Von der Leyen aims to achieve the ‘impossible’ – A round-up of her State of the Union speech

© European Union, 2021

On Wednesday 15 September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held her State of the Union Speech. Read our round-up here:

Von der Leyen started off by stressing how unity between the institutions and Member States have helped the bloc through various crises, most recently the pandemic and the climate crisis. She found hopeful words to envision a way to face these challenges, by suggesting that “our Union will be stronger if it is more like our next generation: reflective, determined and caring. Grounded in values and bold in action.”

Of course, one of the central themes was the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Von der Leyen stressed the success of the EU’s procurement of vaccines and the speed of the vaccination campaign in the EU. This was a fair evaluation but also necessary to remind those that heavily criticised the EU’s solidarity approach in procuring and distributing vaccines at the start of the vaccine race in summer last year. The solidarity approach also becomes visible in the sharing of vaccines with developing countries, which von der Leyen pointed out as a special achievement. This also sets the bloc apart from powers like the UK and US who have so far not shared vaccines with the rest of the world.

In the vein of fighting the pandemic, von der Leyen also announced the launch of the newly founded European Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA) which is bound to improve the EU’s preparedness for responding to health threats like the current pandemic.

In the economic sector, the Commission President noted a positive growth trend despite the pandemic, and stressed the need to “invest in both short-term recovery and long-term prosperity”. Of course, one priority in the EU’s single market is the digital economy which will be boosted by further investments and steps that will ensure the EU is sovereign as regards digital technology (and no longer dependent on Asia, as is still the case).

In terms of social rights, von der Leyen announced that social justice would be achieved by a new European Care Strategy on the one hand, and the fight against tax evasion and avoidance on the other.

Acknowledging the strain that the lockdowns and social distancing rules have put on young people in Europe, an interesting initiative was introduced that will allow them to make Erasmus-like experiences even though they might have missed out on that opportunity because of the pandemic. The ALMA programme will allow young people to make temporary work experiences abroad in other member states. In the same vein, von der Leyen proposed 2022 as the Year of the European Youth to acknowledge their role in fighting the pandemic and shaping the future. The latter will also be achieved by greater involvement of the youth in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Naturally, another focus topic was climate action. Von der Leyen stressed the importance of the European Green Deal for meaningful reductions of emissions (read our article about the Green Deal here) but also called upon other global actors like China and the US to set legally binding targets and deliver concrete action plans to reach the 1.5 degrees target. A special focus was also placed on climate finance that assists less developed countries in becoming greener. So far, a number of Member States in the Team Europe framework already contribute 25 billion dollars per year to that end.

Von der Leyen also addressed the situation in Afghanistan and expressed solidarity with the Afghan people, while at the same time promising humanitarian aid (in case you missed it, get a recap of what happened here). The Commission President took the events in Afghanistan as a sign that more military cooperation is needed, both with NATO but also in the form of a European Defence Union. This is a proposal that especially France and Germany have pushed for heavily in the past years, but so far without concrete success. She therefore called on Member States to share their knowledge about threats and thereby increase ‘situational awareness’, pointed out the importance of improving interoperability of equipment and the procurement thereof, and called for a European Cyber Defence Policy to be developed.

It will barely come as a surprise that von der Leyen pointed to the US as the EU’s most important ally and partner, but more interestingly, she also reaffirmed support to the Western Balkan region and the will to move the applicant countries there closer to EU accession. An emerging area of interest is the Indo-Pacific region, for which a new strategy was announced. The EU’s involvement in emerging and developing regions becomes ever more important as autocratic powers like China and Russia try to increase their spheres of influence in those places of the world. As one concrete measure, the Commission President pointed out the EU’s Global Gateway Partnerships which will be used to invest in infrastructure in developing areas of the world.

On the issue of migration, von der Leyen found strong words to criticise the Belarusian regime which has been sending migrants across the border into the EU (read our article on this here), and expressed solidarity with the Eastern European countries faced with this challenge. The Commission President also expressed the need for trust among Member States to manage migration together in a fair way.

The rule of law was another topic of concern. While von der Leyen stressed that the Union is based on common values, she also noted the erosion of those values in certain Member States and made clear that the European Court of Justice and the other European institutions will continue to keep a close eye on developments that might violate rule of law (pointing to the proceedings against Poland for instance). To that end, she announced that the reports about the state of the Rule of Law in Member States will include specific recommendations for improvement from 2022 on.  

The Commission President ended her thematic roundup of the last year with the topic of freedom, including LGBTQ+ freedom (which constituted an expression of solidarity with the group against Hungary’s recent developments) and announcing legislation to address violence against women. Importantly, she also touched on the vital nature of media freedom to protect our democracies, and mourned the recent killings of several journalists (find out more about the deaths of two Dutch journalists and the implications for the European media landscape here).

The speech was concluded with the help of Italian Paralympic gold medallist Beatrice Vio, who von der Leyen said had been a huge inspiration to her, giving the speech a personal touch. Von der Leyen said that Vio embodied the motto that to her must also be the spirit of the EU: “if it seems impossible – then it can be done”. 

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