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25th Sep 2021

EUobserved

Von der Leyen's State of Union through a speechwriter's eyes

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen giving her inaugural State of the Union of Europe speech in Brussels (Photo: European Commission)

For five years, I wrote the State of the Union speech for a Belgian prime minister, and for years I gave a masterclass in speechwriting.

And so on Wednesday (16 September), I watched Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union of Europe through the eyes of a speechwriter.

Was the State of the Union of Europe too long?

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The speech of von der Leyen lasted for 75 minutes, or one hour and 15 minutes. That is not too long.

In a State of the Union the speaker must emphasise what Europe has done over the past year and announce what it is planning to do in the coming one.

At the same time, there are some messages that need to be given, to European citizens in general - but also some targeted messages to governments, to businesses or to the European Parliament.

If you try to be too concise, the speech quickly starts to sound like a wish list. That would have been even more difficult to watch.

To avoid such a 'list'-style speech, every subject needs an introduction and a conclusion. That is what von der Leyen has done.

However, there is no doubt that for many listeners the speech must have sounded a little too long.

This could have been avoided by creating 'bridges', little stories that give one's ears a break. The story of the two Ligurian tennis players was such a story, but unfortunately the only one.

Why wasn't there a focus on one message?

For the average listener, the von der Leyen speech did sound like a wish list that missed one clear message.

However, contrary to most normal speeches, a State of the Union cannot focus on one issue.

Most people and decision-makers hope to hear about what the European Commission is planning to do in their particular field.

If you skip for example foreign policy, there would be criticism the commission isn't interested in politics outside the Union.

However, a good State of the Union always needs a narrative framework. This year that narrative wasn't too difficult to find: Covid-19.

Von der Leyen started with Covid-19 and ended with it. That's the right way to do it.

Why can't Europe be more outspoken?

The general criticism of the EU, that it is not communicating clearly, doesn't really count for this speech.

Von der Leyen was very clear on many points. Take for example the Green Deal:

"The European Green Deal is our blueprint to make that transformation. At the heart of it is our mission to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. […] On this basis, the European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55 percent." 

On the ongoing protests in Belarus, she stated very clearly:

"I want to say it loud and clear: the European Union is on the side of the people of Belarus. […] The people of Belarus must be free to decide their own future for themselves. They are not pieces on someone else's chess board."

She was also tough on several racist incidents in Europe:

"Hate is hate – and no one should have to put up with it. […] Because in this Union, fighting racism will never be optional. […] And we will appoint the Commission's first-ever anti-racism coordinator to keep this at the top of our agenda and to work directly with people, civil society and institutions." 

If one asks if she couldn't be more outspoken on other issues, like for example US president Donald Trump, or the rule of law in Hungary, a speechwriter's answer is that making too many points is the same as making no points at all. One has to make choices.

Did it convince the ordinary citizen of the EU?

When we start with the good points of the speech, we must say that it was written in non-bureaucratic language, and short sentences.

Also, the State of the Union started with empathy towards all those Europeans who suffered because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another positive point was that von der Leyen showed ambition. She wants Europe to move forward.

On the question if it convinced people of the role the EU has played in the corona crisis so far, the answer is less certain.

People all over Europe saw borders closing, different measures and lockdowns everywhere, and anti-corona medical supplies being blocked at borders.

The EU has made a lot of effort to stop these national, often egoistic, measures. It has also invested a lot to keep the economy alive and to make enormous contracts for vaccines for all Europeans.

Even though it might have sounded a bit defensive, I would argue it was the right moment to defend the European Union and the work it has done here.

But the fact that this defence was too fragmented in the speech will mean that this message will not be heard.

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