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  • Von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address – In Search of Europe’s Soul

  • Roland Kulke | 24 Sep 21 | Posted under: European Union
  • The President of the European Commission claims to have found the "soul of Europe" – and it's a convenient screen for her purely profit- and power-driven approach to politics.

    On 15 September in what is now the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, held her annual major speech on the State of the Union. Traditionally, this is an address that looks back on the work carried out by the Commission as well as considers upcoming projects. It is a means to justify past action and a unique opportunity to share the president's vision of a better future for the EU with the bloc's citizens.

    Von der Leyen began her speech by stating that the EU, which she always refers to as the "Union", would prove itself to have a "strong soul", adding that it had been put to the test, especially during this pandemic. Yet this "soul", much lauded by von der Leyen, appears to be narrow-minded. At least that was the impression conveyed throughout her speech.

    The "European way" through the pandemic

    The first topic to be addressed was the COVID-19 crisis, which is now only being discussed in terms of the number of vaccinations that have been administered. According to von der Leyen, the EU has once again shown itself to be one of the world's leaders – and one of the world's most generous, as no other continent has donated as many vaccine doses to other nations.

    In the discussion about how the world can equitably distribute vaccine doses, the term "waiver" plays a vital role. Here the EU must finally give up its resistance within the World Trade Organization (WTO) so that vaccine patents can be lifted, at least momentarily. It is the only way for poorer nations to benefit from the technological progress made in the wealthier countries of the Global North. In his response to von der Leyen's speech, Martin Schirdewan addressed this issue in the European Parliament.

    Yet this vital prerequisite for a more just global policy approach received no mention in von der Leyen's speech. A sour note of her address, which was mostly held in English, was the fact that she mentioned the word "waiving" only once. Sadly, it was within a context that had nothing to do with patents. Instead, she was discussing how the EU's own military industry could be supported by "waiving VAT". Presuming this to be a coincidence would be to underestimate von der Leyen.

    Instead, her speech contained much self-praise. For instance, for the fact that the EU would donate 200 million vaccine doses to the Global South in the summer of 2022, i.e. the third year of this ongoing crisis, while citizens in the EU are already receiving their third dose. Are these the values of the Christian Occident? Are such actions in line with von der Leyen's "soul of Europe" or her much heralded "European way"?

    Economic response to the pandemic

    Von der Leyen then looked back at how the EU responded to the pandemic. She devoted not a single word to the real breakthrough, i.e. that the bloc is now finally able to pool its debt. Instead she proudly stated that the NextGenerationEU programme would "address structural issues […] from labour market reforms in Spain, to pension reforms in Slovenia or tax reform in Austria." What might actually be on the horizon are those feared conditionalities.

    Such a statement should set alarm bells ringing among Europe's Left. Next year we shall see what the Commission has in store and how it will address the conditionalities of its recovery plan. But the words chosen by its president do not bode well.

    Absent from von der Leyen's speech was a mention of the biggest challenges the EU must tackle besides the climate crisis: how to ensure economic cohesion and recovery in the periphery. And here inside the EU a fierce battle has been fought for some months already about whether to reform fiscal rules in the eurozone. What is the situation regarding new debt and how much debt should states be allowed to accrue? Here von der Leyen gave no detail. She only stated that discussions would be held, effectively bowing to pressure from the EU's now not-so-secret leading power: Germany.

    Von der Leyen then became very enthusiastic when she moved on to heap praise upon the single market and as she announced a 'European Chips Act'.

    Climate crisis: nothing but hot air

    There was just as little in terms of substance as von der Leyen began discussing the upcoming UN COP26 climate conference, the "moment of truth" as she called it. There was no mention of the fact that the EU's supposedly major climate project, 'Fit for 55', does nowhere near enough and that the bloc will thus fail to reach the goals set by the Paris Agreement.

    Demands were only made of others, e.g. the US, Japan and China. Von der Leyen claimed that the EU was already actively implementing climate protection measures but that "Europe cannot do it alone". This is clearly how von der Leyen imagines the EU's "global climate leadership".

    Militarisation – the real focal point of von der Leyen's address?

    The tone became uncomfortable when the former German defence minister suddenly began talking about "a new era of hyper-competitiveness". With this dramatic term, she signalled a return to her old portfolio. Before the end of this year, a new EU-NATO Joint Declaration will be unveiled.

    Here von der Leyen believes the EU is confronted with three main challenges:

    1. The bloc needs to autonomously provide stability in its "neighbourhood".
    2. The EU must adapt to deal with evolving threats (specifically disruptive technology).
    3. Von der Leyen openly calls for the EU's involvement in military missions where USA or the UN are not present. Aside from revealing a strange world view – for instance, the idea that the US and the UN are on equal footing – what she is effectively calling for is military intervention without a mandate from the UN.

    But the bad news does not stop there: von der Leyen revealed that she would like to see military missions with civilian actors playing a supporting role:

    "On the ground, our soldiers work side-by-side with police officers, lawyers and doctors, with humanitarian workers and human rights defenders, with teachers and engineers. We can combine military and civilian, along with diplomacy and development – and we have a long history in building and protecting peace."

    Given the ongoing post-colonial debate regarding European imperialism, this last sentence seems inappropriate at the very least.

    Von der Leyen even considers "expeditionary forces", "battlegroups" that can be deployed quickly and even "EU entry forces" as part of the solution to Europe's problems.

    This is a clear call for the militarisation of the EU.

    In response to the address, Heinz Bierbaum, President of the European Left Party, stated:
    "From the viewpoint of the Left, we are not satisfied or convinced with the State of the Union speech, which risks establishing itself as a defence of neoliberal policies and the austerity model." What's more, von der Leyen's plans would lead to "increased militarisation, which brings nothing more than war."

    But von der Leyen is willing to go even further, stating that the EU requires collective decision-making mechanisms for this militarisation and a 'Joint Situational Awareness Centre' would thus be worth considering. She adds that the EU must also urgently improve the interoperability of military goods. That is why the bloc, she states, will invest "in common European platforms, from fighter jets, to drones and cyber".

    This is the most detailed section of her address, which she draws to a close with yet more precise information: for instance, she states that the EU requires "a European Cyber Defence Policy" whose standards will be governed by a "new European Cyber Resilience Act".

    The "upcoming Strategic Compass" would guide these measures and, finally, she adds: "This is why, under the French Presidency, President Macron and I will convene a Summit on European Defence."

    EU foreign policy

    Regarding Turkey, a country situated very close to the EU and thus is quite a complex case, von der Leyen said nothing beyond acknowledging its existence. She had more to say about the Indo-Pacific region, an area that is far away from Europe, so there is plenty of room for demands and wishes. She believes the EU has a response to China's global 'One Belt, One Road' initiative in the shape of its "Global Gateway partnerships". It remains to be seen what shape these partnerships will take given that the EU is already struggling to come to terms with its own €750 billion recovery plan.

    If there is scope for coordination to be optimised, she claims the New Pact on Migration and Asylum creates an EU migration system that is "balanced and humane".

    Von der Leyen titled her concluding remarks: 'A Union with a soul'. In her closing lines, she recounts the story of the great Italian athlete Beatrice Vio, who won a gold medal in fencing at the last Paralympic Games. Von der Leyen hopes that EU citizens take inspiration from Beatrice Vio. It seems all of us should face the future with "tenacity and unrelenting positivity". Unrelentingly, we march on!

     

    Further reading:

    "Building the world we want to live in" – Neoliberalism with a human mask?, Roland Kulke on von der Leyen's first State of the Union speech, Oct. 2020


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