The fights against COVID-19 and climate change will be the main priorities for the European Union in the coming year, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Wednesday during her annual State of the European Union address.
Other important topics the 27-country bloc will need to wrestle with include migration, respect for rule of law and a European defence policy, she said.
Here’s a look in more detail at the key takeaways from von der Leyen’s speech. You can watch in full in the video player, above.
COVID-19: ‘We did it the right way’
Unsurprisingly, von der Leyen opened on the subject of the global health crisis, praising the bloc’s response.
Brussels was strongly criticised at the start of the year for the slow pace of the vaccination roll-out compared to the US, UK and Israel. But it has now caught up with 72% of adults fully vaccinated — a higher rate than in the US.
“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” she proudly said, highlighting that more than 700 million doses had so far been delivered to member states and that an equal amount has been distributed by the bloc to more than 130 countries worldwide.
“We are the only region in the world to achieve that,” she said. “We did it the right way because we did it the European way. And it worked.”
She cautioned however that the pandemic is far from over and that now is not the time for complacency as less than 1% of doses worldwide were administered in low-income countries.
“The scale of injustice and the level of urgency are obvious. This is one of the great geopolitical issues of our time,” she said.
She announced that the EU is upping its donation commitment by a further 200 million doses by the middle of next year.
The bloc has committed to spending €1 billion to accelerate the production capacity of mRNA vaccines — which include Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna — in Africa and to share 250 million doses.
Finally, she said the other priority for the EU will be to strengthen its preparedness for future health crises through the creation of a European Heath Union. The Commission has proposed to get the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) up and running.
She said the new health preparedness and resilience mission should be backed up by a €50 billion investment by 2027.
Climate change: ‘The COP26 summit will be a moment of truth’
On the issue of global warming, von der Leyen welcomed the adoption over the past few months of a legally binding obligation for EU member states to reduce net greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
She also urged MEPs and leaders to back the Commission’s proposal for a Social Climate Fund to tackle energy poverty that currently affects about 34 million Europeans.
“When it comes to climate change and the nature crisis, Europe can do a lot. And it will support others,” she said, announcing that the bloc is to double its external funding for biodiversity.
The COP26 Summit to be held in Glasgow in November was described by von der Leyen as “a moment of truth.”
She welcomed climate neutrality ambitions set by Washington and Tokyo but called for them to “be backed up by concrete plans in time for Glasgow.” She also called on Beijing to provide more details about its own strategy.
“Every country has a responsibility,” she affirmed, in particular major economies, which she said, have a “special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries.”
“My message today is Europe is ready to do more, she said. To that effect, the EU will increase its climate finance contributions by $4 billion until 2027.
In past COP summits, the world committed to providing $100 a year until 2025. The EU has so far contributed $25 billion per year.
“We expect the United States and our partners to step up too. Closing the climate finance gap together — the US and the EU — would be a strong signal for global climate leadership.”
However, Greens/EFA group co-president Philippe Lamberts, said the goals outlined were not going far enough, arguing that “the European Parliament called for an immediate end to fossil fuels subsidies, but the European Commission is taking half measures, spread out over a decade.”
The environmental Friends of the Earth NGO also said in a statement following the State of the European Union speech that the Commission chief “rightly praised the leadership of young people on the climate crisis, but the commitment they are looking for, to end the era of gas and other fossil fuels, was glaringly absent”.
“This Commission is over-relying on failed market-mechanisms and unproven techno-fixes to ‘clean’ our polluting and unfair energy system. After a summer of lethal floods and fires, we need immediate action to end funding for fossil fuels, including fossil gas,” it added.
Defence: ‘Afghanistan shows Europe should do more on its own’
The events in Afghanistan, where the Taliban militant group have seized power after a lightning-fast campaign over the summer, have meanwhile reinforced the need for Europe to develop its own defence capacities, von der Leyen said.
“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” she said.
“To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.
The bloc is currently working on an EU-NATO Joint Declaration on Afghanistan to be presented before the end of the year, she added.
“But this is only one part of the equation,” she continued. “Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own.
She described it as “vital” for the member states to improve intelligence cooperation as well as interoperability in order to understand threats in its own neighbourhood and further afield and enable better joint decision-making.
A possible avenue for the latter would be to waive VAT when buying defence equipment developed a produced in Europe, the Commission chief said, highlighting that it would have the added advantage of reducing current dependencies.
On cyber-defence, she called for member states to “bundle” their resources and called for a European Cyber Defence Policy.
“If everything is collected, everything can be hacked,” she said. “It is time for Europe to step up to the next level.”
She also announced that a Summit on European Defence will be convened by the French Presidency in the first half of 2022.
Migration: Progress to manage it has been ‘painfully slow’
On the issue of migration, she said divisions between member states were being exploited by opponents and human traffickers.
She referred to Belarus, which Brussels has accused of encouraging migrants to cross the border with EU member states.
According to the Commission chief, its proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum “gives us everything we need to manage the different types of situations we face” but she deplored that progress on the legislation “has been painfully slow.”
The comprehensive text sets out, among other things, external border management, streamlined asylum procedures, solidarity mechanisms for search and rescue, crisis preparedness and partnerships with key non-EU countries of origin and transit.
“This is the moment now for a European migration management policy. So I urge you, in this House and in the Member States, to speed up the process.
“This ultimately comes down to a question of trust. trust between Member States. Trust for Europeans that migration can be managed. Trust that Europe will always live up to its enduring duty to the most vulnerable and most in need,” she added.
Respect for EU values: ‘Worrying developments’
Von der Leyen stressed that the judgements of the European Court of Justice “are binding”, in a veiled reference to Poland with which Brussels has tussled over the respect of the rule of law.
The Commission chief said that there are “worrying developments in certain member states” over the rule of law and warned that Brussels is “determined” to defend the values the bloc was built on, including democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of speech and independent media.
“We will never waiver in that determination,” she said.
Supremacy of EU law is considered a foundation principle of the bloc: EU law prevails over domestic law in the areas where the EU has competence.
But in recent years, the principle has come under attack. In Poland, the Constitutional court has dismissed an injunction from the EU’s top court, arguing it was inconsistent with the Polish constitution and therefore non-binding. In Germany, the Constitutional court challenged the competencies of both the EU’s Court of Justice and the European Central Bank. Both cases infuriated Brussels and have led to infringement procedures.
Poland has drawn Brussels’ ire following reforms of its judiciary and a crackdown on abortion. Hungary has also been sternly criticised for legislations seen as muzzling the media and hindering the work of NGOs. Both countries have also been rebuked for anti-LGBT laws.
The Commission chief announced that from 2022, the annual rule of law reports will come “with specific recommendations” to member states.
She also called for protection “for those who create transparency — journalists” to be strengthened via a Media Freedom Act to be delivered next year.
Several prominent anti-corruption journalists have been killed across the bloc in recent years including Daphné Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, and Peter de Vries in the Netherlands.
Renew Europe President Dacian Ciolos accused von der Leyen of talking the talk on the rule of law but failing to walk the walk.
“All over Europe, we see pockets of illiberalism developing,” he said. “These hotbeds of illiberalism must be extinguished, Madam President, before the fire spreads, and that is your responsibility.”
“You have the means to do so. For the moment, I can hear you, but I cannot see the effects yet. I do not see you using, for instance, the conditionality mechanism for protecting the rule of law.
“You have to find the political courage to use this mechanism, because that is why we decided on it and although it has been nearly a year since it came into force, it has yet to be applied, he also said.
The conditionality mechanism enables the Commission to suspend, reduce or restrict access to EU funds for member states found to have breached rule of law values.
Europe’s youth, women and… microchips
At several points throughout her address, von der Leyen referenced Europe’s youth and called for the bloc to take inspiration from its young.
“Our Union will be stronger if it is more like our next generation: reflective, determined and caring. Grounded in values and bold in action,” she said.
She warned however that this next generation has been cheated out of some of their most formative years because of the pandemic and announced the creation of an ALMA programme — an Erasmus-styled work placement scheme.
The next year has also been declared the Year of European Youth with young people encouraged to help lead the debate in the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The pandemic was also a time of heightened fear for some women facing domestic abuse, von der Leyen emphasised.
“Their abusers must be brought to justice,” she said, announcing that the Commission will propose a law to combat violence against women — “from prevention to protection and effective prosecution, online and offline” — by the end of the year.
Finally, the pandemic has also shown how crucial the transition to a digital sector is.
“Digital is the make-or-break issue,” she said. The pandemic forced many people to work from home but also slowed down supply chains globally. One of the impacted sectors was that of semiconductors which are used in every device.
Most of the world’s chips are produced in Asia and von der Leyen called on Wednesday for a reversal of the trend. The Commission will present a European Chips Act to that effect.
“This is not just a matter of competitiveness. This is also a matter of tech sovereignty,” she said.