Article written by Neil Portelli – Director EU Policy & Legislation, MEUSAC
Published in The Malta Independent – 22.09.2020
On September 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her first State of the Union speech to the Members of the European Parliament in what is considered as a key date in the European Union’s calendar of events. The intention of having the President of the European Commission lay out plans for Europe’s future to the European Parliament is simply to demonstrate the Union’s administrative branch’s accountability towards the citizens of the European Union.
The yearly address focuses on what has been achieved in the past year and sets out the Commission’s plans for the year ahead and beyond.
This year, however, the Commission President’s address came at a time of considerable uncertainty. Since its inception, the European Union has never had to deal with a pandemic (COVID-19) of this magnitude, a pandemic that has for months challenged the norm and tinkered with the way we conduct our daily lives. A decade after an economic crisis that affected large chunks of Europe’s population, we are now faced with another period of uncertainty. On top of that, many are now realising just how easily our health systems can crumble. Von der Leyen, on more than one occasion during the speech, hinted that the pandemic showed us how fragile our world is.
The address does however offer an element of hope for the future. Acknowledging that a lot needs to be done to safeguard our future generations, the European Commission has presented a number of ambitious plans to swiftly recover from these unprecedented times.
Maybe the biggest target on the agenda is the European Commission’s plan to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (when compared to 1990 levels). The end-goal will always be for Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The challenge to become as climate-friendly as possible is considerable. However, a European Union that leads the way in climate action can be viewed as a huge opportunity. Most of the technologies that can enable the European Union to achieve climate-neutrality are already in place. The natural step now is understanding how to best apply them. In so doing doors will open for new employment opportunities, stronger competitiveness when compared with ‘other’ economies, cleaner air and more efficient public transport systems and less dependency on imports just to mention a few.
The Commission President also called for lessons to be learned from the pandemic, pushing forward the idea that Europe must work towards a stronger Health Union. Von der Leyen underlined the importance of properly funding the EU4Health programme which will provide funding to Member States, health organisations and NGOs. The President went also as far as calling for a serious future debate on increasing European Union competence in the field of health.
Commission President von der Leyen stressed the importance of strengthening Europe’s social market. She added that it is vital that the European Union protects its workers and businesses from shocks similar to the one we are presently experiencing. Much like most of the address, von der Leyen is envisaging a pro-active European future that is as airtight as possible. To set the ball rolling, she promised to put forward a legal framework for setting minimum wages emphasizing that “it is time work paid”.
The Commission President was uncharacteristically ‘bullish’ in her stance on migration. Whilst confirming that the Commission will be putting forward a New Pact on Migration, von der Leyen promised that the Commission will be ‘stepping-up efforts and taking further responsibility’. She did however explain that she expects all Member States to step-up accordingly saying that Member States who fulfil their legal or moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of their counterparts.
Racial discrimination was brought back to into focus earlier this year with the murder of George Floyd in the United States. In a bid to quash racist ideals, President von der Leyen expressed a clear message – ‘fighting racism will never be optional’. To kick start the process of actively fighting racism within the European Union, the Commission President announced that the European Commission will now have its first ever anti-racism coordinator, who will be in charge of keeping the notion of anti-racism on top of the European Union’s agenda.
Moving forward, Commission President von der Leyen’s over-arching message was clear:. The European Union has to stop licking its wounds. The circumstances the Union is facing have presented all of us with an opportunity to move from fragility to vitality.
[Photo credit ©European Union 2020 – Source: EP/Daina LE LARDIC]« Back