In her first State of the Union speech, delivered on Wednesday (16 September), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen positioned herself as a bulwark against the unravelling of EU values that is already underway in many of the member states.
Most of von der Leyen’s speech focused on her major battle horse so far: the economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on businesses across the EU this year.
But she probably kept one of her strongest messages, about ‘European values’, for the end. She approached the subject after criticising the lack of solidarity with Greece in migrant burden-sharing, acknowledging that the 2015 migration crisis “caused many deep divisions between member states – with some of those scars still healing today”.
Some member countries like Poland and Hungary still refuse outright to take migrants on their territory.
The German Commission president quoted fellow German Walter Halstein, the first president of the Commission of the European Economic Community and one of the founding fathers of the European Union.
“We must rebuild the trust amongst us and move forward together. And this trust is at the very heart of our Union and the way we do things together. It is anchored in our founding values, our democracies and in our Community of Law – as Walter Hallstein used to call it”, von der Leyen said and continued:
“This is not an abstract term. The rule of law helps protect people from the rule of the powerful. It is the guarantor of our most basic of everyday rights and freedoms. It allows us to give our opinion and be informed by a free press.”
Von der Leyen announced once again that before the end of September, the Commission will adopt the first annual rule of law report covering all member states. The tentative date is 23 September. Von der Leyen described it in the following terms:
“It is a preventive tool for early detection of challenges and for finding solutions. I want this to be a starting point for Commission, Parliament and member states to ensure there is no backsliding. The Commission attaches the highest importance to the rule of law. This is why we will ensure that money from our budget and NextGenerationEU is protected against any kind of fraud, corruption and conflict of interest. This is non-negotiable.”
Indeed, the Commission and the European Parliament are pushing for a “Rule of Law mechanism”, although, because of veto rights under EU treaties, member states concerned are ultimately likely to have the upper hand in the decision-making.
Von der Leyen, however, did not appear downbeat at such a prospect. She said:
“The last months have also reminded us how fragile it can be. We have a duty to always be vigilant to care and nurture for the rule of law. Breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated. I will continue to defend it and the integrity of our European institutions. Be it about the primacy of European law, the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary or the sale of golden passports. European values are not for sale.”
In some EU countries, especially in Bulgaria, the Commission and the Parliament find an ally in the civil society, which is opposed to spending EU funds just to fill the pockets of local oligarchs and land barons. In some cases, like Hungary or the Czech Republic, the recipients are the leaders of these countries, who represent them at EU summits.
Von der Leyen announced that the Commission would appoint the first-ever anti-racism coordinator “to keep this at the top of our agenda and to work directly with people, civil society and institutions”.
She made reference to anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-LGBT manifestations in member states, without naming them.
“We ask where is the essence of humanity when anti-semitic carnival costumes openly parade on our streets? Where is the essence of humanity when every single day Roma people are excluded from society and others are held back simply because of the colour of their skin or their religious belief? […]I want to be crystal clear – LGBTQI-free zones are humanity free zones. And they have no place in our Union.”
A festival in the Belgian city of Aalst has raised eyebrows, while in Poland six towns declared themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones” or adopted “family rights” declarations that Brussels regards as discriminatory. Anti-Roma actions take place in Bulgaria, where VMRO, one of the junior coalition partners in the government, pursues a policy of stigmatization of this community.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]