State Of The Union - Europe Lies Between Glasgow And Kabul

Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen, Präsidentin der Europäischen Kommission und Mitglied der Fraktion EVP, spricht vor den Abgeordneten des Europäischen Parlaments zur Lage der Union.

© picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

A whole hour for the mere enumeration of the priorities and measures takes so far by the European Commission – that is how the annual speech on the State of the European Union given by the Commission President and directed at the European Parliament and the European citizens can be summarised. The tradition, which is modelled on the American State of the Union Address and has been taking place since José Manuel Barroso, is eagerly awaited every year in political Brussels and the capitals of the EU member states. Did Ursula von der Leyen live up to these expectations?

The Narrative: United in Diversity

As expected, the Commission President painted a picture of unity and internal European cohesion. The European Union, she said, is a union of values that has developed common European responses despite the numerous challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, geopolitical challenges and the climate crisis. Combined with much pathos and self-praise, von der Leyen created the image of a dynamic EU – an image that is at best wishful thinking, since on closer examination the crisis-ridden Europe repeatedly acted more reactively than proactively. 

Taking Stock: A Lot of Crisis Reaction, Few Proper Commission Projects

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the efforts of the Commission and the European Union as a whole are unprecedented in depth and volume. After an initial disastrous failure of coordination in pandemic management and self-centered member states, the EU was able to demonstrate its ability to act despite a lack of competence in health policy. This also applies to the much-maligned Europe joint vaccination procurement. Moreover, the mutual recognition of the digital vaccination certificate made (tourist) travel in the EU possible again for the most part this summer, as did the achievement of an average vaccination coverage of 70% of the EU population. It is therefore logical that the EU and its Member States are now stepping up the global pandemic response by increasing the Covax programme by a further 200 million doses (for a total of 450 million) by mid-2022. Europe is taking its responsibility to improve the world's corona situation seriously.

As a second major achievement, the Commission President praised the economic recovery plan Next Generation EU, particularly highlighting the importance of digitising the economy as well as digitally educating citizens. The Commission plans to exceed the 20% mark set by the EU to be spent on digitalisation within the national measures to be implemented in the recovery plans. This is urgently needed in countries like Germany in view of the sluggish broadband expansion, bumpy e-learning opportunities and a lack of digital equipment in schools and public authorities! Through massive investments in energy efficiency, infrastructure and industry as well as the modernisation of administrative and pension systems, the EU should soon reach pre-crisis economic levels - a success compared to the financial crisis, whose shadow still darkened economic prospects years later. 

The Announcements: Health Authority, Youth Programme, Social Climate Fund, EU As A Geostrategic Player

In addition to her progress report, von der Leyen's speech also contained a number of announcements (only a few of which are mentioned here), although most of them still require considerable clarification. As expected, the harmonisation of health policy in the EU is to be advanced in the future by a separate agency called HERA (Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Agency). However, this will not europeanise health policy as such given that the agency will only be able to coordinate national policies with each other, otherwise treaty amendments would be necessary. This is one of the most concrete proposals to move forward in future pandemic response, along with the envisaged 50 billion investment in the health sector by 2027 (Health Preparedness and Resilience Mission).

Another announcement by von der Leyen concerned the young generation, which would be particularly promoted in their intra-European mobility in 2022 within the framework of a European Year of the Youth and a new temporary work exchange programme for young unemployed people complementary to Erasmus (ALMA). To what extent these ideas differ in detail from already existing programmes such as Erasmus+ or the European Youth Guarantee remains open for the time being. The announcement of a European Care Strategy, which could provide a further element for a more social Europe within the framework of the European Pillar of Social Rights, remains similarly imprecise.

To mitigate the social consequences of the necessary green transformation, von der Leyen also announced a social climate fund. After the massive investment in the framework of Next Generation EU and the presented Fit for 55 package, the main question here is the financing and solidity of the project. The climate policy transformation of the economy and society in Europe remains the EU's mega-project. The UN Climate Summit in Glasgow will be the stage on which Europeans once again want to present themselves as pioneers and drivers. In this context, the Commission President confirmed further investments in climate protection to the tune of 4 billion euros by 2027 and called on the USA in particular to become more involved in the fight for global climate protection.

Von der Leyen's statements on the external threat situation and geopolitical challenges facing the EU were surprisingly clear. Alluding to the current situation in Afghanistan, she drew attention to the importance of stabilising the European neighbourhood, where the EU could no longer rely on NATO alone. For this reason, she said, an EU-NATO declaration was being drafted by the end of the year. Hybrid warfare and cyber attacks were replacing classic extraterritorial attacks, so the EU would have to reposition itself technologically. This was perhaps the only moment when the Commission Presidents came down hard on the member states, saying that there was a lack of "political will" rather than resources and that the EU would not be using the tools it had at its disposal since the Lisbon Treaty, especially in the area of defence policy. A summit in coordination with Emmanuel Macron should bring more clarity and new impetus in early 2022.

The EU Faces Major Geopolitical And Internal European Challenges

In addition to the unclear future of transatlantic relations and the relationship with NATO, new geopolitical challenges are looming on the horizon, which the EU as a whole must confront. Major powers such as the People's Republic of China or Russia are pursuing their own illiberal agendas without taking European sensitivities into account. As the leader of the liberal Renew Group in the European Parliament, Dacian Cioloș, pointed out in his commentary on von der Leyen's speech, apart from the mere announcement that the Commission wants to adopt a more geopolitical self-image, not much has happened so far.

Moreover, further success in implementing many of the announcements made will depend not least on internal European power dynamics: Manfred Weber recently declared that he will not take over the post of EU Parliament President as agreed, so von der Leyen will have to adjust to a new ally within the EPP family.

Much more important, however, will be the political upheavals in her home country of Germany and the challenges in neighbouring France. While the political era of Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to an end and the formation of a German government could take some time, French President Emmanuel Macron is fighting for his re-election. Thus, central projects for the future, especially the discussion of necessary European change processes and the umbrella of the Conference on the Future of Europe, is at risk to be undermined by this future power vacuum. Without strong national driving forces it will be difficult to successfully complete this mammoth project. It will be all the more important for the Commission to take a leading role together with the Parliament. However, since taking office, von der Leyen has often preferred the direct shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation with the heads of state and government over cooperating with the EU Parliament, thus overemphasising the intergovernmental decision-making level within the EU. Here, the EP must take a more European stance with bold initiatives and clear language vis-à-vis the European Council and the national governments. However, this determination, for example on the rule of law mechanism or migration policy, seems to be only partially present.

Liberal Claims for a Sustainable European Union: Activate Rule of Law Mechanism, Launch Defence Union, Make Climate Neutrality an Economic Success

In its Paris Declaration published at the beginning of September, the Renew Group advocates finally activating the rule of law mechanism, achieving the goals of the Green Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals in line with innovation promotion and openness to technology, and sustainably strengthening the EU's foreign and defence policy role in the sense of open strategic autonomy. In this context, important Franco-German progress has been made in defence policy cooperation, for example in joint armament cooperation. Close coordination with France will be of central importance, not least because of its Council Presidency beginning in 2022. The next few months will be decisive in determining whether the Commission's grand announcements will be followed by deeds in order to shape a progressive and self-confident European Union of tomorrow.


Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager within the European Dialogue Program of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels.

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