European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged in her first ‘State of the Union’ address that Europe will lead the way towards a “new vitality” following the COVID-19 crisis, including a more “human” and greener economy.
In her 80-minute speech in the European Parliament plenary in Brussels, von der Leyen mentioned mostly proposals already made, including setting up a framework for minimum wages in Europe, or initiatives previously leaked to the press, especially the new target to cut CO2 emissions at least by 55% by 2030.
The impact of the pandemic and Europe’s place in the post-coronavirus world was the focus of her address, together with the ‘green’ and ‘digital’ priorities of her mandate.
The virus “showed us just how fragile our community of values really is – and how quickly it can be called into question around the world and even here in our Union,” she said.
But she added that citizens want to move out of this fragility and uncertainty.
This is “the moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality.”
To that end, some of her new proposals came in the health sector, including the creation of a new agency on biomedical research.
The first priority, she said, is to get out of the crisis. Europe can do that thanks to our economic model, she argued.
“It is above all a human economy” that protects us, offers stability, and creates opportunity and prosperity, she said.
On the economic front, the Commission chief listed measures already taken against the pandemic, such as the SURE mechanism to support workers or the flexibility introduced in state aid and fiscal rules.
But she shed little light on her plans for the new own resources to finance the €750 billion recovery fund, called ‘Next Generation EU’. She only recalled that the Commission intends to put forward proposals for a digital and carbon border tax.
For Maria Demertzis, deputy director at Bruegel think-tank, the economic content of her speech was “almost a repetition”, although she considered “very good” the reference to dedicating 37% of the recovery fund to green goals.
Von der Leyen was more assertive on the foreign policy front, dedicating some of her strongest remarks to countries that are eroding the European values around the world, especially China, Russia and Turkey.
“To those that advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one-off,” she said. She recalled the cases seen in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and Salisbury, and Russia’s meddling in elections around the world, and warned that “this pattern is not changing”.
EU officials already expected that the foreign front would take much of her geopolitical Commission’s attention over the next months.
In her long speech, von der Leyen listed many of the initiatives she intended to put forward, such as the migration reform, the first ‘Rule of Law’ report or the LGTBI strategy. But she warned she would not go into details now.
Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU Law at HEC Paris, opined that “Ursula von der Leyen’s speech unveils an inconvenient truth: behind the solemn, self-complacent tone, this EU Commission has no big vision for Europe’s future”.
“In a moment of COVID-imposed transformation, Europeans deserve more than a laundry list of policy measures,” he added.
For Bruegel’s Demertzis, the speech “had the right tone, but she has set also high expectations”.
The largest political groups in the Parliament were broadly satisfied with her address, although some MEPs missed more attention given to the new own resources needed to uphold the recovery fund, or to the Conference on the Future of Europe, two priorities for the institution.
“No surprises, not many new initiatives and unfortunately no real spirit,” an EU diplomat said of the speech, speaking on condition of anonymity. The same national official explained that she was vague on the review of the Stability and Growth Pact or the digital agenda, two important issues for the coming months, and lacked real ambition on the rule of law front.
Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at Elcano Insitute, agreed that she was rather “disappointing” on the rule of law issue, but was overall positive about her address.
He noted she had made “a political speech, she was human in her considerations on the pandemic and the economy, firm in maintaining the priorities of her mandate (Green Deal and Digital Agenda) despite everything; and brave on the geopolitical front to something beyond expectation (China, Belarus, North Stream, Turkey, human rights).”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]