SOTEU 2020 was business as unusual, says FEPs Secretary General László Andor

Ursula von der Leyen’s maiden State of the European Union address ticked many boxes on solidarity, innovation and climate, but fell short on key issues including rule of law and global affairs, explains László Andor.
Ursula von der Leyen

By László Andor

László Andor is the Secretary General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and a Former European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

24 Sep 2020

Every crisis generates transformation one way or another, and every recovery requires some degree of innovation.

Ursula von der Leyen’s first speech about the State of the Union demonstrated that the Commission she is leading tries to live up to this challenge and plays a leading role to design the new forms of operation and cooperation in Europe.

The former German minister used the image of Bauhaus to express the need for creative and innovative thinking.

Those who wanted to, understood this message, and have to agree: the pandemic should not lead to despair. European nations, if they show solidarity, will not only defeat it, but also use the crisis to build a better functioning, and more sustainable economy.

Let us be honest, von der Leyen’s speech was detailed but rather boring on economics, presenting this chapter as a kind of business plan.

How many times have we heard that the single market is opportunity and that free movement has to be restored as soon as possible? In the current context, this was, however, just an intro to announce the arrival of a new strategy for the future of Schengen.

“European nations, if they show solidarity, will not only defeat it, but also use the crisis to build a better functioning, and more sustainable economy”

The speech was meant to be strong and detailed on technology, innovation, Artificial Intelligence and digitalisation. It spoke about common data collection (especially in energy and health care) and mentioned a European cloud.

It highlighted the deficits of broadband access in rural areas and, without mentioning China, spoke about the digital sovereignty of Europe, and stressed that our high-tech should be home made.

But interestingly, it failed to deal with an important dimension; by evading even an allusion to the social problems created or exacerbated by the platform economy.

Similarly on the Economic and Monetary Union, it was reassuring that von der Leyen decided to speak about the completion of the EMU.

But she stopped at capital market union and Banking Union (implicit support for deposit insurance) and, even with Next Generation EU under her belt, failed to stretch to the question of genuine fiscal capacity.

This is certainly not just a hobby horse of the Progressives (and Emmanuel Macron); the President could also consult her CDU friend Reimer Böge, who was co-rapporteur on this matter in the previous Parliament.

“Von der Leyen’s first SOTEU speech was detailed, accurate, but not really striking on global affairs. She managed to condemn isolationism, destabilising tendencies, and self-serving propaganda without mentioning Donald Trump”

She proudly spoke about SURE (the Kurzarbeit financing scheme introduced last April) with pride, which is indeed a major innovation, but not the same as the unemployment re-insurance scheme which she promised to the European Parliament last year. The work on the latter must continue and lead to an innovation sooner rather than later.

Only after industrial strategy did the President arrive at the question of climate, where everyone expected the announcement of the only concrete target. And it came indeed, by increasing the emission reduction target to at least 55 percent.

But don’t worry, this will create millions of extra jobs (and those who think this is a new idea will find that in Jose Manuel Barroso’s 2010 speech, in which he envisaged three million green jobs by 2020).

Mentioning that 37 percent of Next Generation EU spending will serve the Green Deal was an answer to those asking since last Summer where the money for the necessary investment is coming from.

Von der Leyen’s first SOTEU speech was detailed, accurate, but not really striking on global affairs. She managed to condemn isolationism, destabilising tendencies, and self-serving propaganda without mentioning Donald Trump. And she said that the Western Balkans should not just be a stopover on the Silk Road, without explicitly challenging China.

With a timely reference to the 75-year-old United Nations, she expressed commitment to the multilateral system, but mentioned the need for reform as well. She expressed desire for de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and for a new partnership with Africa.

“What concerns the question of rule of law, von der Leyen ostensibly failed. In a business-minded fashion, she framed the issue as protecting the “money from our budget”, without even hinting at the need to protect the rights of the people in the countries hijacked by aspiring dictators”

A hidden gem of the speech was elaborating on the importance of open and fair trade in the world. This apparently was not a slip of the tongue, since von der Leyen stressed that just globalisation is something we cannot take for granted.

It was in this context that we heard that the mission of the EU is creating prosperity at home and promoting values and standards.

By mentioning the Vietnam trade deal and the role of labour standards in that, the President alluded to another important part of the German Presidency agenda, which is to address the social dimension of supply chains.

Even if there is no immediate solution to a problem, or no clear EU competence in a given field, a speech is a good opportunity for a leader to demonstrate that she at least understands what the key issues are about.

What concerns the question of rule of law, von der Leyen ostensibly failed. In a business-minded fashion, she framed the issue as protecting the “money from our budget”, without even hinting at the need to protect the rights of the people in the countries hijacked by aspiring dictators.

She certainly went beyond mentioning fraud, corruption and conflict of interest, and added issues concerning freedom of press, independence of judiciary, and sale of golden passports as controversial ones.

However, speaking about “prevention” after ten years of degeneration in Hungary and five in Poland, may not have been convincing for the MEPs, especially for those who already were present in the debates on the Tavares Report and the Sargentini Report.

The SOTEU speeches by the European Commission president since 2010 have provided a panorama of EU policies, endeavouring to rally parliamentarians and other stakeholders to tackle the key challenges of the given period.

It also became the annual exercise to clarify where there are real opportunities and initiatives to move the integration forward, and in which unfortunate fields the Commission is aiming at managing expectations only.

It would be regrettable if von der Leyen would relegate social questions and those of democracy into this latter category.

Read the most recent articles written by László Andor - A trial and error response to the Coronavirus

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