Ambitious first State of the Union speech in the European Parliament
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    Ambitious first State of the Union speech in the European Parliament

    Ursula von der Leyen, credit: EU

    European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spread a message of unity and moving forward in her first State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

    In her union address to the European Parliament Plenary (16 September), von der Leyen started by praising care workers, doctors, nurses and front-line workers. “Their empathy, their courage and their sense of duty is an inspiration to us all,” she said.


    She addressed people’s readiness to move away from the fragility and uncertainty of the crisis, saying that “this is the moment (…) to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality.”

    “We have the vision, we have a plan, we have the investment, it is now time to get to work,” she said and touched on what the EU must focus on in the next twelve months.

    Health

    With that, von der Leyen addressed the need for “a stronger European health union,” proposing to “reinforce and empower” the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Control.

    She also pushed for the creation of a European Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an institution which among many other goals aims to protect against emerging infectious diseases.

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    Finally, “it is clearer than ever that we must discuss the question of health competencies. And I think this is a noble and urgent task for the Conference on the Future of Europe.” Currently, health issues are a member state competency, which limited the Commission’s ability to coordinate their response to the outbreak of the pandemic.

    “Because this was a global crisis we need to learn the global lessons”, she said and announced that she will convene a Global Health Summit next year in Italy.

    Wages

    The Commission president also addressed the need for minimum wages, something that “everyone must have access to.” She announced an upcoming legal proposal “to support member states to set up a framework for minimum wages.”

    “Minimum wages work and it is time that work paid,” she said, underlining their importance in achieving stability and competitiveness.

    Climate

    Von der Leyen also addressed climate issues and the European Green Deal, underlining that “at the heart of it is our mission to become the first climate-neutral continent in 2050.”

    “But we will not get there with the status quo,” she stressed, calling for faster and better action. In that spirit, von der Leyen proposed to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%, which would put Europe on track for its climate neutrality goal and help it meet its Paris Agreement obligation.

    Europe’s digital decade

    At the same time, this must be Europe’s digital decade, von der Leyen said, addressing a need to focus on data, pointing out that when it comes to business-to-consumer data, “Europe has been too slow and is now dependent on others. This cannot happen with industrial data,” she said, calling it “worth its weight in gold when it comes to developing new products and services.”

    A real data economy “would be a powerful engine for innovation and new jobs. And this is why we need to secure this data for Europe and make it widely accessible,” von der Leyen said. With that, she announced the creation of a European cloud as part of NextGenerationEU.

    Technology

    Von der Leyen also addressed artificial intelligence, which “will open up new worlds for us. But this world also needs rules,” she said. The Commission will be proposing a new law in this field, which will tackle the issue of supervision of personal data and control of personal data.

    She also mentioned the need for infrastructure, pointing out that if we want to build a Europe that is on an equal footing with others, “it is unacceptable that 40% of people in rural areas still do not have access to fast broadband connections.”

    Vaccines

    The Commission President also addressed the need for “an accessible, affordable and safe vaccine,” underlining the need for cooperation. “Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk. Vaccine cooperation saves them,” she warned, quoting WHO’s Director-General.

    Multilateral system

    There is also a “need to revitalise and reform the multilateral system,” von der Leyen said, pointing specifically to the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, which need to be adapted “so that they are fit for today’s world.”

    She also mentioned a “clear need for Europe to take clear positions and quick actions on global affairs,” addressing the situations in Hong Kong, Moscow and Minsk. About the latter, she said that “the European Union is on the side of the people of Belarus.”

    Brexit

    The Commission President also addressed the Brexit agreement, saying that “it cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.” Earlier this week, the British Parliament voted in favour of the controversial Internal Market Bill, which would violate international laws and reverse part of the Brexit agreement.

    Von der Leyen quoted Margaret Thatcher in this context, saying that “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade.” Thatcher’s statement “was true then and this is true today,” von der Leyen said.

    Migration

    “The images of the Moria camp are a painful reminder of the need for Europe to come together,” von der Leyen said, stressing her expectation for all member states to step up.

    “Migration is a European challenge and the whole of Europe must do its part. We must rebuild the trust among us and move forward together.”

    With that, the Commission President announced a new pact on migration with “a human and humane approach.”

    Racism and hate crimes

    Von der Leyen also mentioned an action plan to fight racism and hate crimes, as part of which “we will propose to extend the list of EU crimes to all forms of hate crime and hate speech – whether because of race, religion, gender or sexuality.”

    “Hate is hate – and no one should have to put up with it,” she said, hinting perhaps that hateful burnings of books that are sacred for religious communities will not be tolerated in any member state.

    “I will not rest when it comes to building a union of equality,” von der Leyen said. “A union where you can be who you are and love who you want without fear and recrimination.”

    Long live Europe

    “The future will be what we make of it, and Europe will be what we want it to be. We should stop trying to break it down and instead build it up to make it stronger and to build the world that we want to live in. Long live Europe,” she concluded. It will take the support of the European Parliament to implement her ambitious programme.

    Jason Spinks
    The Brussels Times