by Roberta Guevska
Earlier this month, the President of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, held her annual State of the Union (SOTEU) address in front of the European Parliament (EP0 plenary session). Not only was the speech given in extraordinary hard times for the Union – the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the following energy and possible food crisis, but many people also expected the Commission to act once again as a political entrepreneur and find a way to put into effect the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe that finished in May 2022.
To begin with, this event chimes with similar practices in national democracies, e.g., the United States’ long-standing tradition of presidential State of the Union addresses. Yet, SOTEU has been formally incorporated in the EU’s legal order post-Lisbon Treaty. Ever since, it has strived to make the Union more democratic and transparent, initiating a broad debate on the proposals brought by the EC.
What makes SOTEU 2022 different?
Numerous factors result in this year’s quite peculiar SOTEU – beginning with the health crisis and the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic, which is still present to some extent, continuing with the unprovoked Russian invasion of sovereign Ukraine, resulting in an energy crisis and the possibility of food supply insecurity, rising inflation rates and prices. Overall, Europe is once again the epicentre of a crisis that demands a fast and resolute response. Therefore, the SOTEU was expected to show an overview of the past year’s accomplishments and present in detail the actions the EC intends to take in terms of legislation and various initiatives in the upcoming year.
What has been achieved so far?
The annual address stressed the success in terms of vaccination and its contribution to the fight against COVID19. Second, ever since the beginning of the war on Ukraine, the EU has expressed its unconditional support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in terms of financial contributions, welcoming those who fled the war and through the imposition of unprecedented sanctions against Russia and certain Russian elites. Next, in terms of internal policies, the recovery plan Next Generation EU has been activated and has given new confidence in the future to families, businesses and investors in the EU.
What’s next? An overview of the important initiatives.
Before all else, solidarity with Ukraine is one of the key aspects that is going to continue in the upcoming year. Probably the most distinguished proof of this is the guest of honour at this SOTEU – namely the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska. The EC’s president declared in her speech that “sanctions are here to stay”, meaning that the EU’s support for Ukrainian resistance would stay firm. On the other hand, it was also stressed that Europe should take bold measures to overcome the energy crisis, suggesting a decoupling of prices in the electricity markets. Closely related to that, von der Leyen called for the development of green energy sources and even mentioned a proposal for a new European Hydrogen Bank to secure around €3 billion in investments for the sector. Next, the EC President stressed the need for strict fiscal rules to enhance strategic investment while safeguarding fiscal sustainability.
One of the most compelling segments of the speech was the part related to protecting democracy at home and eliminating threats to our democratic freedoms. President von der Leyen explicitly declared that “if we want to be credible when we ask candidate countries to strengthen their democracies, we must also eradicate corruption at home.” Without mentioning specific member states, this was a clear message for Poland and Hungary, which are well-known for disrespecting judicial independence and the rule of law.
Last but not least, there was a big part of the address concentrated on the foreign policy of the Union and namely “a rethink of the foreign policy agenda”, meaning not only the neighbourhood countries’ prospect for EU membership but also enhanced cooperation with like-minded states, ratification of certain trade agreements and even a call for the establishment of a European Political Community – an initiative first mentioned by the French President, Emanuel Macron. To that end, von der Leyen included the possibility of a Treaty reform – one of the key results of the recently concluded Conference on the Future of Europe.