15 September 2022

SOTEU 2022: Ursula von der Leyen’s third State of the European Union address

Ursula von der Leyen during the State of the European Union address 2022
Blue and yellow: Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the European Union address was strongly marked by the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Over the past twelve years, the State of the European Union address – known as SOTEU – which the Commission President delivers to the European Parliament every September, has become an well-established institution. But as Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) pointed out right at the beginning of yesterday’s speech, this time there was also a novelty: it was the first SOTEU to be held while a war was being waged on European soil. Before the speech, von der Leyen and the Parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola (PN/EPP), had their picture taken in the plenary hall with Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj (SN/ALDE). Von der Leyen’s blue-and-yellow dress – the colours of both the EU and Ukraine – could be understood as a further symbol of solidarity. Later on, the Russian attack on Ukraine and the European reaction to it were the main leitmotif of the speech.

But the war was of course not the only topic von der Leyen addressed in the speech. The energy crisis and the rising cost of living, climate and migration policy, the reform of the Stability Pact, the defence of democracy and the rule of law in the EU and worldwide, the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the enlargement and deepening of the EU and numerous other points were on the agenda as well. Overall, von der Leyen appeared combative and confident, at times almost triumphalist, when talking about the achievements of the past months and years. But the Commission President did not have equally convincing answers to all questions.

This article is a collection of short analyses on some key issues of the SOTEU, written by experts from several universities and think tanks. You can find more information from the Commission on the speech here, the original (multilingual) text here, and an English version here.

Russia and Ukraine: “This is about autocracy against democracy”

Europe is at a crossroads, that much was made clear in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s speech. For the first time, the annual debate took place under the conditions of war in Europe. Russia’s brutal attack is not only directed against Ukraine, but against “our energy, our economy, our values and our future,” von der Leyen stressed – a war between autocracy and democracy.

In very clear words, the President of the Commission formulated the need to stay the course on sanctions: “This is the time for us to show resolve, not appeasement.” Europe will stand with Ukraine and support it in the long term, both in the current defensive struggle against the Russian attack and afterwards, when the country will be rebuilt. The blame for Russia’s economic and industrial decline lies solely with the Kremlin, which must now pay the price.

Another lesson from the current energy crisis, according to von der Leyen, is that Europe should have listened more to those who knew Putin well – including, in particular, the Central and Eastern European member states and the Baltic countries, which had consistently warned of the risks of energy dependence on Russia and had themselves acted accordingly. Acknowledging this clearly in the speech is important because these very risks have now materialised and present enormous challenges to all of Europe.

Minna Ålander

Energy policy: A new cross-cutting issue

“A war on our energy, our economy, our values and our future”: In Ursula von der Leyen’s speech, energy policy issues were deeply embedded in the discourse on solidarity and the internal strength of “Team Europe” in the context of the Russian attack on Ukraine. Thus, questions of energy consumption, joint energy storage and energy dependencies were dealt with as cross-cutting issues also with regard to foreign and security policy, economic policy and, of course, climate policy.

As the Commission President said, the EU is following the example of the Baltic states in working to avoid energy dependencies. By now, the share of Russian gas supplies has already fallen by 31 percentage points, from 40 % to 9 % of gas imports. For the future, new, reliable partnerships in energy supply are urgently needed – she explicitly named the USA, Algeria and Norway as suppliers. With the latter, a task force for the regulation of gas prices has already been implemented.

Ursula von der Leyen combined concrete proposals for emergency measures to help the member states reduce their electricity consumption – such as a “crisis contribution” in form of an excess profit tax on energy companies – with appeals to the solidarity of European citizens on an individual level. For example, she mentioned workers in Italian factories who had moved their shifts to the morning when electricity was cheaper. As a measure to overcome the crisis in the short to medium term, von der Leyen also announced a temporary change in European state aid regulations to allow state guarantees for energy companies in liquidity squeezes.

In the long term, she sees Europe facing even more far-reaching energy market reforms in order to decouple electricity and gas prices and overcome the dependency on fossil fuels. In addition to solar, wind and water, the Commission Presidents emphasised the green hydrogen production programme REPowerEU, the establishment of a European Hydrogen Bank and the investment of 3 billion euros in the development of a hydrogen market.

Kristina Weissenbach

Climate policy: Hardly talking of the man on the moon any more

When Ursula von der Leyen took office, the European Green Deal was considered the Commission’s top political priority. In 2019, von der Leyen called it a “man-on-the-moon moment” for Europe. This year’s SOTEU, however, shows that political priorities are shifting and the implementation of transformation is complex. In times of soaring energy prices and serious concerns about supply security in the upcoming winter, it is not surprising that the goal of becoming the “first climate-neutral continent” by 2050 is not at the top of the political agenda. While the term “climate” was mentioned 16 times in the SOTEU 2021, the passages on the issue were much shorter this time (6 mentions).

The Commission President emphasised the expansion of renewable energies within the framework of the REPowerEU programme, which was set up to promote independence from Russian fossil resources. However, little or nothing was heard about concrete legislative projects in the field of climate policy. There was no mention of the ongoing reform of all key climate policy acts as part of the Fit for 55 package. Also the upcoming international negotiations at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh only came up in passing – in marked contrast to last year.

Von der Leyen did announce new initiative for hydrogen: The Commission wants to create a “Hydrogen Bank”, to be set up from Innovation Fund resources (3 billion euros) with the aim of accelerating the creation of a hydrogen market. With a view to the consequences of climate change, von der Leyen announced that the EU would double its fire-fighting capacities. Beyond that, the focus of the speech was, as expected, on energy policy. Many of the announcements in this area are of great importance for EU climate policy, too. However, in view of the energy crisis and related substantial conflicts between the member states, these climate implications did not receive much attention.

The speech did not give any clues as to whether the implementation gap with regard to the goals of the EU climate law will get bigger or smaller. What is clear, however, is that the conclusion of the Fit for 55 package will be the Commission’s next big climate policy test. It will reveal whether climate policy has only been sidelined from the big speeches or whether ambitious climate action will also have a harder time in legislation.

Felix Schenuit

Competitiveness: Less bureaucracy, more skilled workers and raw materials

Next to climate change, Ursula von der Leyen also identified digitalisation as one of the major challenges of the century in her speech. However, she did not specifically address either digitalisation or European digital policy. Instead, she embedded the issue in a broader economic policy context: “The strength of our social market economy will drive the green and digital transition.”

To secure our “future competitiveness”, von der Leyen emphasised three points in particular: First, she promised relief for small and medium-sized enterprises, which is to result in particular from simplifying bureaucracy through the standardisation of tax regulations. To this end, the Commission intends to present its long-announced corporate tax framework BEFIT in 2023.

Secondly, the Commission President presented the shortage of skilled workers as a central challenge for the European economy. While on the one hand she praised the EU’s low unemployment rate, she also addressed what she saw as the need for immigration of foreign skilled workers and their more efficient integration into the European labour market.

Thirdly, von der Leyen emphasized the growing importance of raw materials, especially lithium and rare earths. According to her, the EU must not become dependent on individual third countries for either the supply or the processing of these materials. Taking example from the European Chips Act, she announced a new law to secure critical raw materials. In the long term, she intends to create a so-called European Sovereignty Fund to cover the financing of such projects.

Anne Goldmann

NextGenerationEU and new fiscal rules: “Invest sustainably”

From the deepest recession to the fastest economic upswing of the post-war period: looking back at the past few years, von der Leyen was extremely satisfied with the economic development. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU stood together, developed the short-time work scheme SURE in “record time” and united behind the recovery instrument NextGenerationEU. This instrument, conceived two years ago, is still “exactly what Europe needs today”.

However, von der Leyen did not comment on the already ongoing debates on whether a new edition of NextGenerationEU is necessary. Instead, she emphasised that most of the money from the instrument had not been spent yet. Therefore, NextGenerationEU would continue to bring “relief for our economy” and ensure ecological “renewal” also during the coming years.

For the digital and green transformation to succeed, however, it is not only the EU that must invest, but also the member states – which brought von der Leyen to the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the EU’s economic governance. In October, the Commission will present new proposals on this, of which von der Leyen for the time being only revealed some slightly cryptic “basic principles”: The Commission wants to give member states more flexibility to invest, but at the same time increase accountability for the implementation of agreed targets.

In practice, this could mean that member states will be allowed to more easily incur debt, but only in order to finance investments that the EU also considers sensible. If this were to happen, it would probably not be the worst outcome.

Manuel Müller

Migration and asylum policy: Many unresolved contradictions

During her speech, Ursula von der Leyen rightly pointed out that she witnessed “Europe at its best” when EU countries showed unprecedented solidarity to people fleeing from Ukraine. However, she was equally justified to highlight that this kind of solidarity is missing in the EU’s overall migration and asylum policy.

Despite the political agreement reached by the member states in June 2022 to start a voluntary solidarity mechanism, challenges continue to lie ahead when it comes to its implementation. Ursula von der Leyen emphasised that the solidarity shown towards refugees coming from Ukraine should not be an exception and that the EU needs a “legally binding mechanism of solidarity”. This seems to be, however, in opposition with the voluntary mechanism proposed by the European Commission in its Pact on Migration and Asylum of 2020. But von der Leyen generally remained rather brief on the topic of migration and did not offer many answers to any open questions.

Instead, during the final part of her address, von der Leyen presented to the audience two Polish women, Magdalena and Agnieszka, who had helped Ukrainian refugees at the border. The applause that the two dedicated and solidary activists received from the European Parliament – at a time in which the Polish government consciously violates asylum rights at the border to Belarus – exemplifies the many contradictions in this policy area. There are many problems to which the EU yet has to find solutions.

Vittoria Meißner

Rule of law: The most interesting was left unsaid

Right at the beginning of her speech, von der Leyen made clear that the war in Ukraine is a war between an autocratic and a democratic model. Russia did not only attack Ukraine, but also “our values”. Despite this clear message, the speech remained rather weak when it came to the rule of law. Only towards the end of the speech, the Commission President shortly explained that “it is my Commission’s duty and most noble role to protect the rule of law.”

However, the EU Commission has missed to fulfil this duty in recent years – critical voices would even call it a failure. At the time of the speech, Hungary is no longer a democracy. In Poland, there is no independent judiciary, minorities are openly discriminated, and women’s rights have been massively curtailed. Not to mention the abysmal state of the freedom of the press in Greece, dubious emergency powers in Romania and golden visa schemes in Portugal and Malta. None of this was mentioned by von der Leyen.

In other respects, too, what the speech did not say about the rule of law was often more exciting than what it said. Hungary and Poland were not named, probably to not give the governments a chance to portray themselves as the victims of Brussels technocrats being “anti-Polish” or “anti-Hungarian”. However, her mention of the independence of the judiciary and the conditionality mechanism were clearly directed at them. Interestingly, von der Leyen did not expand on issues like civil society and freedom of the media, which still had played an important role in the SOTEU 2021.

Instead, von der Leyen chose to focus on corruption, with the announcement of a new legislative package. This choice of a topic that affects Hungary more than Poland says a lot about the Commission’s strategy: Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has shown unwavering solidarity and acted as an important partner against Putin, whereas Hungary under Viktor Orbán has taken a pro-Russian line and often stands in the way of a united EU response.

The fact that the Commission is now focusing primarily on Hungary can be criticised. EU member states must uphold fundamental values regardless of their positioning towards Ukraine – any double standards in this regard would endanger the EU’s credibility. At the same time, it is a politically smart approach: Whereas Poland and Hungary had closely coordinated in order to block EU policy before the war, now the rift between the two countries is growing. Even if von der Leyen doesn’t talk about it.

Sophie Pornschlegel

Citizens participation: “We now need to deliver!”

“[A]fter Europe listened to its citizens’ voice, we now need to deliver,” von der Leyen summarized the situation after the Conference on the Future of Europe. In the Letter of Intent, which she sent to the President of the European Parliament and the Presidency of the Council on the occasion of the SOTEU, she announced that the Commission’s work programme for 2023 would “be also largely inspired by the outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe”. In this regard, the Letter of Intent lists 29 specific initiatives, 13 of which are identified as going back to the Conference. In her speech, however, von der Leyen only singled out one of them, a mental health initiative.

Just as von der Leyen’s speech only referred to the Conference recommendations by way of example, also the written report that the Commission published before the address did not highlight which of its “achievements” implemented Conference demands – even though a corresponding overview has been available since June 2022. Thus, the SOTEU address was also a missed opportunity to give the citizens an account of the progress made so far.

In any case, von der Leyen made a clear commitment that “citizens’ panels […] will now become a regular feature of our democratic life”. She kept open, however, what this will mean in concrete terms. The Conference on the Future of Europe experiment was an experiment whose value does not lie in the fact that it somehow offered a perfect model of citizens’ participation, but in the lessons that can be learned from it for the future design of citizens’ panels. This requires an informed in-depth debate, and it is to be hoped that the Commission is prepared to conduct it.

Similarly, the SOTEU did not mention the planned development of the website Have your say towards a digital citizens’ participation hub. Nor has the creation of new forms of participatory democracy been included among the Commission’s priorities in the Letter of Intent.

Julian Plottka

Institutional reforms: European Convention Now!?

Will the European Commission support a European Convention to follow the Conference on the Future of Europe? Yes, it will! The Achievements report still explained cautiously that the Commission was “focusing on making the most of what is currently possible while being open to treaty change where it is necessary”. Now, however, von der Leyen has given up her position as a neutral broker between the European Parliament and the member states, declaring that “the moment has arrived for a European Convention.”

But will the Commission really use its political weight to strengthen the European Parliament in its fight against intergovernmental windmills? There is still a risk that von der Leyen’s committment to a Convention was only intended to score points with MEPs because she is already sure that the Convention will not come – at least not before the next European elections. After all, von der Leyen had also boldly promised the European Parliament a Conference on the Future of Europe in 2019, only to significantly lower her ambitions afterwards. And the fact that the Commission will make proposals to create a “European Political Community” but intends to present them to the European Council rather than the European Parliament is also casting doubt on how much energy the Commission will really invest in enforcing a Convention.

More important than the new commitment to a Convention is therefore probably the nexus between treaty reforms and enlargement. In his otherwise rather unambitious Prague speech, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz already had described this connection as a core problem of European integration. Von der Leyen now explicitly taking up the same argument is indicative of a new tone in the reform debate: Institutional reforms are no longer seen as just a whim of the federalists in the European Parliament, but as an indispensable prerequisite for future enlargements. One will not happen without the other. If this reading prevails, a number of national governments will have to reconsider their positions – unless they want to explain to Ukraine that the promise of accession wasn’t really meant that seriously after all.

That gives hope, but more in the medium than in the short term. But can we expect at least some smaller democratic reforms before the next European elections? At least, the new party statute found its way into the Commission’s Achievements report. Electoral law is also mentioned there, but only in the context of “mobile citizens” who should be enabled to vote in other EU member states more easily. But what about transnational lists? The lead-candidates procedure? Nothing. Neither of these reforms was mentioned in the report or in the speech.

Julian Plottka

Foreign Policy: “Our friends in the democratic nations”

While democratic reforms were barely mentioned in the context of EU domestic policies, von der Leyen underlined the importance of cooperation with “like-minded partners” in foreign policy – that is, “our friends in every single democratic nation on this globe”. The Commission President stated that the EU should strive to “expand the core of democracies” and deepen relations between democracies in Europe and around the world. In line with the current German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock’s approach, von der Leyen seems to advocate a values-driven EU foreign policy that recognises the threats emanating from autocracies.

The implications of this approach on other fields – especially EU trade and investment policy – remain to be seen. Von der Leyen also did not explain in detail how her democracy-based approach will affect neighborhood and enlargement policy and how important democracy will be in the “European Political Community” initiative proposed by France.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that the Commission wants to arm itself against foreign influence within the EU. After the “European Action Plan for Democracy” initiated in 2020, the Commission now wants to propose a “Defence of Democracy package”. This new initiative is to be welcomed. The dangers of foreign interference within the EU are clearly visible: While Russian propaganda and electoral meddling strategies are already well-known, in her speech von der Leyen also mentioned an example of Chinese disinformation.

However, it remains to be seen to what extent the EU Commission can move forward in this area given that countries like Hungary and Poland unfortunately already seem to have left the group of “like-minded partners”.

Sophie Pornschlegel

Enlargement: Hardly anything concrete

The EU’s enlargement policy – or, more precisely, the Western Balkans region – has so far been a compulsory part on the agenda of every single SOTEU. However, the Commission Presidents generally limited themselves to briefly underlining the “European perspective” of these candidate countries, without menioning much in the way of concrete action. Now that Ukraine had been granted candidate status in record time, one could assume for a change that Ursula von der Leyen would give this policy field a much higher priority this time.

However, this was only partly the case. Of course, Ukraine was omnipresent simply due to the presence of Olena Zelenska. But it took quite a while before von der Leyen explicitly addressed EU enlargement. Addressing the “people of the Western Balkans, of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia” (Turkey was not mentioned in this or any other part of the speech), she claimed that they were part of the European family, that their future lied in the Union, and that the Union remained incomplete without them.

But how does the EU intend to shape its enlargement policy in the future? Apparently, it will continue as before, because von der Leyen did not say a word about possible reforms, much less the introduction of majority decisions. Instead, the Commission President took up the French proposal for a European Political Community, on which she promised to submit concrete proposals to the European Council soon. However, she also emphasised that this initiative would rather serve to reach out to other countries beyond the accession candidates. To which countries in particular, she did not say.

What became clear in the speech was the Commission President’s fundamental effort to define enlargement as a commitment to action that is not only directed outwards but also inwards. When calling on the candidate countries to strengthen their democracies, she said, corruption within the EU must also be eliminated. And just as chancellor Olaf Scholz had previously said in his Prague speech, she warned that in order to seriously envisage an enlargement of the Union, it was also necessary to seriously strive for institutional reforms.

Oliver Schwarz

EU-UK relations: Homage to a “legend”

The global condolences after the death of Elizabeth II were immense, and also Ursula von der Leyen honored her as a constant factor in the past turbulent and eventful 70 years: The Queen was a “legend” who found “the right words for every moment in time.” Whether this is really true seems at least debatable in view of the resurgent discussions about the independence of some Commonwealth states.

Rather, it appeared as if von der Leyen tried to avoid any confrontation with the United Kingdom in her speech in order to minimize the actually existing political tensions. The group of reliable democratic partners has become smaller – and von der Leyen made unequivocally clear that an investment in the power of democracy is needed to establish new partnerships in Europe and the world.

It remains to be seen to which extent the United Kingdom can become such an important partner again with its new prime minister Liz Truss. Her populist statements about refugees and social minorities as well as her disrespectful remarks about Emmanuel Macron leave at least some skepticism. Nevertheless, as a member of the G7, the United Kingdom is part of the alliance of democratic partners that will play a decisive role in the future of the EU and in overcoming the crises that lie ahead. For this purpose, Europe is once again extending its hand to the United Kingdom.

Toralf Stark

EU-China relations: “Shield ourselves from malign interference”

Solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression was front and centre in Ursula von der Leyen’s address. Passionately, she spoke about how Europe had come together to stand against Putin’s “war on our values and […] on our future.” While no doubt international relations commentators will conflate von der Leyen’s language on the Ukraine war with China, she was herself careful not to name Russia and China in the same phrase. China nevertheless featured in the SOTEU in two ways, as an economic and as a systemic competitor.

In the economic context, the Commission President noted that China dominates global supply chains for lithium and rare earths. She flagged a new European Critical Raw Materials Act, pursuant to which the EU would identify strategic projects all along the supply chain and invest in strategic reserves. It will be interesting to observe if these measures develop into an ideological shift away from interdependence with China in global value chains, as the US is promoting, or whether they simply reflect sound risk management to diversify and secure supply chains. Von der Leyen committed to new partnerships with countries such as Australia and Chile (although she did not mention that in both countries, the world’s largest producers of lithium, the companies owning and developing the lithium are in part Chinese-owned).

The EU’s “Global Gateway”, which von der Leyen announced at last year’s SOTEU, was not discussed in terms of competition with China (as it has been in popular narratives), but rather in response to the desires of countries “near and far” to work with Europe on climate change and digitalisation. However, the Commission President will convene a meeting with US President Biden and other G7 partners to announce further implementation projects. That sounds like the EU infrastructure projects are indeed being promoted as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The competition of values was where the language became more pointed towards China. Von der Leyen accused foreign autocrats of funding disinformation in the EU, saying “these lies are toxic for our democracies”. Rather than pointing the finger here at pervasive Russian disinformation, she cited a Chinese-funded research centre at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam that had published discredited claims that there was no forced labour in Xinjiang. That appears to be an embarrassment to the university concerned as much as it demonstrates China’s clumsy and ineffective attempts at influence in public debates.

Von der Leyen proposed legislation to shield against “malign influence”. It will be worth monitoring this trend of naming and shaming to ensure it does indeed lead to a strengthening of democracy and freedom of expression and does not lead to a new kind of McCarthyism, as swept the US and Australia in recent years.

David Morris

David Morris is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Pacific Studies of the Beijing Foreign Studies University and a Research Fellow at the Corvinus University of Budapest.

Manuel Müller is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen and runs the blog “Der (europäische) Föderalist”.

Julian Plottka is a research associate at the Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics at the University of Passau and at the University of Bonn.

Sophie Pornschlegel is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Felix Schenuit is a research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Porträt Oliver Schwarz

Oliver Schwarz is a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Toralf Stark is a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Kristina Weissenbach is substitute professor for Ethics in Political Management and Society at the University of Duisburg-Essen and research coordinator of the NRW School of Governance.

The contributions reflect solely the personal opinion of the respective authors.

Translation of the contributions by Minna Ålander, Anne Goldmann, Julian Plottka, Kristina Weissenbach: Manuel Müller.
Pictures: Ursula von der Leyen during the SOTEU: European Union 2022 – European Parlament [licence], via EP; portraits Minna Ålander, Anne Goldmann, Vittoria Meißner, David Morris, Manuel Müller, Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel, Felix Schenuit, Oliver Schwarz, Toralf Stark, Kristina Weissenbach: private [all rights reserved].

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