On 15 September 2021, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave the annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg, France. With Europe still battling through the pandemic, newer and more pressing concerns about climate change and defence policy made their way to the forefront of discussions on the continent’s future.
“Climate change is man-made. But since it is man-made, we can do something about it.”
The events of the summer have demonstrated why we need to increase our efforts in the fight against climate change. From the unexpected, devastating floods in Belgium and Germany to the massive wildfires burning across Greece, it has become clear that something drastic must be done.
In her speech, Mrs von der Leyen mentioned how the European Union is the “first major economy to present comprehensive legislation” to turn “climate goals into legal obligations.” She recognised that Europe can do much with regard to climate change and environmental crises, highlighting a new EU initiative that will double external funding for biodiversity, especially in its most vulnerable countries. However, she also made it clear that Europe cannot win the climate battle alone, describing next month’s COP26 Summit in Glasgow as a “moment of truth for the global community.” She called on big players like the United States and China to make their plans for climate neutrality more concrete in time for the conference, saying that major economies have a “special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries.”
“Closing the climate finance gap together – the US and the EU – would be a strong signal for global climate leadership. It is time to deliver”.
Mrs von der Leyen also announced an “ambitious, achievable, and beneficial” plan to reduce carbon emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an earlier goal of 40%. To this end the EU will contribute an additional €4 billion for climate finance until 2027, though it expects other partners to step up too.
A renewed attempt at the European Defence Community?
“We are entering a new era of hyper-competitiveness.”
Global affairs have taken a marked shift “at a time of transition towards a new international order.” This, along with new regional rivalries, has meant major powers focusing more on each other once again; such mounting international competition led Mrs von der Leyen to emphasise the importance of European defence during the address. Having told the EP that the EU must increase its military capabilities to confront global security threats and crises, she noted that collective EU military forces might be a part of the solution.
The defence debate was sparked by the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The collapse of Kabul raised questions about the EU’s capability to drive its own defence policy outside of NATO and the US. As a result, both NATO and the EU are currently working on creating a joint declaration on Afghanistan by the end of the year. “But this is only one part of the equation,” says Mrs von der Leyen. She claims that Europe needs and should be willing to do more on its own, for three main reasons:
- Europe needs to provide stability in their own neighbourhood and in different regions. The continent is geographically vulnerable and “Europe knows better than anyone that if you don’t deal in time with the crisis abroad, the crisis comes to you.”
- The nature of threats are evolving rapidly, from cyber aggression to the arms race in space. Warfare has taken a completely new shape. “You no longer need armies and missiles to cause mass damage. You can paralyse industrial plants, city administrations and hospitals – all you need is your laptop.”
- The European Union is a unique security provider. There will be missions where NATO or the UN may not be present, but the EU should be.
“What we need is the European Defence Union.”
The EU has historically relied on NATO and other US-led organizations for military action after the failure to ratify its own defence organization, the European Defence Community (EDC), in August 1954. Indeed, the idea of creating an EU military force has been a controversial topic throughout the bloc’s history. Mrs Von der Leyen identified the situation as “not a shortfall of capacity” but rather a “lack of political will” amongst member states who are cautious about undermining the US and NATO.
Therefore, she and French president Emmanuel Macron will convene a summit on European defence at the beginning of next year. “It is time for Europe to step up to the next level,” she declared.
The European response to COVID-19
“A Europe United Through Adversity and Recovery”
Finally, the pandemic. Mrs von der Leyen addressed how Europe is among the world leaders in combating the virus. More than 70% of EU adults are fully vaccinated, and the EU is the only international bloc to share half of their vaccine production with the rest of the world. Approximately 700 million doses were delivered to the European people, and more than 700 million were sent to 130 countries across the rest of the world.
Despite these successes, the EU president rightly said that now is not the time to be complacent. Less than 1% of the world’s doses have been administered in low-income countries, so the most immediate priority is to speed up global vaccination efforts. Team Europe is already investing €1 billion to ramp up mRNA production in Africa and have committed to sharing 250 million doses. During the address, Mrs von der Leyen told the EP that the Commission will add another 200 million doses in donations by the middle of next year, calling it “an investment in solidarity – but also in global health.”
The second priority is to continue the battle in Europe. There are some “worrisome divergences” in vaccination rates across the Union. To keep up the momentum, the EU had 1.8 billion additional doses secured for when booster shots are needed. Mrs von der Leyen stressed the importance that “this does not turn into a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Looking forward, the EU will strengthen its pandemic preparedness. A European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) is up and running, acting as a quick and efficient agent against future health threats. There was also mention of the EU digital COVID certificate and its success. Over 40 countries across four continents use the certificates, with 400 million of them having been generated in Europe alone.
What’s next for the EU?
President von der Leyen started her term at a turbulent (putting it lightly) moment in the bloc’s history. Of course, the main goal of the past year has been to “end” the pandemic. However, as we saw in the address, other factors are starting to take priority as well. Solutions for climate change are at the forefront of EU concerns for the future. Politically, it seems the EU is going to reattempt a once failed initiative similar to the European Defence Community. Whether the pushback against an EU army and its institutions remains as strong as before is yet to be seen.
Nor are the pandemic, climate change and defence the only urgent issues for the bloc: Brexit, migration policies and threats to democracy will also test it in the years to come. The Union has a changing international order in front of its eyes, and how resilient it can be in face of adversity is something that will become clearer with time.