Today, on September 13, Ursula Von der Leyen delivered the annual State of the European Union (SOTEU) in Strasbourg. In her speech, which lasted for over an hour, she looked back on her four years as Commission President and outlined the European Commission’s plans for the upcoming year. With just nine months left until the next European Elections in June 2024, Von der Leyen primarily reflected on the achievements during her mandate. While there were not many new policy proposals presented, she did share her vision for a strong and united Europe. Colleagues Sybren Wagenaar and Valérie Mendes de León followed the speech and discuss some highlights in this blog post.
Von der Leyen’s Personal Campaign
Before the State of the Union address, EU observers speculated whether Ursula Von der Leyen would seize the moment to announce her candidacy for another term as President of the European Commission. Although she did not do so, her speech strongly indicated her interest in this possibility. Her speech began with a list of crises resolved during her term: Brexit, a pandemic, a financial crisis, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and an energy crisis. However, Von der Leyen seemed most proud of the fact that 90% of her political agenda, presented when she took office in 2019, had been implemented. It is however worth noting that many of these plans still need to be finalized in the coming months. She appeared not only as the Commission President but also as a suitable candidate ready for another term, saying, “When we are together, we can get work done.”
Competitiveness and Fair Market
The prevailing theme of the speech was “a united Europe in a geopolitically changing world.” This was particularly elaborated upon in one of the main themes of the speech: competition and a fair market. While there was little room for new proposals, Von der Leyen seized opportunities to put forward some last-minute goals, both within the EU and in their external relationships.
Von der Leyen emphasized two developments: first, maintaining and strengthening the European industry, and second, continuing to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe.
Regarding the first of these two, Von der Leyen was particularly proud of her initiative: the European Green Deal. From a clear Christian Democratic perspective, she stated that this climate agenda had become an economic agenda, with European companies leading globally. In the further implementation of the Green Deal, the Commission is working towards an approach for each industrial ecosystem, investigating risks and needs within each ecosystem to develop individual strategies: the Clean Transition Dialogue. Additionally, the Commission President stated that the future of clean energy lies in Europe, as emphasized by the announcement of an EU Wind Power Package.
The European SME sector will also receive support, particularly in terms of streamlining complex regulations and administration. A dedicated EU SME envoy will be appointed, and a competition check will be conducted for every new law.
Von der Leyen portrayed the EU as a worthy economic partner on the world stage. “Open strategic autonomy” was the key phrase, giving voice to French President Macron.
As an example, Von der Leyen mentioned protecting the European market, referring to how favorable subsidies in China had sidelined European solar panel development. In response, the Commission President announced an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese imports. A concrete example is that Chinese electric vehicles are now entering the market at lower prices due to government subsidies, putting European car manufacturers at a disadvantage. She added strong words, stating that the approach towards China should be “De-risk, not decouple.”
In addition to the anti-subsidy investigation, the European Commission is working on establishing Global Gateways, a connection similar to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. Von der Leyen mentioned that she launched the most ambitious project of this generation in New Delhi last week. This connection will provide a rail link, an electricity cable, and a hydrogen pipeline between India and the EU, aiming to promote prosperity and security. Developing such Global Gateways demonstrates that the EU aims to play its own role on the world stage through strategic investments in partnerships.
Possible European Enlargement
Some expected that Von der Leyen would address her achievements in the Ukraine war extensively, but she used her speech to discuss European enlargement instead. While EU enlargement had been a taboo topic for a long time, the Ukraine war opened up the discussion for possible accession of Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans. In her speech, Von der Leyen emphasized that a clear vision must be developed for any potential enlargement, without getting stuck in a debate about deepening and/or widening European integration. By listing the successes achieved with 27 member states, Von der Leyen emphasized that these successes should also be possible with 30+ member states, regardless of the need to organize a convention to amend the Treaty of Lisbon.
An emotional and notable moment during the State of the Union was the story of Victoria Amelina, a young Ukrainian mother who fled Ukraine with her child on the day the war started and told her child at the Czech border that they were now home in Europe. This exemplary story illustrated Von der Leyen’s desire to show that the EU has never been stronger and more united than today. Despite the speech focusing less on the Ukraine war than the previous year, Von der Leyen made it clear that the conflict remains high on the agenda.
The EU from 2024
What stands out in the speech, filled with references to the past four years, are the goals that extend far beyond the current mandate. With the European elections approaching, it remains to be seen to what extent the EU can complete or continue ongoing initiatives. Moreover, it is uncertain how the new Parliament will shape ongoing matters and the new goals set by Von der Leyen today. Finally, it remains to be seen whether Von der Leyen will be reelected and able to implement the aforementioned plans.
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