The State of the European Union

On the 16th September 2020, President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her first State of the European Union address, in which she presented her vision for the future of the Europe Union.

Amidst the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic, President von der Leyen argued that the European Union must seize the opportunity for renewal to come back as a stronger, more united global actor. Her speech included important calls for solidarity and support within the European Union, including calls for a stronger European Health Union and to establish a framework for minimum wages across member states.

A significant proportion of President von der Leyen’s speech centred around climate change. As part of the President’s broader European Green New Deal project, President von der Leyen announced a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030, a significant rise from the previous objective of 40%. 30% of the European Union’s €750billion coronavirus recovery package will also be devoted to climate-friendly projects.

President von der Leyen recognised that the changes to the emissions target would likely prove controversial, but argued that there is “no more urgent need” than for action on climate change and that the target is “ambitious, achievable, and beneficial”. Although most states have been broadly supportive of the target change, some civil society organisations such as GreenPeace argue that the target “falls far short of the cuts required by science”, and states whose economies are more reliant on the fossil fuel industry are likely to resist the target for being too radical.

President von der Leyen argued that the coronavirus recovery package also presents an opportunity to stimulate Europe’s digital and technology sectors, to enable Europe to lead the way in the digital age. A fifth of the coronavirus recovery package will therefore be invested in digital projects, alongside a further €8 billion investment in supercomputers.

As well as seeking to rebuild Europe, President von der Leyen’s vision involves a significantly greater role for the European Union on the global stage, particularly on human rights. She had particularly strong words of support for European states and neighbours who are struggling with internal and external aggression. She declared “the European Union is on the side of the people of Belarus” and that “Cyprus and Greece can always count on Europe’s full solidarity on protecting their legitimate sovereignty rights”.

In return, she had choice words for Europe’s strategic rivals, particularly for Russia and Turkey arguing that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny “is not a one off” and that there is no justification for Turkey’s “attempts to intimidate its neighbours”.

The central foreign policy proposal in the State of the European Union speech, was in fact promoting a system-level reform. Von der Leyen was critical of the European Union’s failure to act swiftly in defence of human rights, condemning the fact that “even simple statements on EU values (are) delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives”. To resolve this, and enable the European Union to take bolder and more cohesive positions as a foreign policy actor, President von der Leyen called for a qualified majority voting system on external relations or “at least on human rights and sanctions implementation”.

The current requirement that all member states assent for any action to be taken has frequently forced the European Union into a stalemate and is the main reason why it has taken the European Union nearly two months to impose sanctions on Belarus. Cyprus had vetoed the imposition of sanctions, not due to any moral opposition but because the EU refused to impose sanctions on Turkey’s oil and gas drilling in the Mediterranean. Whilst the European Union has made clear that it supports Cyprus and Greece’s sovereign rights, it argues that mediation is the most effective solution to the dispute.

Although it is unlikely to be realised in the short term, the President’s reform proposal represented a clear line being drawn under the bloc’s ambitions to evolve towards becoming a genuine geopolitical superpower. It is clear that President von der Leyen envisions a strong global presence for the European Union as a global defender of human rights and liberal values and only time will tell if this vision will be realised.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group