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From the moment European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen strode into the European Parliament on Wednesday, the theme of her third State of the Union speech was never in doubt: saving democracy.
Dressed in the Ukrainian flag’s now-familiar yellow and blue, von der Leyen was blunt: “Never before has this Parliament debated the state of our union with war raging on European soil,” she began, setting the tone for her address. “This is about autocracy against democracy.”
If the war in Ukraine has upended the global order, bringing devastation to the people of Ukraine, it has also given the EU a new purpose.
It has prompted mea culpas on the EU’s Russia policy and admissions that it was wrong to woo Moscow with pipelines. It has stiffened the EU’s stance against China — floated as a partner in a potential trade deal only last year. And it has revived long-dormant talk of expanding east to preserve democratic values along the EU’s borders, with leaders granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status earlier this year.
Yet the crisis has also at times highlighted a chasm between the EU’s lofty ideals and its ability to deliver swiftly. That theme was woven throughout Wednesday’s forceful speech, as von der Leyen made steely appeals that didn’t always align with EU’s members’ likely direction.
A shifting SOTEU
Typically the EU’s annual State of the Union address is an opportunity for the Commission president to rattle off a list of achievements and set out policy priorities for the year ahead.
This year’s installment was about something bigger.
Yes, there were specific commitments — details of previously mooted levies to raise billions from energy companies, plans for a new European Hydrogen Bank, fresh EU legislation on critical raw materials, all designed to move Europe away from a dependence on other countries and strengthen its own resources.
But Wednesday’s address was less about legislative proposals and more about making a case for European values.
“This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine,” she said. “This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future.”
Von der Leyen outlined a vision of Europe’s place in the world juxtaposed against its place in the arc of history.
The post-World War II international system, founded to cement peace and security, has today become “the very target of Russian missiles,” she said. And Moscow has continued to court Beijing, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping set to meet this week to discuss the war in Ukraine, among other things.
Echoing the language of U.S. President Joe Biden, who regularly calls for an alliance of like-minded democracies, von der Leyen implored her audience: “This is the time to invest in the power of democracies.”
And then she broadened the scope: “This work begins with the core group of our like-minded partners: our friends in every single democratic nation on this globe.”
A core part of this vision, she suggested, is not only building new supply chain networks but also a renewed emphasis on trade deals, with von der Leyen making the case to work more with “reliable partners and key growth regions.”
The reality gap
But the gap between von der Leyen’s visionary aspirations and the practical reality is vast.
It was a point made by Manfred Weber, head of the Parliament’s large, center-right block, the European People’s Party, in his response to the speech. In fact, Weber’s home country of Germany has yet to fully ratify an EU-Canada trade deal that was reached nearly five years ago.
The gaps between rhetoric and reality were painfully obvious at other points during von der Leyen’s hour-long speech.
Once again, the EU was faced with contradictions between its calls for engagement with countries that share the EU’s values, and its failure to confront countries within its own ranks falling short on democratic norms.
Von der Leyen’s speech had little to say about the ongoing battles with Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law standards — a key Parliament bugbear. She merely pledged to “keep insisting on judicial independence” and vowed to “protect our budget through the conditionality mechanism,” a nascent tool allowing the EU to strip payments to its antidemocratic truants.
Instead, von der Leyen announced plans for a new “Defense of Democracy” package, which will address issues like corruption and interference from foreign actors, rather than dealing directly with errant countries within the bloc. In particular, she name-checked China, noting how a Chinese-funded entity within a Dutch university propagated “lies” about forced labor camps in Xinjiang.
Similarly, the speech contained almost no mention of EU defense and security policy, despite a war raging on the EU’s doorstep.
Von der Leyen similarly offered no new commitments to help boost Ukraine’s military or to sanction Russia further — both key Ukrainian requests. Instead, von der Leyen announced a €100 million fund to rebuild Ukrainian schools and made vague promises to integrate Ukraine further into the EU’s single market — an issue she will discuss with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later on Wednesday when she visits Kyiv.
Though von der Leyen’s speech was strong on grand values, it lacked any significant new announcements on the main issue facing Europe’s citizens currently — the cost-of-living crisis.
As expected, von der Leyen expanded on the Commission’s earlier proposals to tackle the energy crisis, including backing a levy on energy companies that are profiting from the sky-high gas price.
But there weren’t many specifics about the broader issues fueling Europe’s economic woes, apart from proposals to ease tax rules for small- and medium-sized businesses and to speed recognition of foreign workers to help tackle an acute labor shortage.
As von der Leyen turns the page on her third State of the Union speech, her 2022 offering may go down as one of the more far-reaching speeches in terms of defining Europe’s place in the world and celebrating its history as a fulcrum for democracy. But it is likely to do little to answer the immediate problems facing its own citizens.
Stuart Lau contributed reporting.