Parliaments

Reviewing the state of the EU

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This week sees Jean-Claude Juncker come to the European Parliament to deliver his second "state of the union" speech to MEPs.

The address comes at a critical moment for what has come to be known as the "European project", as it hovers at the crossroads of multiple crises.

In an op-ed published this week, former Commission chief Jacques Delors even called the current landscape a "time of crisis for European identity".

As the current EU President pens the final touches to his address, it is worth looking back at some of the main elements of last year's effort.

Mr Juncker's 80-minute stint at the lectern was rich in both rhetoric and policy announcements.

But how well have some of last year's ideas fared on their path from vision to reality?

Binding quotas for asylum seekers

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A two-year scheme to redistribute 120,000 asylum seekers from struggling frontline states using binding quotas formed the centrepiece of the speech and dominated headlines the next day.

The move marked an escalation in EU action from another emergency scheme announced earlier in the year, which was one-third in size and stopped short of proposing fixed quotas for each country.

The plans were eventually approved, but nearly a year later fewer than 5,000 people have actually been relocated out of the overall target of 160,000.

Getting backing for the scheme came at a heavy political price - with Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all voting against asylum quotas.

Hungary and Slovakia have continued their opposition by challenging the plans in court, whilst the UK and Denmark have exercised their treaty rights not to take part.

Plans for a permanent EU-wide resettlement system effectively remain in the form of a proposed system of fines for countries that refuse to take a calculated "share" of asylum seekers.

However legislation to set up the scheme is yet to start its passage through the European Parliament, and faces stern opposition from some national governments.

Attempts to enforce the sharing out of refugees have received enthusiastic support from MEPs, who have long argued for greater EU co-operation over migration.

However others have suggested that attempts to impose binding quotas have proved a tactical mis-step from the Commission, by inflaming anti-EU sentiment without much to show in the way of concrete results.

An EU border control force

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Jean-Claude Juncker also used the speech to reveal plans to replace the EU's Frontex border force with a "fully operational European border and coastguard system".

The plan was presented to MEPs as the "other side of the coin" necessary to persuade countries in the free-travel Schengen area not to put up controls at their borders.

Legislation to set up the force was tabled three months later - a provisional deal between national ministers and MEPs was approved in July and should be signed into law soon.

The rebranded agency will eventually have a team of 1,500 experts seconded from national forces, as well as emergency powers to request equipment.

It will have expanded legal powers to tackle human traffickers and assist national forces in returning failed asylum seekers to their home countries.

Controversially, the force will also have powers allowing it to "assist" Schengen countries with border management if their own efforts are deemed to put the integrity of the zone at risk.

Such an intervention would have to be proposed by the EU Commission, and approved by national governments.

Other Schengen countries will be able to put up temporary border controls if the offending state voted against a deployment.

A revision of EU social rights

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The announcement of plans for a "European pillar of social rights" won little coverage in the speech's aftermath, but has some potentially significant implications.

The plan was billed as a way to help restore trust in an EU that was felt to be too closely associated only with austerity, financial elites and the banking system.

An outline of the plan has been out for public consultation for five months, with concrete proposals promised early next year.

The scheme would initially only apply to countries in the Eurozone, although countries outside the currency bloc would be able to take part if they wanted.

It is still not clear is what form the scheme will take, or how far the Commission will try to expand its powers over employment rights.

Such a move could prove highly controversial, although it could be made easier now that the UK - a longstanding critic of EU involvement in this area - is moving towards the exit door.

A 'more assertive' EU foreign policy

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Image caption Kenya hosts the world's largest refugee camp outside Dadaab - which it has vowed to close

Alongside the proposals for greater sharing of asylum seekers, Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs that the EU would need a "more assertive" foreign policy to tackle the long-term causes driving mass migration to the continent.

Alongside pledges for a renewed diplomatic effort to try to resolve the civil war in Syria and set up a long-term government in Libya, he unveiled his plan to boost EU investment in African development projects.

Billed as an "emergency trust fund" initially targeted at 23 countries, the plan was formally launched at an EU summit in Valletta two months later.

The plan's main aim is to boost economic opportunities in Africa to stop migrants heading north.

However the package also courted controversy given that governments such as Eritrea and Sudan - both subject to international sanctions over alleged human rights abuses - were eligible to receive EU cash.

A total of €1.8bn in EU funds has so far been promised for the scheme, which signed off its first project - a vocational training scheme in Ethiopia - in December last year.

However the Commission's ambition of receiving a similar amount for the plan from national governments has so far not materialised.

Figures from June this year show that around €81.8m has been pledged so far - with nothing pledged from Croatia, or debt-laden Cyprus and Greece.

Malta - which hosted the summit where the scheme was announced - has so far only pledged €250,000.