EU State of the Union 2021: What von der Leyen should say

On Wednesday morning, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will deliver her 2021 State of the Union address in the European Parliament’s plenary chamber in Strasbourg. This is the moment when she will take stock of the events of the past year and set her policy priorities for the 12 months ahead. It will be her second such address, and, like last year’s it will be overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. So, what should Mrs von der Leyen tell the MEPs in Strasbourg – and audiences across Europe and the world?

The first point is to acknowledge the extraordinary situation which Europe faces. Every Commission President faces bumps in the road, but Mrs von der Leyen’s journey has been rockier than anyone could imagine. The first indications of a novel coronavirus came less than a month after her Commission took office in 2019. After the lockdowns were announced, it was clear that the entire Commission agenda would be disrupted.

How has the EU responded? As is often the case, its reactions were slow and initially characterised by confusion and division. But eventually, everyone rallied, from the Commission to the member states and MEPs. The recovery package agreed after an epic summit in July 2020 was hugely ambitious and is set to boost Mrs von der Leyen’s initial 2019 priorities for twin digital and green transitions.

This year also began with pandemic problems: the vaccines rolled out painfully late. But the issues eventually cleared up, and some 70% of EU adults have now had shots. Today, even though the pandemic is not over, with the growing economy, we will now start to look beyond Covid. We can think about the recovery and longer-term priorities.

What are these priorities? The pandemic created a recession and caused unprecedented policy responses. It also forced us to take a digital leap at work and in our daily lives. The challenge now is to turn the crisis into an opportunity for Europe and the world.

Here is what I would list as the EU’s top issues:

  • The climate crisis. The transition to carbon neutrality is imperative for the planet, with the potential to overhaul our economies and societies. Still, we need to respond pragmatically. The EU’s climate legislation will keep all the institutions busy, but a big question is what will happen in the global arenas. The EU must maintain its leadership on this issue, but it must also ensure that the rest of the world – and indeed, all of Europe – can make the changes.
  • Tech. This is the other essential transition that Mrs von der Leyen announced in 2019, and like the European Green Deal, it will also shape our future, creating jobs and driving economic growth. But we are falling behind in the EU’s Digital Decade, the basic targets for 2030. We need to remind governments, MEPs and citizens of what is at stake. If we are to stay globally competitive, we need a vibrant, innovative, open and independent digital sector, backed by the latest digital infrastructure.
  • Migration. Europe can be proud of its role in opening its doors to people seeking sanctuary, but as the 2015 migration crisis showed, a major wave of refugees can create political strains. We should not close our frontiers, but we need a functioning external border to guarantee free internal movement within the EU. And with a volatile Middle East and Afghanistan, we need to show how we are in control of our borders, with proper policing and checks.
  • Defence. The EU has long talked about building up its defence capabilities, and various crises in recent years have boosted its efforts. But there is still a long way to go. The scattered and uncoordinated defence resources of individual EU members do not add up to a powerful whole. The EU needs to develop indigenous defence capabilities, including in theatres like space and online.

There is, of course, a long list of other issues that the EU needs to address such as the functioning single market, industrial policy and trade. But the immediate policy priorities as we recover and rebuild are these four: climate change, technology, migration and defence will define the political and economic conditions over the next few years. The EU has come through the pandemic relatively well, enhancing its resources and responsibilities. Mrs von der Leyen is two years into her mandate. That leaves still plenty of time for action, as we try to put Covid behind us.