European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she delivers her first State of the European Union speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament, in Brussels, on September 16, 2020. [Yves Herman/Reuters]
The European Commission president’s annual “State of the EU” speech usually exaggerates past achievements and promises whatever is most pleasing to as many of the European Parliament’s political groupings as possible. It is long on visions and platitudes and short on specifics, in other words. This time, the state of the world is so different, so difficult, that Ursula von der Leyen’s speech would, in any case, have been more significant. It would indicate whether the European Union is prepared to take on the great challenges of the time: the pandemic, climate change, mass migration, Brexit, the ever greater projection of power by China and Russia in the void left by the United States, Turkey’s growing belligerence.
The pandemic has already driven the EU member-states to overcome the great taboo on issuing mutual debt, so that they can support businesses and citizens as they move toward a new, more environmentally-friendly economy. Also, steps have been taken toward a coordinated front against the coronavirus and similar challenges in future, to avoid a repeat of the situation where member-states banned the export of health equipment to other EU states. The situation over the past year reminded us of French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman’s prediction in his 1950 proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” Von der Leyen was clearly referring to this when she said, on Wednesday, “When we felt fragility around us, we seized the moment to breathe new vitality into our Union.”
Like the pandemic, Turkey’s behavior and the great issue of migration are forcing the European Union to change. The EU’s leaders may find it difficult to agree on sanctions against Turkey at their meeting next week, but the message to Turkey was clear in von der Leyen’s speech. “The distance between us appears to be growing,” she said. “Our member-states Cyprus and Greece can always count on Europe’s full solidarity on protecting their legitimate sovereignty rights.” On migration, the wretchedness of Moria has crossed the line from deterrent to disgrace, prompting the EU to adopt a new system for handling migration. This will have a strong component of solidarity, von der Leyen told the European Parliament.
These may be only words, but they are positive words. We await the deeds that will strengthen the Union.