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UPDATED: EU chief executive unveils blueprint to get Europe back on its feet

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The European Union’s chief executive on Wednesday painted a sober picture of the bloc grappling with a pandemic and the deepest recession in its history, but laid out ambitious goals to make the 27 nations more resilient for future crises.

In her annual State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the flagship goals she set out when she took office last December: action to protect the climate and a digital revolution.

She unveiled a plan to cut EU greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%, and called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States.

Chances for Brexit deal fading every day

Every passing day reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal with Britain, the European Union’s chief executive said on Wednesday, warning London that there was “very little time” left to put an agreement in place by the end of the year.

Von der Leyen dedicated just a few sentences to Brexit, mostly focusing on the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as well as digital and climate investments.

“With every day that passes, the chances of a timely agreement do start to fade,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament in a “state of the (European) Union” speech styled on the ones U.S. presidents deliver.

Von der Leyen also stressed both the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned London the agreement “cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied”.

“This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said

Delegates attend European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen’s first state of the union speech at a plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2020. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share protective medical kit with those worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus.

The bloc’s leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen looks on prior to her first state of the union speech at a plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2020. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Von der Leyen told the European Parliament in her speech that “this is the moment for Europe” to trust each other and stand together.

“The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality,” she said.

“I say this because in the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common … We turned fear and division between Member States into confidence in our Union.”

“Be courageous” to stand up to Russia, Turkey

European Union states must be quicker in their foreign policy to support pro-democracy protests in Belarus or to stand up to Russia and Turkey, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her speech.

“Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” Von der Leyen asked in her annual speech on the health of the Union.

“When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting,” she said, referring to blockages over finding unanimity among the EU’s 27 states.

Von der Leyen said her EU executive would come forward with a proposal to freeze assets of those deemed responsible for human rights abuses, similar to the Magnitsky Act of 2012 in the United States.

She also said nothing could justify Turkey’s intimidation of Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and said it was wrong to think that a gas pipeline between German and Russia would help tense EU-Russia ties.

“Turkey is and will always be an important neighbour. But while we are close together on the map, the distance between us appears to be growing,” Von der Leyen told the European Parliament.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen delivers her first state of the union speech at a plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2020. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Proposes framework for minimal wage in EU

The European Commission will propose a framework for minimum wages in the 27-nation bloc, von der Leyen added.

“For too many people, work no longer pays,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament in an annual policy speech. “Dumping wages destroys the dignity of work, penalises the entrepreneur who pays decent wages and distorts fair competition in the Single Market,” she said.

The issue is politically tricky so the Commission is not trying to set a single EU minimum wage or to impose one minimum wage setting system for all of the 27 countries in the bloc.

Instead, it wants to ensure there is a collective bargaining for wages in place, that different national systems have clear and stable criteria, that trade unions and employers are involved in the process, that there are few exemptions and that there are monitoring mechanisms in place.

“I am a strong advocate of collective bargaining and the proposal will fully respect national competencies and traditions,” von der Leyen said.

Minimum wages vary widely in EU countries — in July 2020 ranged from 312 euros a month in Bulgaria to 2,142 euro a month in Luxembourg. 

The European Union is a firm believer in strong international bodies and should lead reforms of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

Von der Leyen told EU lawmakers that the need to revitalise and reform the multilateral system had never been so urgent.

“Our global system has grown into a creeping paralysis. Major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interests,” she said.

“Yes, we want change. But change by design – not by destruction,” she continued.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen approaches the stage to deliver her first state of the union speech at a plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2020. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Wants tougher 2030 climate target, billions in green bonds

She said the bloc should commit to deeper emissions cuts over the next decade, and pledged to use green bonds to finance its climate goals.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU should set a target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, against 1990 levels, confirming plans laid out in draft Commission documents previously reported by Reuters.

The EU’s current 2030 emissions target is for a 40% cut.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen delivers her first state of the union speech at a plenary session of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2020. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

Von der Leyen said the upgrade is needed to put EU “firmly on track” for its plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and that Commission analysis had confirmed a 55% emissions cut was economically possible.

But she acknowledged the proposal would divide European Parliament and member states, who must approve the legally binding target, but disagree on how ambitious it should be.

“I recognise that this increase from 40 to 55 is too much for some, and not enough for others,” she said in a speech in European Parliament.

To help meet the goal, von der Leyen said 30% of the bloc’s 750 billion euro coronavirus recovery package of grants and loans, which the EU as a whole will borrow, should be raised through green bonds.

EU ready for new agenda with whoever wins U.S. election 

The European Union is ready to build a new transatlantic agenda on issues from trade to tech and taxation with whoever wins the U.S. presidential election in November, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said .

“We might not always agree with recent decisions by the White House. But we will always cherish the transatlantic alliance – based on shared values and history, and an unbreakable bond between our people,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers.

“So whatever may happen later this year, we are ready to build a new transatlantic agenda. To strengthen our bilateral partnership – be it on trade, tech or taxation.

No place for “LGBT-free zones” in EU

The European Union’s chief executive lashed out against homofobic policies of the nationalist government in Warsaw in saying on Wednesday there was “no place” in the bloc for districts proclaimed “LGBT-free zones” in Poland.

“LGBTQI-free zones are humanity free zones. And they have no place in our (European) Union,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told her annual policy speech to the European Parliament.

“Breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated,” she said.

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