Since 2010, the Commission President has given an annual address to the European Parliament to outline a vision for the coming year.
It's in many ways a cheap knock-off of the US version, except with a significant difference. In the US it is the congress, not the president, that initiative legislation. So the US president is asking the Congress to act. In the EU, it is the executive (the Commission) that proposes legislation. So the president is telling the Parliament what he will propose, and the MEPs can choose to accept it or not.
This was the first SOTEU to be delivered in a time of optimism rather than a time of crisis, and President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Europeans to capitalize on the "wind at our sails". The economy is on the uptick, and a revulsion at recent developments in the Anglo-American world has given new impetus and energy to continental Europe.
Juncker wants a bold and decisive Europe to fill the gap left by the retreating Americans, and he outlined an incredibly ambitious trade agenda which would see the EU conclude free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand by 2019.
These countries are, not coincidentally, the two main targets for Theresa May's vision of a post-Brexit Anglo free trade empire. And 2019 is the date, not coincidentally, until which the UK is forbidden from negotiating any free trade deals. More on that here.
Up until now it has been French President Emmanuel Macron who has been the driving force in this 'European Spring'. But on Wednesday President Juncker challenged Macron by attacking on of his main ideas - a 'two speed Europe'.
Macron that the core EU countries that want to move forward with more federalization should do so, while the more reticent countries in 'outer Europe' countries (such as Sweden, Poland and Hungary) can be allowed to hold back. These countries would no longer be obliged to join the euro, and could opt out of the new Eurpean Defence Union being built to give Europe the ability to defend itself without American help.
'Non' was Juncker's response on Wednesday. He insisted on one currency (all member states must join the euro), one European Parliament (rebuffing Macron's suggestion that a new mini-parliament be set up for the eurozone), one economics commissioner (rejecting Macron's suggestion of a new EU finance minister) and, most startlingly, one EU president rather than two. Juncker currently shares his \EU president' title with the president of the European Council, the body making up member state governments.
How much of this is an ideological difference, and how much is about institutional power-plays? The EU institutions are unendingly territorial, and there is fear that Macron's ideas would take too much power away from the Commission. This was Juncker re-asserting the Commission's control.
But this is also about a larger ideological conflict about whether Europe should be split into different speeds. It is a battle that will play out over the coming year.
After the German election, Macron and the next German chancellor (presumably Merkel unless something crazy happens in the next week) will lead a series of 'Citizens Dialogues' across Europe to discuss with citizens what they want in a future EU. They will then hold a 'Democratic Convention' (a.k.a. a constitutional convention) that will hash out reforms, which may or may not involve treaty change.
Macron believes the treaties should be opened. Juncker insisted in his speech they should not be.
Germany's surging far-right
The German election is only a week away, and there have been troubling developments in the polls over the past week. The Social Democrats have fallen to 20%, their lowest poll rating in history. Their leader, Martin Schulz, has not been able to launch a credible opposition to Angela Merkel, whose CDU party is at 37%.
Meanwhile the far-right Alternative for Germany party has been gaining in the polls in the last days before the election, and they are now at 12%. With the far-left Die Linke and the conservative Liberals each at about 9%, it looks like the AfD could become Germany's third-largest party. It would be a stunning development for a country that has not had a viable far-right party since the second world war.
We spoke to German journalist Soeren Kittel, who has been covering these issues for Berliner Morgenpost, about why the AfD has been gaining ground and what went from for Martin Schulz.
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