker tells MEPs

UK will not have ‘a la carte’ accees to single market, commission president vows

Britain's decision to leave the European Union is a "wake-up call" for the bloc but will not threaten its existence, European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker said yesterday.

In a widely anticipated speech to the European Parliament ahead of tomorrow's informal meeting of EU leaders in Bratislava, Mr Juncker said that while the EU "respects and regrets" the Brexit vote, Britain will not have "a la carte" access to the EU's single market.

His warning underlines the differences between Brussels and London over the terms of Britain's exit.

British prime minister Theresa May has said she expects Britain to both retain access to the single market and to restrict free movement, setting the stage for a battle with Brussels when negotiations commence next year.

Mr Juncker used his annual state of the union address to the parliament to call for unity across the bloc in the wake of the British referendum, arguing that the union is more fragmented than ever.

He said EU member states needed to work together to overcome differences and to remember the values on which the project was founded. “Is this a union that has forgotten its past? Our children deserve better,” he said, referencing his own father who had fought in the second World War.

Among the specific measures proposed by the commission president in his speech was an increase of funding for its flagship investment plan, a US-style data registration system that would screen incoming visitors to the EU, and a plan to establish a volunteer European “youth corps” numbering up to 100,000.

Mr Juncker’s speech also included a strong emphasis on defence and security measures.

"Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others or let France alone defend its honour in Mali, " he said, in written comments issued after the address.

Toughen up

Mr Juncker also said the EU needs to “toughen up” when it comes to defence policy.

"The Lisbon Treaty enables those member states who wish to pool their defence capabilities in the form of a permanent structured co-operation," he said. "I think the time to make use of this possibility is now."

The deployment of an additional 200 extra border guards and 50 extra vehicles to the Bulgarian border were among the proposals announced by Mr Juncker, as well as moves to strengthen Europol, the EU-wide intelligence agency.

Protecting the EU’s external borders and increase security co-operation will be discussed by EU leaders when they gather in the Slovak capital for a one-day meeting tomorrow.

Britain will not be represented at the summit, convened by European Council president Donald Tusk in the wake of the British referendum in June.

In his letter to EU leaders ahead of the meeting, he said it would be a “fatal error to assume that the negative result in the UK referendum represents a specifically British issue”.

“Business as usual is not an option,” he said. “We can either come out of this crisis weaker and conflicted, or stronger and more united.”

Mr Tusk highlighted security and counter-terrorism measures as some of the priorities for leaders. “Someone must give back to Europeans their sense of security,” he said.

Speaking in the parliament following Mr Juncker’s speech yesterday, British MEP Syed Kamall, who leads the British Conservatives in the parliament, accused Mr Juncker of producing the “same mantra as before”.

“In many other EU countries, the warning signals are there, and if they continue to be ignored, don’t be surprised if others ask to follow,” he said.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent