The European Union: State of the European Union 2020 Address, Ursula von der Leyen

Translated by Célia Courteix, proofread by Amel Attatfa

On Wednesday 16th September 2020, Ursula von der Leyen – President of the European Commission – delivered her speech on the State of the European Union (SOTEU). For more than an hour, Ursula von der Leyen assessed one year of her presidency and stated the challenges and objectives the European Union will have to face in the coming year. This year’s speech took place under special conditions. Indeed, presidents of the European Commission would deliver their speeches at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, not in Brussels.

Since 2010 and the SOTEU of the former President of the European Commission José Manuel Durão Barroso, following Presidents – Jean-Claude Juncker and Ursula von der Leyen – have been assessing the European executive achievements and presenting their future actions each year in September. The speech is a way for the European Union to get closer to its citizens and to be transparent about its policies. SOTEU 2020 focused in particular on economic recovery, social cohesion and environmental issues.

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"L'avenir sera ce que nous en ferons. Et l'Europe sera ce que nous voulons qu'elle soit. . Cessons donc de la rabaisser. Et travaillons pour la construire. Pour la rendre forte. Et pour bâtir le monde dans lequel nous voulons vivre. . Vive l'Europe !" – @ursulavonderleyen . La Présidente de la Commission européenne prononçait aujourd'hui son premier Discours sur l'état de l'Union devant le Parlement européen 🇪🇺 . Parmi les propositions & priorités présentées ce matin : . 👉 renforcement des objectifs européens de réduction des émissions de gaz à effet de serre . 👉 lutte contre les inégalités . 👉 poursuite de la numérisation de l'Europe . 👉 protection des valeurs européennes . 👉 solidarité internationale & multilatéralisme . 👉 gestion européenne des questions migratoires . 👉 nouvelle stratégie pour l'espace #Schengen . 📷 © Union européenne, 2020 / Source : Service audiovisuel CE / Photographe : Etienne Ansotte . #SOTEU #NextGenerationEU #EUGreenDeal #DigitalEU #Europe #EuropeanUnion

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“We need to build a stronger European Health Union.” – Ursula von der Leyen

In a rather peculiar context, the President of the Commission opened her speech by mentioning the health crisis and the role the EU has played over the last six months. In spite of a growing number of criticisms from the various Member States of the European Union’s lack of action and state-by-state management at the beginning of the pandemic, the European Union has been able to respond and take initiatives to help the most affected countries. In her speech, she defended – as best as she could – the coordinated and unified action of the Member States during the crisis. In particular, she mentioned the production and delivery of masks between countries, Romanian doctors having treated patients in Italy. While admitting that the virus “laid bare the strains on our health systems and the limits of a model that values wealth above wellbeing.”

To ensure that such a situation does not recur in the event of a new health crisis, the von der Leyen Commission will strengthen its new “EU4Health“ Programme by increasing funding. In addition, to protect European countries from a future health threat, the European Union is proposing actions and measures on three levels. Firstly, the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will be strengthened in terms of their roles and means of actions. Then, based on the US model, the European Union hopes to create an agency for advanced biomedical research and development. Finally, the European Union needs to reconsider its competences in the field of health — reflections and measures to be discussed at the Conference on the Future of Europe.

A Green Speech

The President of the European Commission was highly expected on the stimulus measures of the European Green Deal. The European Green Deal was first presented to the European Parliament on 11th December 2019 during Ursula von der Leyen’s speech on her environmental plan. This €1 trillion plain aims at tackling climate change by achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Thanks to the European Green Deal, the European Union should become a leader in the fight against global warming and the protection of the environment by becoming the first carbon neutral continent in 2050.

The European Commission revised its European Green deal targets upwards. On the one hand, the European Union is no longer aiming at a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as originally planned, but at a 55% reduction by 2030. It intends to achieve this goal by turning to sustainable and renewable energy. On the other hand, 37% of the €750bn recovery plan negotiated by the EU-27 during an exceptional summit of negotiations at the European Council will be dedicated to implementing the European Green Deal. Furthermore, to enhance the ecological transition, 30% of the €750bn of the recovery plan will be financed by green bonds. This new measure places the European Union at the forefront of green finance. Addressing SOTEU, she stated: “We are world leaders in green finance and the largest issuer of green bonds worldwide. We are leading the way in developing a reliable EU Green Bond Standard.”

Ursula von der Leyen did not fail to recall the commitments in the fight against climate change set out in the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015. By achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, the European Union will fulfil its commitments by keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to the European Commission, “the EU is playing a leading role in international action to combat climate change. It made a decisive contribution to the negotiation of the Paris Agreement and continues to lead the way at a global level.”

Brexit: facing a “No-deal” Risk

During the SOTEU, the President of the Commission warned against the risk of a “no-deal”. Negotiations are currently in a deadlock between London and Brussels and the transition period will soon reach its end. On 1st January 2021, if no agreement is reached, London will have to face a “no-deal”. However, the period is more limited since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to reach an agreement before 15th October.

Ursula von der Leyen also pointed out that the agreement negotiated over the last three years could not be changed unilaterally. Boris Johnson had wanted to review the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to decide on the customs controls carried out between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. However, this unilateral change would violate the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 to put an end to the “Troubles”. The European Union and the United Kingdom had agreed on the importance of this agreement to avoid further conflict on the Island of Ireland. The President of the Commission declared thereon: “It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This a matter of law, trust and good faith.” Moreover, she stressed this breach of trust by quoting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future Treaty on trade”.

Towards the Abolition of the Dublin Regulation

After reminding the audience of the 2015 migration crisis which deeply divided the European Union, she announced that Brussels wants to abolish the Dublin Regulation. Adopted in 2013, it stipulates that the first country taking in a migrant is therefore responsible for his asylum application. It will therefore be replaced by “a new strong solidarity mechanism”. The European Commission is therefore going to present its New Pact on Migration which will “take a human and humane approach”. Faced with the tragedy at the camp of Moria, the European Commission is working with the Greek authorities on the construction of a new camp on the island of Lesbos. Ursula von der Leyen finally stated that this new migration policy can only be successful if all Member States cooperate. Each Member State’s involvement is needed to tackle the migration issue: “But I want to be clear: 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.”

Tackling Racism and Hatred

The President of the Commission ended her speech by presenting the Commission’s action plan on racism and hate speech. First of all, it plans to extend the list of crimes provided by the European Union to “all forms of hate crime and hate speech”. Thereafter, the Commission will — for the first time — appoint its anti-racism coordinator. It is expected that he will work as closely as possible with citizens, society and the various institutions.

Furthermore, anti-LGBTQI areas do not belong in the European Union. The Commission will thus implement concrete measures and actions to strengthen and ensure the rights of LGBTQI communities. The European Union had already sanctioned six Polish cities that had declared themselves anti-LGBTQI. They had been refused grants given in the framework of a twinning programme.

The State of the Union address was then followed by a debate with the MEPs in Brussels. It aroused many reactions from the different political parties. The Far-right party considers that the European Union has fallen into the trap of ecological extremists. The Far-left party criticises it for not being enough oriented towards a social Europe.

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