SOTEU 2021: A look at the EU’s achievements and remaining challenges

On 15 September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shared her vision of the year ahead to a congregation of MEPs in Strasbourg. Her hour long State of the EU (SOTEU) speech highlighted some respectable achievements by the EU institutions but also flagged important areas with room for improvement. “If I look at the state of the Union today, I see a strong soul in everything that we do”, von der Leyen said. However, she regretted a lack of cohesion – or willingness to implement more cohesion – between the 27 Member States.

Probably the most important challenge the continent has been facing over the past month concerns the health sector. The COVID-19 crisis, hitting the whole world since late 2019, seems now to be under control in Europe. The President congratulated her audience: “We chose to go it together. As one Europe. And we can be proud of it.” She confirmed that the EU is among the world leaders in vaccination rates and shared evidence to support her point (more than 70% of adults in the EU are fully vaccinated). Now, she said, we need to prevent new pandemics from occurring  and provide support to developing nations.

President von der Leyen also commented on the promise made at last year’s SOTEU speech to build a European Health Union and strengthen the EU’s involvement in a stronger European health policy. In this line, the European Commission just launched the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), a new agency intended to ensure better EU preparedness and response to serious cross-border health threats by enabling rapid availability, access, and distribution of needed countermeasures.

Climate and environment were also key points in her speech as this is a policy area she put at the forefront with the European Green Deal (see our previous post). The EC President applauded the EU’s commitment to being the first major economy to present comprehensive legislation in that matter and confirmed her ambition of decreasing CO2 emissions by at least 55% by 2030. She reiterated her pledge to support developing countries by doubling funding for biodiversity and assuring an additional €4 billion for climate finance until 2027. Member States will be key to help her achieving this goal: “Major economies do have a special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries,” she said.

Besides wanting a greener EU, von der Leyen emphasised the importance of accelerating the digital transformation for all ages and sectors. A new European Chips Act, which will allow Europe to be less reliant on imports by enhancing its semiconductor capacity, will be put forward as well as a European Cyber Resilience Act. This later would introduce an EU-wide cybersecurity certification framework for ICT products, services and processes. Internal market Commissioner Thierry Breton welcomed these initiatives – he indeed has already called for an improvement of Europe’s domestic capacity several times.

One noteworthy shift concerns European defence policy: “What we need now is a European Defence Union,” von der Leyen argued. The dramatic fall of the Afghan government and the rapid changes happening in the country made European citizens rethink the roles of the EU and NATO in the region. A European Defence Summit will be organised early next year under the French Presidency. It already seems clear that operations will be led on behalf of the EU: “There will be missions where NATO or the United Nations will not be present. But Europe should be,” von der Leyen declared.

Overall, von der Leyen was optimistic about the future of the EU. Many MEPs welcomed her speech, but a huge majority regretted that her commitments towards climate and a stronger European economy are far from being sufficient to tackle tomorrow’s challenges. “We haven’t done enough to ensure the wellbeing of citizens,” says MEP Iratxe García Pérez (Spain, S&D). There is thus room for improvement, and as the EC President recognised herself: “We should not hide away from our inconsistencies and imperfections […].” Nevertheless, she said, “our Union is both beautifully unique and uniquely beautiful”.

For further information about any of the initiatives Ursula von der Leyen mentioned in her speech please reach out to a member of the Brussels team: