STRASBOURG: European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker insisted on Wednesday (Sep 14) that Brexit will not sink the EU, unveiling a raft of plans including a joint defence headquarters in a bid to unify the crisis-hit bloc.
In his annual State of the Union speech, Juncker urged European Union nations to overcome deep divisions and the shock of Britain's departure in order to fight back against "galloping populism".
"The European Union still does not have enough union," Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, saying the "next 12 months are the crucial time to deliver".
"There are splits out there and often fragmentation where we need further union - that is leaving space for galloping populism," he added, in a speech that mixed German, French and English.
Juncker's speech came two days before the 27 EU leaders meet without Britain in the Slovakian capital Bratislava, for a summit aimed at drawing up a roadmap for the post-Brexit future.
The head of the EU executive warned Britain it could not expect "a la carte" access to the EU's single market if it brings back immigration controls, signalling a further hardening of Europe's position ahead of negotiations with London.
"We respect and at the same time regret the UK decision, but the European Union as such is not at risk," said Juncker, who officially launched the Commission's Brexit "task force" on Wednesday.
POPULISTS STRIKE BACK
With EU nations deeply divided, in particular by the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War II, Juncker's speech focused on security and the economy to find ways of working together.
"We must have a European HQ and ... work towards a common military force," said Juncker - referring to plans that have long faced British hostility and which will come up at Friday's summit.
He stressed however that this should be "complementary with NATO" in reference to concerns that the EU will be treading on the toes of the US-led military alliance.
Juncker also hit back at rising nationalism and racism, referring to the recent killing of a Polish man in Britain with the words: "We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered on the streets of Harlow."
But his speech was greeted with disdain by populist leaders in the European Parliament.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party which led the push for Brexit, criticised the focus on "military Europe" and added: "Having listened to you, I am pleased we voted to leave."
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said Juncker had "refused to listen to the huge desire of European people to get their independence back".
DOUBLE YOUR MONEY
Juncker meanwhile proposed doubling the size of his signature investment plan to €630 billion (US$708 billion), and announced measures to help young people hit by the eurozone debt crisis.
In a bid to make Europe's digital economy more competitive in a tough global marketplace, he also unveiled plans to shake up copyright laws and roll out free wifi across towns and villages by 2020 and 5G mobile phone coverage by 2018.
He also called for a new EU border and coastguard force to start work quickly with 200 guards and 50 vehicles deployed in Bulgaria by October.
But the difficulties of keeping Europe united were underscored on the eve of Juncker's speech when Luxembourg's foreign minister said Hungary should be suspended from the EU for treating refugees like "animals".
Juncker's performance in front of 751 MEPs was closely scrutinised amid speculation he has health concerns, despite strong denials by him and his spokespeople. His speech sets the stage for Friday's Bratislava summit where leaders will study a joint defence plan by France and Germany and other post-Brexit security plans.
In a summit invitation letter published late Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk said it would be a "fatal error" for the EU to ignore the lessons of Brexit and urged the bloc to be less "politically correct" on migration.
The leaders will launch a "Bratislava process" of reforms that they aim to approve at a summit in Rome in March 2017 to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, a senior EU official said.