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SOTEU Speech: MEPs join Von der Leyen in calls for a stronger EU voice in trade, economy and defence

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The President put the focus of her speech on Europe’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis and on what the European Union needs to do for a lasting recovery delivering benefits to all – from health preparedness, to the social dimension, to technological leadership and a defence Union.

President von der Leyen described how Europe can secure a lasting recovery by preparing itself to deal with future health crises, thanks to the HERA authority, by helping the world get vaccinated and by making sure that the economic recovery is sustained and benefits everyone.

The president also underlined the importance of staying true to our values and made a point of Europe’s duty to care for the most vulnerable, standing up for media freedom, reinforcing the Rule of Law in our Union and empowering our youth. That is why she proposed making 2022 the Year of European Youth. Furthermore, in the face of the recent developments in Afghanistan, the President announced increased humanitarian aid to Afghans and laid out the importance for Europe to build its own defence capabilities.

Below, is a summary of the key points raised by the EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen in her State of the European Union speech and reactions by the main parties in the European Parliament.

Reactions by Political Parties

Jörg Meuthen, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), accused von der Leyen of pursuing “exaggerating spending” arguing that the Green Deal, Fit for 55, and other initiatives are ‘senseless subsidies’ and intended only to centralised power and bureacracy in Brussels. On the other hand Martin Schirdewan (Left), called on the Commission to give up its blockade to this waiver on the vaccine. As the Commission President concluded her speech, the party on Twitter said that EU governments keep on violating rule of law & fundamental rights while the Commission keeps doing too little too late, not making use of the tools it has.

Updated 1046:

Raffaele Fitto (European Conservatives and Reformists Group): The EU is facing important challenges and it must be ready to give solutions, the Italian MEP said. “The most evident challenge is the social-economic ones and we must create the foundations for a sustainable recovery.”

Fitto argued that the NextGeneration funds are important, but alone they will not be enough. He said that not much was said on the European Stability Pact – “it would devastating should we ignore this Pact”. State aid has increased disparities between Member States: “We are all in favour of the green and digital transition but we must understand how this will impact citizens.”

Fitto complained that the EU must adopt a stronger role on migration, especially vis-a-vis Belarus and said that nothing was being done in the Mediterranean.

Updated 1030:

Dacian Ciolos (Renew Europe) said that the Commission at times was compromising too much with the Council, saying that it is failing to act on the rule of law as liberal principles are being diluted in certain areas of Europe. He added that Europe should not wait for specific incidents to act, but rather take leadership, saying that on foreign affairs many times the EU depends on decisions taken in Washington, Moscow or Beijing. “Rather, the EU should be able to take its decisions” on these matters.

He also appealed to the Commission to support poorer nations in their vaccinations process. Europe needs to reform itself towards one which defends in values and which uses all possible ways to achieve its goals. He said that this objective is worthy of the geopolitical commission. 

Philippe Lamberts (Greens): Climate change is an urgent issue, it’s not a 2050 issue but a today’s issue, Lamberts said. “Yet, it will have a huge impact on future generations, but we must accelerate actions.” He said more ambitious targets are needed, such as anticipating the introduction of taxes on certain types of fuels. He joined his colleagues in calling for a stronger EU to face international realities and described as a failure the response to the situation in Afghanistan.

The Green MEP also called out EU nations for the reluctance to accept Afghan refugees.

Updated 1020:

Iratxe Garcia Perez (S&D) noted the overall positive balance of the Covid pandemic, particularly the fact that more than 70% of the population has been vaccinated and liberty of movement has been protected through the digital pass. She recalled to President von der Leyen that she had committed herself to a social economy and thus appealed that the EU considers the plight of those on the margins of society – unemployed, young people, the elderly: the social pillar needs to be strengthened.

She welcomed the Commission’s efforts to take forward the fight against gender-based violence”.

She appealed for Europe to speak with one voice on issues such as foreign affairs and the rule of law.

1013: Manfred Weber (EPP)
All in all EU responded to the crisis reasonably well: a problem which started in China, but the solutions were found in Europe. The crisis has left deep economic and social wounds, with many people fearing for their jobs, and even existence. Thus, protecting jobs is crucial. This is why it is time for a Jobs Deal, on the lines of the Green Deal, At the same time we need to protect the European way of life.

The rapid development of a vaccine was because the authorities worked efficiently and quickly, we need to see this happening in other areas: cutting bureaucracy by identifying 300 regulations to abolish or simplify.
He also called for renewed trade collaboration with the US, as a first step towards a more comprehensive trade agreement, to strengthen key industrial sectors and to protect the West against China. “Together we can start a growth machine that benefits the whole world”.

Manfred Weber (EPP)
“All in all EU responded to the crisis reasonably well: a problem which started in China, but the solutions were found in Europe. The crisis has left deep economic and social wounds, with many people fearing for their jobs, and even existence. Thus, protecting jobs is crucial. This is why it is time for a Jobs Deal, on the lines of the Green Deal, At the same time we need to protect the European way of life”, the Chairman of the EPP Group, Manfred Weber said.

“The rapid development of a vaccine was because the authorities worked efficiently and quickly, so we need to see this happening in other areas: cutting bureaucracy by identifying 300 regulations to abolish or simplify.” He also called for renewed trade collaboration with the US, as a first step towards a more comprehensive trade agreement, to strengthen key industrial sectors and to protect the West against China. “Together we can start a growth machine that benefits the whole world”.

Weber welcomed the proposals by von der Leyen on defence and asked: “What are we waiting for? Let’s create a rapid reaction force, let’s do it now”. He also called for the transformation of Europol into a stronger institution which he described as a European FBI.

Updated 1009: Malta lauded on rule of law

Touching the issue of rule of law, von der Leyen noted that Malta has already seen improvements, even though democratic backsliding continues in countries like Hungary and Poland. Starting next year, the Commission’s annual report on the rule-of-law situation in each EU country “will additionally include concrete recommendations” on what the Commission expects to see for the situation to improve.

Updated 1007: EU to propose ban on products made by forced labour: The European Commission will propose an EU ban on products made by forced labour, as von der Leyen said that human dignity and freedom were more important than making money.

“Doing business around the world is good, global trade around the world is good and necessary, but can never be done at the expense of people’s freedom and dignity. We will propose a ban on products made with forced labour.”

Updated 1003: Von der Leyen speaks of hybrid attack by Belarus

The European Union will not tolerate a “hybrid attack” by Belarus using migration, the bloc’s chief executive said, but stressed the union would remain vulnerable for as long as its 27 member countries remain divided on the hot-button issue. “They’ve put people on planes and literally pushed them towards our borders,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of the Belarusian authorities during an annual policy speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday.

“It is a hybrid attack to destabilise Europe. We will never tolerate that,” she said, vowing support to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland who border Belarus and have the EU’s eastern external frontier.

Updated 1000: EU, U.S. must act together on global agenda

The European Union should develop a new global agenda with the United States insisting the two were more powerful when working together. “With the United States we will develop our new agenda for global change, from the new trade and technology council to health, security and sustainability,” von der Leyen told MEPs. “The European Union and the United States will always be stronger together,” she insisted.

Updated 0955: Von der Leyen wants EU to strengthen military capabilities

Defence and military issues are thorny issues for a number of Member States, but the Commission President beliefs it is time to act. Arguing that the EU should strengthen its independent military capabilities, she said that Europe can and clearly should be able and willing to do more on its own. On the other hand, the EU will work with NATO toward “a new EU-NATO joint declaration by the end of the year”.
She also revealed that a European Defense Summit is being planned with French President Macron for the first half of 2022. France will be assuming the EU Presidency in January, taking over Slovenia.

Von der Leyen added that the EU must be able to intervene militarily without the help of the United States but lacks the political will to do so.

Updated 0948: EUR 4 bn more allocated towards fighting climate change

The European Union will increase its financial support to help poorer countries fight climate change and adapt to its impacts, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as she dedicated extensive chunks of her speech on the issue. “We will now propose an additional 4 billion euros for climate finance until 2027,” while adding that the EU expects the United States and other countries to also step up their pledges.

“We will put a price on pollution … we will have smarter cars and cleaner airplanes, and we will make sure that higher climate ambition comes with more social ambition.”

Updated 0943: EU to re-start budget rules review in weeks to reach deal before 2023

The European Commission will re-launch a review of the European Union’s budget rules in weeks, with a view to agree on a reform by 2023, the head of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen said. The rules, which limit government borrowing to support the value of the euro, are suspended since 2020 to give governments leeway to fight the economic down turn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Most EU countries have significantly exceeded the traditional budgetary thresholds.

But spending needed to fight climate change and large debt generated by pandemic spending require changes in the rules. “The Commission will re-launch the discussion on the economic governance review in the coming weeks. The aim is to build a consensus on the way forward well ahead of 2023,” von der Leyen added.

Updated 0940: EU to double international funding to protect nature

The European Union will double its international funding to protect nature and halt the decline of the world’s biodiversity, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued. “I am proud to announce today that the European Union will double its external funding for biodiversity. In particular, for the most vulnerable countries,” von der Leyen said.

EU to donate another 200 million COVID-19 doses: The European Union’s chief executive Ursula von der Leyen pledged on Wednesday to accelerate the rate of vaccinations for COVID-19 around the world, offering another 200 million jabs for non-EU countries. “Our first and most urgent priority is to speed up global vaccination,” she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The pace of vaccination against COVID-19 must be quickened across the globe to avert “a pandemic of the non-vaccinated”, the European Union’s chief executive said on Wednesday in her annual policy speech.

Ursula von der Leyen’s second ‘state of the union’ address since she took over as European Commission president comes after two years that have tested the resilience of the bloc with the COVID-19 pandemic, a sharp economic downturn and strains over Brexit.

“Let’s make sure that it does not turn into a pandemic of the non-vaccinated,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.

Announcing a new donation of another 200 million doses by the middle of next year, von der Leyen said she was also worried by variation of vaccination rates among the EU’s member states.

“The next year will be another test of character,” she said.

At the end of August, 70% of the adult population in the 27-nation EU had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This marked a milestone after a slow start, but also masked big differences among EU countries.

Updated 0900: Commission President to start SOTEU Speech, Metsola to Chair

Commission President von der Leyen is addressing the European Parliament. The session is being chaired by First Vice-President Roberta Metsola after President David Sassoli developed an illness overnight.

CDE News, with additional reporting by Reuters, Politico and Euronews