By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) – The European Union can no longer rely on soft power to promote its interests and must develop more security “muscle” and policy focus on trade, incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
In a speech on the state of Europe, von der Leyen stressed the EU’s strengths as a bastion of openness and democracy in a troubled world and said Brexit had forged a tighter group out of the remaining members of the bloc.
“We must go our own European way with confidence,” she said in Berlin. But she added: “Soft power alone won’t suffice today if we Europeans want to assert ourselves in the world. Europe must also learn the language of power.”
“That means on the one hand developing our own muscles – where for a long time we could lean on others, for example in security policy. On the other hand, it means engaging our available power with more focus,” she added, pointing to trade ties with China.
Von der Leyen, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, takes over as Commission president on Dec. 1.
A former German defence minister who will be the Commission’s first woman chief, she was picked by EU leaders as a unity candidate and part of a package to break a stalemate over who should run the EU’s top institutions.
Born in Brussels, von der Leyen, 61, has top notch European credentials. A fluent English and French speaker, she worked closely with Paris to promote European defence projects. But she has also had a tough time as German defence minister.
“We must be more strategic with a view to Europe’s external interests,” she said adding that this included EU enlargement policy.
It was in the EU’s interests for countries in the West Balkans to have the prospect of accession to the bloc, she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed further expansion of the EU at a recent Brussels summit, saying that the accession process needed to be reformed.
But von der Leyen said: “We have demanded a lot from North Macedonia and Albania. They complied in full. Now we must honour our word and facilitate accession talks.”
Turning to climate policy, she said Europe could play a leading role in the world and show that green investments can be profitable and sustainable.
“We can and must make sure that Europe becomes the first climate neutral continent by 2050,” she said. “Therefore, I will present the first European climate protection law that implements this political goal into binding law.”
“We only have this planet … we need to act now.”
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Peter Graff)