European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen riffed on the strength of Europe’s soul in her annual State of the Union speech, but there was another theme running through her address on Wednesday: the EU’s weakness on the world stage, and its dissension at home.
She urged greater military independence from the U.S. and less reliance on Asia for computer chips. She conceded that the fight against climate change will depend on the entire world, especially China.
In many ways, her speech was an hour-long discourse about how Brussels struggles to achieve its goals and project its values — at times unable even to compel its own member countries to reach decisions or abide by the rules of the club.
Von der Leyen lamented the inability of the 27 capitals to come together on a single migration and asylum policy — a gap she said the EU’s rivals and human traffickers are now exploiting. And she touched on a number of other issues, most notably the rule of law and media freedom, that hinted at other nagging, disagreements within the EU over its basic principles.
Von der Leyen delivered her address to the European Parliament at a moment of acute political delicacy — just 11 days before a hotly-contested German federal election, amid a continuing coronavirus pandemic that has tested government leaders and citizens, and under a persistent cloud of unease and uncertainty.
In her speech, titled “Strengthen the Soul of Our Union,” she claimed credit for the EU’s vaccination program which, despite early stumbles and a barrage of criticism, is now regarded as the world’s most successful. She also boasted of the EU’s unity in responding to the concurrent economic crisis. But her speech often seemed to lack its own soul, and it was short on applause lines in the hemicycle in Strasbourg.
The most electrifying moment came not in response to anything von der Leyen said herself, but rather to her introduction of a special guest, the Italian gold-medal Paralympic athlete, Beatrice Vio, who received a sustained, standing ovation.
Throughout her remarks, von der Leyen appealed to EU history to rouse spirits and rally MEPs to her cause.
She quoted EU founding father Robert Schuman: “Europe needs a soul, an ideal, and the political will to serve this ideal.” Later, she quoted former Czech President Václav Havel on “great European values.” And she referenced former Commission President Jacques Delors, who dubbed the EU a “collective project.”
But the first woman Commission chief did not deliver any memorable lines of her own likely to be quoted in 50 or 80 years’ time.
Instead of any sweeping rhetoric or snappy punchlines, von der Leyen, a former German government minister, held to her trademark workaday tone and tempo, as she marched steadily through her themes, checking off the boxes.
Top of the list was a discussion of the pandemic and a rhetorical victory lap on vaccines, though it was understated and without gloating — a notable choice given the severe early criticism von der Leyen endured during the initial rollout. She did crow a bit about the EU’s robust vaccine exports, taking an implicit jab at the U.S. and the U.K.
“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” von der Leyen proclaimed.
She ticked off the statistics: More than 70 percent of EU adults are fully vaccinated. More than 700 million doses have been distributed across the bloc. And more than 700 million doses have been shipped outside the EU to over 130 countries.
“We are the only region in the world to achieve that,” von der Leyen boasted.
“A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint,” she continued. “We followed the science. We delivered to Europe. We delivered to the world. We did it the right way, because we did it the European way. And it worked!”
Promise without punch
But she acknowledged that the EU and its wealthy allies had fallen far short of their promises to deliver vaccines to needier nations, and the vaccination rates are hardly even across EU countries, with some trailing worryingly behind. She announced that the EU would donate another 200 million doses to developing nations, on top of 250 million doses already pledged. But after months of various numbers floating around — and repeated delivery delays — the promise did not land with any punch.
As with much of her speech, the lines on vaccines were stronger on paper than they came across during delivery. Von der Leyen looked up only sporadically from her notes, and she made little effort at oratorical oomph.
Many points were a repetition of prior initiatives already launched or enacted — or in some cases, previously announced but with little chance of ever becoming reality.
“Last year, I said it was time to build a European Health Union,” she said, referring to a proposal to vastly expand the EU’s legal authority over health policy, which now rests mainly in national capitals. Since those aspirations may never be fulfilled, von der Leyen instead stressed the Commission’s efforts to form a new agency, the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA, to more quickly mobilize emergency resources.
She briefly boasted about the EU’s successful effort to create a common “digital certificate” for pandemic travel, noting that 400 million certificates had been generated and that the system connects 42 countries on four continents. But she did not make any reference to how EU countries frequently diverged in their travel rules and restrictions, ignoring their own common guidelines agreed upon in Brussels. Nor did she discuss how the U.S. misled the EU and has still not reopened travel for European visitors.
Climate and digital initiatives — the central policy pillars of von der Leyen’s Commission — were predictably a centerpiece of the speech.
On the digital front, she promised to put forward “a new European Chips Act” aimed at making Europe less reliant on imports for superconductor technology.
“We depend on state-of-the-art chips manufactured in Asia,” she said. “This is not just a matter of our competitiveness. This is also a matter of tech sovereignty. So let’s put all of our focus on it.”
On climate change, she claimed credit for the EU’s aggressive push on a wide menu of policy initiatives under the umbrella of the European Green Deal. But she was rather vague in putting those efforts in a global context, declining to offer specifics on how Brussels might cajole China and other competitors into better cooperation.
“Every country has a responsibility,” she said. “The goals that President Xi has set for China are encouraging. But we call for that same leadership on setting out how China will get there.”
On security and defense, there seemed to be even less reason to believe the EU would ever overcome its historic disagreements and develop a truly cohesive military strategy, though von der Leyen stressed that the failures in Afghanistan had given new impetus to such discussions.
Paying tribute to fallen soldiers, she said: “To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.”
She pressed for more cooperation and a frank conversation about “deeply troubling questions” regarding the future of the NATO military alliance, which found itself beholden to a U.S.-set deadline to leave Afghanistan.
Von der Leyen appeared to endorse greater EU military independence, a policy commonly known as “strategic autonomy.” But she avoided the actual phrase, which often leads to eye-rolls and griping, especially from eastern EU countries, that Europe cannot protect itself without help from the U.S.
“Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own,” von der Leyen said.
But while she called for a “European Defense Union,” her initial proposals were little more than a promise of more talk, referencing an in-the-works “joint declaration” with NATO and an upcoming EU “defense summit” in the first half of 2022.
Throughout the speech, von der Leyen made obligatory nods to the youth, the unemployed and the sick. She referenced domestic violence victims, gay rights and fighting tax evasion.
She mentioned relations with Africa and the Western Balkans, where several countries are eager to proceed with their bids for EU membership. But she did not dwell.
To the extent that von der Leyen offered new proposals, many seemed off-the-shelf rather than custom-tailored. And of the new proposals, several seemed aimed at countering or containing China, including a new foreign infrastructure investment mechanism called “Global Gateway” that seemed an attempt to rival Beijing’s similar “Belt and Road” initiative.
Von der Leyen also urged Parliament and EU member countries to move more quickly on adopting the Commission’s proposed new “Pact on Migration and Asylum” — touching on a topic that has divided EU capitals for more than six years.
“As long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that,” she said. But there is little sign EU countries will be able to bridge their disagreements.
In conclusion, von der Leyen returned to her riff on Europe’s soul.
“We should not hide away from our inconsistencies and imperfections,” she said. “But imperfect as it might be, our Union is both beautifully unique and uniquely beautiful.”
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