State of the Union: what the Commission has done since the last speech and what it intends to reveal

When Ursula von der Leyen steps behind the lectern of the Strasbourg hemicycle on Wednesday to deliver her annual State of the Union address, Europe will be very different from what it was a year ago.

At the time, the European Union had a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate than either the UK or the US, and the economy was rebounding from its pandemic-induced stupor. Uncertainty seemed to be dissipating and the Commission President duly informed MEPs that her institution would work to dissipate it further by proposing legislation in five key areas.

These included increasing donations of COVID-19 vaccines around the world and strengthening the bloc’s response to future health crises, ensuring respect for the rule of law in the Union, strengthening efforts to combating climate change, developing a common EU defense strategy after the botched evacuations from Afghanistan, and rolling out a more coordinated approach to migration.

Just five months after its opening speech, Russia has launched a full-scale, illegal and unprovoked war against its neighbour, once again plunging Europe into uncertainty and leaving member states to face a triple blow: energy, cost of living and refugees.

What did the Commission achieve last year?

“The Commission may have its plans, but of course it has to respond to reality. And reality has been very dynamic over the past 12 months,” said Pawel Zerka, policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, told Euronews.

“So I don’t know if we can assess the Commission by just looking at whether it has accomplished the plans it set itself 12 months ago,” he added.

But experts say the EU executive has managed to deliver on many of its promises since the last speech.

“I think COVID-19 is going to be seen as one of the great success stories of the European Union in the years to come,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Center for European Reform (CER) , another think tank, told Euronews.

The Commission has ordered more vaccine doses to deal with new waves of COVID-19, and its Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) is now operational. It also approved recovery plans for 26 member states under its flagship NextGenerationEU program which aims to make the bloc greener, more digital and more resilient through an €806.9 billion package.

On the rule of law, he rolled out and triggered a new mechanism that opens the door to financial sanctions against member states deemed contrary to fundamental EU values, including the independence of the judiciary and the media and the rights of women and minorities. The Commission has also reached a compromise with Poland for its recovery funds due to rule of law concerns as negotiations are underway with Hungary.

On defense and foreign policy, the EU agreed in March on a strategic compass – a document currently being drafted – which sets out a common vision of who the bloc’s allies and adversaries are and which plans for deployment common rapid of 5,000 men. Strength.

Meanwhile, the dramatic events in Ukraine have prompted the Commission to propose the creation of a Joint Arms Procurement Platform to meet Member States’ most urgent military needs as they donate their stockpiles to Kyiv . The plan is to support local research and development in this highly strategic sector while ensuring that Member States do not purchase the same equipment unless absolutely necessary.

Has the Commission dropped the ball on some issues?

The Commission’s assessment of climate change is a little more nuanced. “The war has been a challenge to Europe’s ambitious climate agenda,” Zerka explained.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has accelerated the energy crisis as Moscow has gradually cut gas supplies in recent months to retaliate against EU sanctions.

Faced with the prospect of possible power shortages in the crucial winter months and with households and businesses fearing energy bills could push them into poverty, some member states have restarted coal-fired power stations.

“Brussels hasn’t lost its way because of this but I don’t know if the EU will manage to maintain its ambitions in such a difficult context where Europeans can no longer rely on natural gas from Russia,” said Zerqa.

Another file that has been left aside is that of migration.

Member States in the South are faced with the bulk of illegal arrivals and projects for European solidarity and compulsory quotas are progressing slowly, with Eastern countries fiercely opposing them. As Poland and Hungary have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, it is likely that asking them to contribute more at this time would have been tricky.

Plans to reform EU fiscal rules to allow member states more room to maneuver in the face of crises have also been derailed. This issue was hotly debated during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the fact that it went against strict EU rules on deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios.

Mortera-Martinez says it’s understandable that the Commission failed to realize this.

“No one expected inflation to be as high as we are right now. So the tools to deal with it are not fiscal expansion for obvious reasons. So in that respect the Commission has dropped the ball, but I think she had to,” she said. said.

What about Ukraine then?

The EU has responded to Russia’s war in Ukraine with a series of sanctions packages targeting the Russian economy and its ability to source key technology products from abroad.

At the same time, he unveiled programs to support Ukraine’s crumbling economy and provided humanitarian aid. He also gave political support to the candidate status offered to Ukraine and neighboring Moldova.

All of this has been led by the EU executive.

“The Commission and Ursula von der Leyen herself have been one of the main winners in this war so far,” Mortera-Martinez said.

Candidate status is an example. “Ursula von der Leyen was somehow not expected to distribute this questionnaire (during her April visit to Kyiv) and in doing so she somehow forced the Council to take a decision on the candidacy status, which is something that they wouldn’t necessarily have done”.

What to expect from this year’s speech

Ukraine, energy and the cost of living are likely to feature prominently in the Commission chief’s speech, experts agreed.

Topics of EU enlargement and the European Political Community – a parallel entity allowing third countries to have closer ties with the bloc with or without a path to membership – should also be included.

This could lead von der Leyen to renew its support for treaty changeMortera-Martinez said.

Finally, geopolitics should be the other big topic. Von der Leyen championed a more powerful EU on the world stage and the events of the past few months have only reinforced this.

But while most of the attention is on the bloc’s relationship with Russia, both pundits expect China to be mentioned as well.

“I think the next challenge Europe is going to have is how to decouple from China. And that’s going to be a major concern,” added the CER expert.

“We’ve been depending on China for a long time to produce cheap products for us. But now I think it’s after what happened with Russia and the way China behaved as well” on several problems, including Taiwan, “it’s going to be the next big thing.”

“I think this year, with real challenges on the table, there will be real substance and substance to the State of the Union address,” Zerka said.

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