The annual State of the European Union address offers a unique opportunity for all EU residents to get a sense of the shared direction of their lives.
This year’s speech was expected to reflect the EU’s ongoing efforts to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and chart a recovery path for a collective future. Still, in his second State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen missed a historic opportunity to inspire and engage citizens in the ongoing and momentous effort to redefine our societies and their underlying systems in a post-COVID world.
This is all the more surprising as, in its first State of the Union in 2020, it managed to reposition the EU’s political agenda in a post-pandemic world, both internally, with digital and green transitions reviewed in light of NextGenerationEU, and externally. through the then novel concept of strategic autonomy. Many hoped that as a result, the pandemic could act as a major catalyst for further integration and a different kind.
However, in his 2021 speech, von der Leyen was unable to show what these reforms, in particular the New Green Deal materialized in the Fit for 55 initiative – they mean for citizens and businesses, and how they will ultimately affect each of us.
But that is exactly what citizens expect today, as they increasingly realize the impact of the EU on their daily lives. Take as an example the increase in energy prices.
As eye-watering bills roll in across the Union, citizens are legitimately concerned that they may end up paying the bill for the ecological transition as mapped out by the Union. The sudden rise in gas and electricity prices in Europe is already putting the most vulnerable and poor at a disadvantage.
While the rise in prices cannot be directly attributed to EU climate policy, in particular the EU Emissions Trading System, which has seen the cost of a permit to emit a ton of CO2 more than double during the last year at around € 60, it provides a preview of the social cost and distributive consequences of the EU’s ambitious climate policies.
The violent message sent by the yellow vest movement, which arose from this same concern, does not seem to have transcended the French borders and reached the Berlaymont, the headquarters of the European Commission. The newly announced Social Climate Fund will not alone address or alleviate these concerns about a just green transition.
What a missed opportunity to do pedagogy, addressing the most immediate concerns of citizens and businesses and illustrating the complex trade-offs facing the EU and its Member States.
Instead, von der Leyen’s speech adopted a rather solemn style (“I see a strong soul in everything we do”), self-indulgent (“COVID: We did it the right way”) and catchphrases (“And in the most serious of the crisis planets of all time, we again chose to go along with the tone of the European Green Deal ”) regarding their past achievements.
At a time of transformation imposed by Covid, Europeans deserve more than a long list of political measures that, let’s face it, were imposed on us, and not chosen, by events. The EU political process alone proved incapable of proactively taking any new initiatives.
In essence, EU action remains reactive and is to a large extent directed and shaped by the interests of the Member States, the sum of which tends not to coincide with the interests of the EU. Given that the Commission’s job is to identify and promote that interest, von der Leyen emerges as one of the least politically autonomous European Commission Presidents and therefore one of the weakest in the history of the EU.
The state of the European Union is the second most important political moment, just after the EU parliamentary elections, in the life of the bloc. As such, it should also serve as a great ‘moment of truth’ in which the EU’s top political leader, a de facto Prime Minister: “names and shames” political groups and national governments that prevent the Union’s government agenda from advancing.
This is key as none of the many new initiatives with flashy names, since the launch of Global Gateway to compete with the China Belt and Road Initiative, the European Semiconductor Fund dedicated to the adoption of a Health Union and the launch of the Erasmus-style initiative ALMA Internship Program – can be done unless all EU member states are on board.
It took six months of parliamentary debates, high-level political confrontations and court proceedings. 27 EU countries ratify the legal instrument that supports the recovery fund of 750,000 million euros of the block. However, new own resources (i.e. EU taxes) to partially finance this have yet to be agreed. And the Health Union did not advance despite being announced a year ago, already.
The truth is that over the last year the EU has become less, not more, strategically autonomous due to its significant regression in the rule of law and its inability to counter this internal crisis in countries like Poland and Hungary. In other words, how can the EU increase self-sufficiency, from semiconductor manufacturing to defense, while moving away from its fundamental self-organization? principle of the rule of law?
Historically, what united, and held, the EU countries is not just a shared set of rules, but also, and especially, a deeper commitment to abide by them. However, recent events stemming from the EU’s response to the coronavirus, both as a health and financial crisis, are casting doubt on the Union’s adherence to and relationship with the rule of law. This could have consequences for the future of the Union.
How credible can the von der Leyen Commission be vis-à-vis Poland and Hungary, and the rest of the world, when it resigned from holding these rogue members accountable in the name of the common values and interests of the EU?
Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris and founder of the civic startup The Good Lobby.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism