In an hour-long speech delivered in Strasbourg, Ursula von der Leyen outlined her priorities and intentions to chart the EU’s path as the bloc emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
The European Commission President spoke directly to Members of the European Parliament, the same ones who are going to debate, negotiate and eventually approve the draft laws that her executive will put forward in the next twelve months.
This year’s State of the Union address had a noticeably more triumphant tone than last year’s, when COVID-19 was raging across the continent and no vaccine had been approved. Von der Leyen seized the moment to celebrate the EU’s two main achievements: the roll-out of the vaccination campaign and the €750-billion recovery fund.
“She was right in claiming success on fighting Covid because I think that we should address blame when it’s justified, but also give credit when it’s justified,” said Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who serves as co-president of the Greens group.
“And in this case, frankly speaking, there were mistakes being made but, by and large, the European Union made a positive difference. And I think that all citizens, if anything, recognise that.”
Despite a problematic start filled with delays, reproaches and distrust, the EU has managed to fully vaccinate more than 70% of its adult population, putting the bloc ahead of the United States and other advanced economies.
“I think she’s a very impressive politician for me. I think last year’s State of the Union was excellent. Today was very good. She speaks very well,” said Barry Andrews, an Irish MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group, who admits he wasn’t happy with the President’s remarks regarding vaccines.
“I was hoping there would be a commitment to some kind of multilateral system of production, procurement, distribution of vaccines globally, instead, unfortunately, of treating vaccines as a public good that people should be entitled to. An announcement was made today about charitable donation of 200 million vaccines. So for me, it’s completely the wrong way of dealing with this issue.”
Too green for the EPP?
Fighting climate change has become the “raison d’être” of the current Commission. Since taking over the executive, Ursula von der Leyen has unveiled the European Green Deal, the European Climate Law and the Fit for 55 package – all far-reaching proposals with the same goal: to make the EU the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
Mindful of the delicate context of the speech, with power prices breaking records across the bloc, von der Leyen didn’t unveil any new initiatives and simply pledged more money for biodiversity conservation and a planned Social Climate Fund to mitigate climate poverty.
“I would have liked to see more ambition on the migration end and also on how we tackle the division within the advancement of, you know, getting to climate neutrality,” said Eva Maydell, a Bulgarian MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP).
“We need to be very careful not to fuel into the far-right or far-left populist on that end. And this is why I think we need to address the topics seriously. We have to avoid two things in the short term: avoiding a green Iron Curtain division and making sure we learnt from the crisis in 2015 on migration. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided again on that topic. We have to be better prepared.”
Iratxe García Pérez, chair of the S&D Group (Socialists and Democrats), wishes von der Leyen had made greater emphasis on the social implications of the green transition.
“We saw an ambitious speech in some areas, in environmental sustainability for instance, something that for us [S&D] is fundamental. But, at any rate, our group of Socialists and Democrats stresses the need to reinforce the Social Climate Fund with more economic support to face this question,” she said.
“We would’ve liked to hear more concrete proposals and more ambition in the social areas. We don’t think there was enough emphasis on social issues – and that’s something essential. We’re talking about the need to advance a sustainable pact regarding the economy but also social protection.”
Lamberts, one of the leading green voices in the hemicycle, feels von der Leyen’s remarks on climate change were “a bit fuzzy” and “a bit defeatist” considering the summer of extreme heat and floods that Europe has suffered this year.
But the Belgian MEP thinks that the President’s words and actions set her apart from her official party, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which tends to advocate a more moderate, industry-friendly approach to climate change.
“It was certainly not an EPP speech,” Lamberts said. “She has shown that she’s not beholden to the interests of her own political group. And by the way, I hear so many EPP members saying that she’s no longer one of theirs” because she’s becoming “too green”.
Calls for strategic autonomy
In her broad speech, Von der Leyen also talked about the EU’s digital transformation, calling it a “make-or-break issue”, and the importance of investing in “European tech sovereignty” to decrease dependence on international markets.
Eva Maydell welcomed the President’s resolve to speed up the digital transition through legislative and investment proposals.
“Ten years ago, when you would speak about the make-or-break moment in digital, people will simply not listen. And I think there is not just awareness now, but readiness to act. So it’s better late that we realise that than never. I’m glad in a way that in this field we have a strong emphasis,” she said.
Among the most eye-catching proposals was a novel “European Chips Act” to boost the production of semi-conductors inside Europe.
The world is currently going through a semi-conductors shortage due to supply chains disruptions caused by the pandemic. The scarcity of this key electronic component, which can be found in cars, dishwashers and smartphones, has shed light on the market dominance of Asia to detriment of the West. Europe’s share of chips production has gone from 40% in the 1990s down to 10% today.
“We need to have indeed more strategic independence in vital pieces of kit that we need for our economy,” Lamberts said. “It’s good that now at last I would say a majority recognises that we have gone too far in making ourselves dependent. That doesn’t mean stopping globalisation or reversing it. But maybe the cursor went too far. Maybe not all things need to be globalised.”
But the idea of European sovereignty goes beyond the digital realm. President von der Leyen used the recent geopolitical debacle of Afghanistan to urge EU countries to deepen cooperation in defence and eventually create a “European Defence Union”. This concept has been touted since the 1960s but has never come to fruition due to political sensibilities and potential overlap with the NATO alliance. The Atlantic organisation and the EU have 21 member states in common.
Barry Andrews, whose native Ireland is not part of NATO, admits being “a little bit worried” about the idea of a defence union because it might eventually lead to the establishment of EU defence forces.
“If that’s the answer to what’s happening in Afghanistan, you’re asking the wrong question. There are other elements of foreign policy like diplomacy and development, which were not emphasised enough in the speech as far as I’m concerned,” Andrews said.
“All of the focus on the defence [is] particularly troubling for non-aligned member states and those member states [that] are completely committed to peace, reconciliation and peacekeeping forces as a way to express European values internationally.”
‘A victory for feminism’
Wednesday’s State of the Union speech left a great variety of proposals and initiatives on the table, such as a ban on products made by forced labour, a new employment programme for the youth, a Media Freedom Act to protect journalists and a European Care Strategy to support healthcare.
Von der Leyen, the first woman to ever preside the European Commission, also vowed to introduce a EU-wide law to combat violence against women.
“This is a victory for feminism in Europe. And it’s also a victory for social democracy,” said Iratxe García, speaking on behalf of the whole socialist group.
“We’ve been asking for years to have this law in place against domestic violence because every day in Europe there are women who are murdered by their abusers and therefore nobody can tolerate this. It’s not a private problems, it’s a problem for the institutions, and also the European institutions.”