Editorial | Between Challenges and Aspirations: Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address

, by Guillermo Íñiguez, Madelaine Pitt

Editorial | Between Challenges and Aspirations: Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union Address
Ursula von der Leyen gave her first State of the Union address this morning. Photo: European Parliament.

Ursula von der Leyen’s first State of the Union address, delivered in Brussels this morning, was a packed-out whistle-stop tour of how the Commission plans to tackle a great many of the issues Europe is facing today. It was an eloquent speech - polished and decisive - in which she switched, in her habitual manner, between English, French and German, and which combined short-term policy proposals and a clear vision of how the European project should evolve.

Aiming to be a crowd pleaser, it contained many general pledges that will be well received across the spectrum, and a smattering aimed specifically at almost all individual party groups. This reflects both the thin parliamentary majority which endorsed her, and the need to find a broad consensus between the largest party families - Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals and Greens - in order to drive through legislative projects.

At the heart of the speech was the Next Generation EU package, a huge part of the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan, which will involve loans and grants to member states as well as strategic investment. Europe, von der Leyen argued, has proved able to muddle through yesterday’s crises without planning adequately for tomorrow’s: this is no longer good enough. The EU faces a turning point, and has to be the master of its own faith: change, in her own words, has to occur “by design”, not “by disaster or by dictate from others”.

The Commission President began by paying tribute to frontline workers for their ongoing effort and sacrifice during the pandemic before addressing six main topics: Covid and the European Health Union; the economy; climate change; Digital Europe; Europe’s foreign policy; and values and the rule of law.

Covid and the European Health Union

The Commission President presented a rather self-congratulatory view of the EU’s pandemic response which, although mentioning unquestionable successes such as the SURE package, rather glossed over the old painful divides which opened up in light of the debate on coronabonds, which saw north and south clash once more. She also claimed that the EU had managed to “turn fear and division into confidence in the union” – a rather optimistic assessment given Italy’s and Spain’s plummeting trust in the EU at the peak of the crisis, when citizens felt they had been left with little support outside of their own borders.

However, it is positive that von der Leyen expressed a strong desire to move towards a European Health Union, rightly justifying that limited competencies in health policy hampered the EU’s crisis response. European health must be made “future-proof”, she asserted, with a five-point plan to bulk up preparedness for future challenges. Steps include reinforcing and empowering the existing agencies European Medicines Agency and Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and building a new one for advanced R&D; strategic stockpiling to address dependencies (no third countries were mentioned); a discussion on health competencies during the Conference on the Future of Europe; and convening a global health summit in Italy next year. There was clear acknowledgement of the link between the current pandemic and the climate emergency; that the former, just as much as melting glaciers and burning forests, is a symptom of the latter.

The economy

The economic section in her speech, which combined a progressive employment policy with a strong emphasis on open competition and ‘cutting red tape’ showcased the lack of a clear economic philosophy underlying her presidency. In a sense, said tension is inevitable, and once again showcases the breadth of the parliamentary majority - between Greens, Socialists, Liberals and Conservatives - that her Commission needs to drive legislation through.

Overall, however, her economic policy was broadly progressive. Covid, she argued, has highlighted “the limits” of an economic model “that values wealth over well-being”, and had showcased the need for “a strong social market economy”, one of the EU’s defining features, and one which had helped “stabilise” the Union throughout the past few months. It is therefore not the time to prioritise fiscal rectitude - a comment which strongly implies that the loosening of state aid rules and of the Stability and Growth Pact will remain in place for the time being. Rather, she argued, the Commission has to ensure the “sacredness” of the “dignity of work” across Europe, through an extension of the SURE programme and the introduction of a legal framework for a Europe-wide minimum wage. She concluded by calling for the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union, the Banking Union, and the Capital Markets Union.

The climate crisis

Von der Leyen’s flagship announcement concerned the climate crisis. Climate neutrality by 2050, she argued, was not enough: the Commission would propose a further cut in emissions, bringing the current 40% to 55% by 2030. Although member states would be affected in different ways - von der Leyen herself acknowledged that 55% would be too much for some countries, and not enough for others -, the Just Transition Fund will support left-behind regions, ensuring a fair distribution of this measure’s alleged benefits - a reduction in energy dependency, a cut in pollution and an increase in jobs. Despite this, increasing the emissions targets will be far from uncontroversial within some member states, and is likely to reignite the East-West tensions the Council saw when setting the carbon neutrality target.

The Green New Deal will be one of the Commission’s pillars throughout the next years: 37% of Next Generation funds will be spent on the Green New Deal, with 30% of its 750 billion euros raised through Green bonds. The EU’s response to climate change, von der Leyen added, will not be a mere political project like any other: it will mark the start of “a new cultural movement for Europe”, which brings together scientists, students, artists and the private sector and drives through “systemic change”. Perhaps one of the president’s most intriguing pledges was delivered at this stage: a “new European Bauhaus”, which pioneers sustainable building and cities.

Digital Europe

If the pandemic has highlighted anything, von der Leyen argued, it is the importance of digitalisation. Yet its rapid development throughout the past months, she suggested, has to be accompanied by a clear regulatory framework, as well as by an overarching view of its importance within the European project. ‘Digital Europe’ will thus play an important role in the Next Generation EU package, making of 20% of its total quantum and paving the way for a ‘digital decade’.

Von der Leyen’s policy announcements largely reflected the lines along which Margrethe Vestager has been successfully working: regulating big tech’s use of personal data, ensuring data security and promoting the Union’s digital sovereignty. They also, however, contained some interesting - and ambitious - additions: a ‘European Cloud’, which promotes the efficient use of data by private actors across the continent; a single ‘European digital identity’, which allows users to determine how much of their data is publicly available; and a strong emphasis on digital infrastructure, and on the future development of 5G and 6G through Next Generation funds.

Foreign policy

The headline from von der Leyen’s foreign policy proposals was a strong - and welcome - call to move to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). “For those who say Europe is too slow – be courageous and move to QMV, at least on human rights and sanctions implementation!” she demanded. This would be a valid and overdue first step to resolving the EU’s difficulty in responding adequately to many issues outside of its own borders - and an acknowledgement of the extent to which lack of agreement in the Council is the main obstacle to progress in the EU.

Von der Leyen described the EU’s relationship with the world’s biggest trader as both strategically important and challenging: “China is a negotiating partner, economic competitor and rival,” she claimed, evoking the need to respond to human rights transgressions with regard to Uighurs and citizens of Hong Kong.

She condemned the Belarussian president for clinging on to power while exerting violent oppression on peaceful protestors, asserting that “the people of Belarus must not pieces on someone else’s chessboard”. Equally, Russia’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny and election meddling in many countries (the word “alleged” was conspicuous in its absence) merits more action, not closer ties. In both these cases, QMV would allow the EU to react more quickly without having to achieve unanimity in the Council, thus allowing a few member states to block measures.

It is perhaps a measure of the swollen distance felt and fresh bitterness arisen between the EU and the UK that the familiar topic of Brexit was now mentioned in the foreign policy file. Von der Leyen saved perhaps her most vehement tone for the British government’s recently stated intention to disregard parts of the Withdrawal Agreement: “We went through the agreement line by line, word by word. It was ratified by this house and by the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disapplied or disregarded! It is a matter of law and trust and good faith!”

Her commitment to free and open trade will please Renew and the European People’s Party, but the vision that this should be the main tool for enforcing values abroad will most likely frustrate left-of-centre parties due to the fundamental flaws in this approach. Von der Leyen cited the example of labour rights gained in Vietnam, but neglected to mention that trade agreements have not aided, for example, human rights in China or deforestation in the Amazon. Greener and more strategic constraints are needed for trade to achieve more than economic gains for the EU.

Values and rule of law

This latter part of the State of the Union address might have been the most generic, but it was full of symbolic, heartfelt intent. By sharing several stories of migrants’ significant contributions to society, the Commission President attempted to humanise the question of migration and plead for a united European response, especially in light of the tragic outbreak of covid and then fire in the Moira camp. Von der Leyen’s choice of words was powerful: progress on fighting racism and hard is “hard won yet easily lost” and she condemned the LGBTQI-free zones in Poland in the strongest terms. However, concrete solutions (aside from further criminalising acts of hate) were somewhat lacking, and democratic backsliding within the EU’s borders remains somewhat of an elephant in the room.

Overall....

There was little of surprise in von der Leyen’s speech - like previous State of the Union speeches, it contained many ambitious promises, an optimistic rhetoric and a narrative meant to inspire confidence into a Europe fatigued by Covid, glossing over the divides it has brought back into focus. Despite its predictability, it was a laudable speech, setting out a clear agenda for the year ahead, whilst pointing towards long-term reforms of the Union’s institutional architecture.

The Commission’s political agenda, however, will inevitably have to face the Union’s realpolitik: any major policy project will require the approval of an increasingly divided Council, and of a legislative procedure which has become unfit for purpose. Von der Leyen’s proposals are a welcome start; the ball is now in the Council’s court.

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