Monday

30th Nov 2020

Analysis

The State of the Union speech - digested

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen addressed the parliament in Brussels, with MEPs socially-distancing in the chamber (Photo: European Parliament)

In her debut speech laying out the State of the Union, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called for unity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and doubled down on her flagship green policy.

On Wednesday(16 September), the 61-year old former German defence minister, who only narrowly won the support of MEPs last year to become commission president, outlined not a vision, but an ambitious list of policies to tackle.

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  • Von der Leyen cited Conservative former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, saying 'Britain does not break treaties' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Here is a run down:

What about the economy?

Von der Leyen praised EU countries - and her own commission - for acting quickly in the face of looming economic crisis, through state aid, relaxed debt rules, and the recovery fund.

"This is an achievement that we should take collective pride in," she said, on the deal on the recovery fund, which for the first time allows the commission to borrow large sums of money on the markets.

She also argued for minimum wages, and said the commission will put forward a legal proposal to support member states to set up a framework for minimum wages.

Von der Leyen also called for greater investment in technology to compete with China and the US, and said the EU would invest 20 percent of the €750bn recovery fund in digital projects.

What does she want to do on health?

Von der Leyen called for better health coordination and announced a global health summit in Italy next year.

"The people of Europe are still suffering," she said.

She said she was grateful to the European Parliament for push back on funding levels for health, in their negotiations on the long-term budget with the member states. EU leaders to cut some health spending in July at their summit.

The commission president also announced the creation of a new agency for biomedical advanced research and development, called Barda.

She also warned that "vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk", saying the EU has led the global response for a vaccine.

What did she unveil on the new migration proposal?

Not much, except that the package, to be unveiled next week, will be "human and humane".

And that frontline countries, such as Greece, must be able to rely on the solidarity of the whole EU.

"We will take action to fight smugglers, strengthen external borders, deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways," she pledged.

Von der Leyen also had a warning for EU countries who rejected the first asylum reform package put forward in 2016.

"If we step up, then I expect all member states to step up too. Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part," she said.

Did she call for tougher EU foreign policy?

Yes, especially with regards to Russia and Turkey.

She repeated an earlier call by previous commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, on EU capitals not to allow some governments to hold the common EU position to "hostage", and to decide by majority rather than unanimity on human rights and sanctions implementation.

"When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting," she said, adding that human rights abuses must be called out, whether in Hong Kong or with regards to China's Uyghur minority.

Von der Leyen said the commission will propose a European Magnitsky Act, a sanctions regime aimed at punishing human-rights abusers by freezing their assets in Europe and baning them from travelling to the bloc.

Von der Leyen also laid out to "those that advocate closer ties with Russia" that there is a pattern of assassination attempts, election interference and armed conflict.

"I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one-off," she said, referring to the Russian opposition figure, now recovering in a Berlin hospital.

"This pattern is not changing," she said, adding that "no pipeline will change that," referring her native Germany's controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia.

On Belarus, von der Leyen confirmed: "the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus."

The bloc, nevertheless, has yet to publish a list of people it will sanction over the election fraud and violent crackdown of protests in Belarus.

With regards to Turkey, the commission president acknowledged that the country is hosting many migrants, adding that the EU helps with "considerable funding".

But in a warning, she also said that "none of this is justification for attempts to intimidate its neighbours," namely EU members Cyprus and Greece.

What about Brexit?

Von der Leyen said that the UK cannot unilaterally change the EU-UK bilateral withdrawal agreement without destroying trust in London.

She also rubbed it in, by citing Margaret Thatcher, with the possibility of a UK-EU deal fading.

"Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade," von der Leyen quoted, from a 1975 speech by the British former PM and conservative icon.

How tough was she on rule of law?

In rhetoric, von der Leyen paid tribute to the importance of rule of law, freedom of press, and independence of the judiciary.

"The commission attaches the highest importance to the rule of law," she said.

But the speech lacked new initiatives, as Hungary and Poland are under EU scrutiny for breaching the bloc's rules.

However, that is not necessarily von der Leyen's fault: July's EU summit clearly revealed the deep and antagonistic divide between member states on how to police rule-of-law breaches.

The commission's first annual rule of law review of all member states will be published later this month.

In her speech, she stuck to the compromise reached at the July summit: EU funds from the long-term budget and the recovery fund will be protected against any kind of fraud, corruption and conflict of interest, but will not be linked per se with broader rule-of-law issues.

Von der Leyen, however, lashed out against Poland on its so-called LGBTI-free zones, and said the commission will put forward "a strategy to strengthen LGBTI rights", will also push for mutual recognition of family relations in the EU.

"Being yourself is not your ideology, but it is your identity. LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones and have no place in our union," she said.

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