State of the Union 2021 - taking stock of the past year and looking forward
“The future will be what we make it. And Europe will be what we want it to be.”
- Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
With the pandemic still lingering in the background, President von der Leyen started the 2021 State of the Union Speech by reflecting on the past year stating that this has been a time of soul-searching.
“As I look back on this past year, if I look at the state of the Union today, I see a strong soul in everything that we do. It was Robert Schuman who said: ‘Europe needs a soul, an ideal, and the political will to serve this ideal.’ Europe has brought those words to life in the last twelve months.”
Looking forward, von der Leyen referred to Europe’s young generation as a source of inspiration for the future of Europe, because our youth put meaning into empathy and solidarity. They believe we have a responsibility towards the planet. And while they are anxious about the future, they are determined to make it better.
Speaking about COVID-19 vaccination, von der Leyen called the pandemic a marathon, rather than a sprint, stating that today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders. She explained that more than 70 per cent of adults in the EU are fully vaccinated and that we, the EU, were the only ones to share half of our vaccine production with the rest of the world, having delivered more than 700 million doses to the European people, and more than another 700 million doses to the rest of the world, to more than 130 countries. “We are the only region in the world to achieve that." She added "We did that together as Commission, as Parliament, as 27 Member States. As one Europe. And we can be proud of it (…) We did it the right way, because we did it the European way. And it worked!”
When it comes to vaccinations, the following priorities were brought to the table:
- Most urgently, to speed up global vaccination.
That said, with less than 1% of global doses 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. Team Europe is investing one billion Euro to ramp up mRNA production capacity in Africa. Having already committed to share 250 million doses, the Commission will add a new donation of another 200 million doses by the middle of next year. This is an investment in solidarity and in global health.
- To continue our efforts here in Europe.
Europe has 1.8 billion additional doses secured which is enough for us and our neighbourhood when booster shots are needed. “Let's do everything possible to ensure that this does not turn into a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” von der Leyen warned.
- To strengthen our pandemic preparedness.
The EU is proposing a new health preparedness and resilience mission for the whole of the EU that should be backed up by Team Europe investment of EUR 50 billion by 2027 to make sure that no virus will ever turn a local epidemic into a global pandemic.
When it comes to digital transformation von der Leyen stated that Digital is the make-or-break issue. Digital spending in NextGenerationEU will even overshoot the 20% target which reflects the importance of investing in European tech sovereignty. The EU will present a new European Chips Act linking together our world-class research, design and testing capacities. Recalling the success of Galileo, von der Leyen stated ‘let's be bold again, this time with semi-conductors.’
On Climate change, von der Leyen remarked that this is man-made. But since it is man-made, we can do something about it. ‘It's warming. It's us. We're sure. It's bad. But we can fix it,’ she quoted.
Von der Leyen explained that change is happening, giving the examples that more electric vehicles than diesel cars were registered in Germany in the first half of this year and that Poland is now the EU's largest exporter of car batteries and electric buses. This is what the European Green Deal is all about.
She announced that the EU will double its external funding for biodiversity, in particular for the most vulnerable countries. She also stated that Europe is ready to do more proposing an additional 4 billion euro for climate finance until 2027. But Europe cannot do it alone and stated that the COP26 in Glasgow will be a moment of truth for the global community. Every country has a responsibility!
Moving on to Afghanistan, President von der Leyen stated “We stand by the Afghan people. The women and children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders.” She said that the EU will support in particular women judges who are now in hiding from the men they jailed and will coordinate all efforts with Member States to bring them to safety. And that the EU must do everything to avert the real risk of a major famine and humanitarian disaster for all Afghans in the country and in neighbouring countries, proposing a wider Afghan Support Package.
On lessons learnt from Afghanistan and security and defence policy, von der Leyen said that EU and NATO cooperation is central and that there “are deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within NATO”. The President stressed the need to invest in the EU-NATO partnership and to draw on each side’s unique strength.
However, Europe can and should also be able and willing to do more on its own and she stressed three broad categories in that regard:
- The EU needs to provide stability in our neighbourhood and across different regions.
- the nature of the threats we face is evolving rapidly: from hybrid or cyber-attacks to the growing arms race in space.
- The European Union is a unique security provider. There will be missions where NATO or the UN will not be present, but where the EU should be.
She stressed the EU strength of combining military and civilian efforts, along with diplomacy and development and that the EU has a long history in building and protecting peace and need to develop a European Defence Union.
Von der Leyen also mentioned that the EU could consider its own Joint Situational Awareness Centre, not only to improve intelligence cooperation, but also to bring together the knowledge from all services and all sources. From space to police trainers, from open source to development agencies, to fuse all the different pieces of information.
She also pointed out that we cannot talk about defence without talking about cyber and that we should not just be satisfied to address the cyber threat, but also strive to become a leader in cyber security. She remarked that it is key to make a common assessment of the threats we face and a common approach to dealing with them, pointing out that the upcoming Strategic Compass is a key process of this discussion.
On the EU as a more active global player von der Leyen mentioned that there is a need to focus on the next generation of partnerships. She refers to today's new EU - Indo-Pacific strategy as a milestone which reflects the growing importance of the region to our prosperity and security.
Von der Leyen went on to speak about deepening the EU’s partnerships with its closest allies like the US with whom the EU is developing a new agenda for global change – from the new Trade and Technology Council to health security and sustainability.
She also referred to neighbours in the Western Balkans and the EU’s commitment to the accession process.
On connectivity President von der Leyen announced that the EU will soon present the new Global Gateway connectivity strategy, building partnerships with countries around the world, establishing investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services around the world.
Von der Leyen also announced that the EU will invest with Africa to create a market for green hydrogen that connects the two shores of the Mediterranean.
“We need a Team Europe approach to make Global Gateway happen. We will connect institutions and investment, banks and the business community. And we will make this a priority for regional summits – starting with the next EU-Africa Summit in February. We want to turn Global Gateway into a trusted brand around the world.”
Having said this, she emphasised that this can never be done at the expense of people's dignity and freedom and hence the EU will propose a ban on products in our market that have been made by forced labour.
“Human rights are not for sale – at any price”, stressed von der Leyen
Von der Leyen also spoke about the New Pact on Migration and Asylum saying that Europe will always live up to its enduring duty to the most vulnerable and most in need, welcoming those who come to Europe legally and make such a vital contribution to our society and economy.
On democracy and common values von der Leyen stressed that these are part of our soul, part of what defines us today and that we are determined to defend these values. She went on to say that defending our values is also defending freedom. Freedom to be who you are, freedom to say what's on your mind, freedom to love whoever you want.
She recounted that during the pandemic, too many women were deprived of that freedom, and announced that for this reason by the end of this year the EU will propose a law to combat violence against women – from prevention to protection and effective prosecution, online and offline.
On media freedom, President von der Leyen recalled the journalists who have been threatened, some beaten and, tragically, some murdered for doing their job. Recognising that Europe needs a law that safeguards this independence, von der Leyen announced that the Commission will deliver a Media Freedom Act in the next year.
President von der Leyen's concluding words for the State of the Union speech were:
“This is the soul of Europe.
This is the future of Europe.
Let's make it stronger together.
Watch the SOTEU speech by clicking here