BRUSSELS (AP) — With Britain walking away and some eastern nations routinely showing open hostility, the European Union's chief painted a bleak picture Wednesday of the bloc and implored the 27 remaining nations to stop bickering at a time when ever more people question its relevance.
When the U.S. president almost invariably lauds a strong union in the State of the Union address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's annual speech to the European Parliament was rife with awkward truths.
He said "we should admit we have many unresolved problems," and asked an existential question about the future, if any, for the EU — "will Europe disappear from the international scene?"
After a half-century of unremitting growth, the EU has stalled, as was highlighted by the June shock referendum result in Britain, when it became the first member state to ever decide to leave the constantly expanding bloc.
"The facts are plain: The world is getting bigger. And we are getting smaller," Juncker said, adding that only standing together, however difficult that is, can fix the problem.
Juncker wants to reinvigorate the union from within, despite the chorus of voices criticizing the EU's centralized decision-making and institutions.
He specifically said the EU must do more in the defense field, and no longer be overly dependent on the U.S. He said it should start with the creation of an EU military headquarters and work toward a common military force.
Britain has always staunchly defended NATO as the main military alliance and routinely blocked attempts to bolster EU defense.
Juncker said greater defense cooperation also makes economic sense for the bloc's member states, since it would reduce wasteful duplication of effort by individual nations, and he called for a specific defense fund before the end of the year to boost common research projects.
Nigel Farage — a leader of the campaign for the U.K. to leave — said the speech was more of the bad old EU, of increased power-grabbing.
"It is clear that no lessons are going to be learned from Brexit," he said. "Indeed (Juncker's speech) was the usual recipe — more Europe, in this particular case, more military Europe."
For years, EU nations have watched the migration crisis turn to tragedy, each time deploring the scores of drowned people.
Last year, Juncker drew up an obligatory scheme for member states to share 160,000 refugees in Greece and Italy and any other overwhelmed country among their EU partners. Slovakia and others have refused to take part. Hungary even launched a legal challenge.
One year on, fewer than 5,000 refugees have been moved and on Wednesday, Juncker acknowledged his power had met its match. Instead of obligatory, he said, "solidarity must be voluntary, must come from the heart."
It cuts to the core of the power struggle within the EU, as the 27 EU leaders, minus Britain's Theresa May, will meet in Bratislava on Friday, looking for ways to move forward.
With Europe wracked by fears over extremism, the refugee emergency and economic woes, Juncker told legislators that EU integration cannot be for individual member states to manage alone and insisted that "too often national interests are brought to the fore."
"We have to stop this war according to which all success is national and all failure is European."
Eastern member states have been arguing against too much EU integration and the specter of a federal European superstate, and the issue is expected to be the main battleground for months, even years, to come as the EU deals with the fallout of Britain's departure.
"People in Europe don't want this petty envy between the various institutions," he said at the assembly in Strasbourg, France. "They want results. The next 12 months are decisive if we want to realize our union."
Britain still has to officially trigger the exit negotiations to become the first member state to walk away from Europe's biggest unity project. Juncker said, "we would be happy if the request for Brexit could happen as quickly as possible so that we could take the specific steps which need to happen."
There are fears the EU is facing paralysis until Britain decides to move. Juncker also warned that Britain should expect not to get the same access to the EU's unified market as if nothing happened.
"There can be no a la carte access to the single market," he said.
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