Is the European Union at a crossroads? According to Ursula von der Leyen, the bloc faces major challenges and is weak in some areas, but is trying to cope with the difficulties that lie ahead.
This is how von der Leyen described the EU health check in his annual State of the European Union address. It appealed to the public spirit of member states – not always convincingly – but at least it gave the impression of not shirking responsibilities and duties.
At the same time, she deplored the lack of political will of member states to truly embrace climate protection; take on more defense responsibilities; provide better health care; and follow up speeches with action.
In this sense, Von der Leyen’s situation is no different from that of his predecessors. The European Commission is not the European government. It is an authority which makes proposals, launches initiatives, and must then depend on the will of the governments of the Member States and of the majorities in the European Parliament to go through with it.
All the powers in the Member States?
TBEN editor-in-chief Bernd Riegert is based in Brussels
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Commission successfully provided the necessary vaccines, despite initial difficulties. On average, 70% of adults in the EU are vaccinated, but the differences within the EU are considerable.
Von der Leyen has not indicated how she intends to tackle this problem. She is right to bemoan the scandalous immunization backlog in Africa and other parts of the world, which are suffering disproportionately. The EU has said it will give more doses, but that’s nowhere near enough. Although more comprehensive cooperation is needed, von der Leyen did not explain how the EU would solve exactly this problem.
Then there are the security challenges facing the EU. They are simply overwhelming – from Afghanistan to China to cyber warfare. Von der Leyen wants to expand the “defense union”, stuck for years in a rut, by developing a strategic compass for security and defense issues and by organizing a summit in France next spring.
It’s too little, too late. More importantly, it thwarts efforts to strengthen NATO’s European wing. Many Member States are hesitant about the Commission’s slashes – and rightly so. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of the reasons for their reluctance, von der Leyen simply expressed his disappointment.
The situation with regard to migration policy is just as grim. EU member states have widely divergent interests, which is clearly visible in the divide between liberal and illiberal democracies.
The Commission can be agitated, admonish and threaten as much as it wants, but it will get nowhere. There was nothing in von der Leyen’s speech that even hinted at a solution – unless you had a summit scheduled with Africa next spring.
The 10th EU-African Union Committee to Committee meeting took place in Addis Ababa in February 2020
A difficult year ahead
A key issue is to implement an ambitious climate policy to guarantee a secure future in which future generations of Europe can and want to live. Von der Leyen did not hesitate to point out how much this subject is close to his heart.
But, once again, it clashes with Member States who have yet to agree on how to organize and pay for the long overdue measures towards carbon neutrality.
On the positive side, the Commission was right to ban Chinese forced labor products to bring the production of computer chips to Europe. The success of these concrete projects will provide a good indicator of the effectiveness of the EU.
Von der Leyen spoke of the common ground, the values and the will of all Europeans to achieve ambitious goals, even if they seem distant and unattainable. The work over the coming year until the next State of the European Union Address will be a challenge.
How much can be achieved will depend to a large extent on how the new governments in Germany and France following this year’s and next year’s elections, respectively, assess and involve the EU in addressing these challenges. .
This opinion piece has been translated from German.