Ursula von der Leyen sets out Commission’s plans for “Europe to lead the way to a new vitality”

In her first State of the Union address to MEPs, the Commission President said such “vitality” contrasted with the current “fragility” of the world, highlighted by the ongoing health crisis.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

16 Sep 2020

Von der Leyen, who made constant references to the COVID-19 pandemic, said the crisis had shown “how fragile life is”, adding, “but people now want to move out of this Corona world.”

Addressing the plenary, she outlined several new proposals including a framework for an EU-wide minimum wage and a stronger EU health union.

The Commission will also increase its 2030 targets for carbon emission reductions from 45 percent to “at least 55 percent”, while some 30 percent of Next Generation EU’s €750bn fund - the EU’s plan to rebuild Europe from the crisis - will be raised via green bonds, she said.

She said that “Europeans have shown the unshakeable faith of the hidden strength of the human spirit in the last six months.”

The crisis has “shown how fragile life is and this is the moment for Europe to lead the way to a new vitality.”

Details of the plans have been sent to Parliament’s President David Sassoli and the German Presidency of the Council and Chancellor Angela Merkel, she said, adding that the speech came at a time “of profound anxiety for millions.”

“Our planet continues to get dangerously hotter and we see this all around us. The European Green Deal is the blueprint for a green transition but we need to go faster”

“Protecting lives and livelihoods is a priority but remember that when Member States closed borders, the EU created green lanes for goods and also brought back stranded citizens.”

The EU, she said, has also helped with mask production, “all achieved without having full competences.”

“So it is clear we need to build a stronger EU Health Union.”

The Commission will reinforce the European Medicines Agency, as well as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and create a new agency to support EU capacity to respond to medical threats. The EU, she added, will also convene a global health summit in Italy next year.

The Commission will also bring in a legal proposal for Member States to set up a framework for minimum wages, she said, adding, “for too many people work no longer pays and this has to stop.”

Completing the capital markets and banking union is another priority because “confidence in the euro has never been stronger.”

“I say loud and clear to the Belarus people that we applaud the immense courage of the protestors. The recent elections were neither free nor fair and the brutal response of the government is shameful”

In a speech that marks the end of her first year in office, she added, “We must tear down the barriers to completing the single market and cut red tape.”

The executive will also update its industry strategy in the first half of 2021 which, she said, “will help Europe get back on its feet.”

On the climate, she said, “Our planet continues to get dangerously hotter and we see this all around us. The European Green Deal is the blueprint for a green transition but we need to go faster.”

Referring to the aim to increase EU targets for carbon emission reductions, von der Leyen said, “I realise this is too much for some and not enough for others, but this will put the EU on track to become carbon neutral by 2050. This is ambitious but it is achievable. Meeting these new targets will create millions of jobs and reduce energy dependency.”

She noted that by next summer the Commission will revise all climate legislation to “make it fit for 2050”, while 37 percent of Next Generation EU will be spent on the Green Deal.

On digital policy she said that regulation of AI was needed, adding that the Commission will propose a new law to tackle the issue of personal data. “This will be a secure digital ID, whether you want to hire a bike or pay tax.”

“The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is not a one off; it is part of a pattern we have seen in Georgia, Ukraine, Salisbury and election meddling in the world. This pattern is not changing and no pipeline will change that”

She spoke of the aim to improve broadband access for rural areas and announced an €8bn investment in “super computer technology” which, she said, “will be high tech and made in Europe.”

In a speech punctuated by applause by MEPs in the chamber, von der Leyen said that 20 percent of Next Generation EU will for “digital development.”

On the pandemic, she said the EU had “brought together” 40 countries to raise €16bn for research on vaccines but she added, “it is not enough to find a vaccine, but to ensure people have access to it.”

In a speech lasting well over an hour, she also called for a “strong WTO and WHO” adding, “the truth is that the need to revise the multilateral system has never been greater. We see major powers either pulling out or taking these institutions hostage for their own interests but we must not destroy our international bodies.”

On the foreign affairs front, she said the EU expects China “to live up to its commitments” on the Paris Agreement and allow “fair” market access for EU companies.

“There is no doubt we promote very different systems of governance, but we must call out human rights abuses wherever and whenever they occur and I say loud and clear to the Belarus people that we applaud the immense courage of the protestors. The recent elections were neither free nor fair and the brutal response of the government is shameful. People must be free to decide its own future – they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard.”

She added, “To those who want closer ties with Russia I would say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny is not a one off; it is part of a pattern we have seen in Georgia, Ukraine, Salisbury and election meddling in the world. This pattern is not changing and no pipeline will change that.”

She said that Turkey was an “important partner and neighbour but while we are close on the map the distance between us is growing.”

She added, “We may not have always agreed with recent decisions coming out of the White House but there is an unbreakable bond between our peoples and whatever happens later this year we are ready to build a new transatlantic partnership.”

Responding, EPP leader Manfred Weber said, “This has been a challenging year. We fully support the main policies in the speech but the EU has to show credibility.”

Socialist leader Iratxe García Pérez welcomed the measures on climate change and jobs and said “The state of the union is not good and the pandemic has shaken us.  We must rise to the challenge.”

RE leader Dacian Cioloș said, “The EU has made considerable progress in recent months and the recovery plan is a major step forward.”

German member Ska Keller, the joint Greens leader, said “The state of the union is marked by its failure at its external borders, letting kids to sleep on the streets and allowing people to die and drown at sea. This is shameful. We stand idle despite so much suffering on our doorsteps.”

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