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State of the EU 2021: What are the key takeaways from von der Leyen's annual speech?

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By Alice Tidey
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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The fights against COVID-19 and climate change will be the main priorities for the European Union in the coming year, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Wednesday during her annual State of the European Union address.

Other important topics the 27-country bloc will need to wrestle with include migration, respect for rule of law and a European defence policy, she said.

Here's a look in more detail at the key takeaways from von der Leyen's speech. You can watch in full in the video player, above.

COVID-19: 'We did it the right way'

Unsurprisingly, von der Leyen opened on the subject of the global health crisis, praising the bloc's response.

Brussels was strongly criticised at the start of the year for the slow pace of the vaccination roll-out compared to the US, UK and Israel. But it has now caught up with 72% of adults fully vaccinated — a higher rate than in the US.

"Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders," she proudly said, highlighting that more than 700 million doses had so far been delivered to member states and that an equal amount has been distributed by the bloc to more than 130 countries worldwide.

"We are the only region in the world to achieve that," she said. "We did it the right way because we did it the European way. And it worked."

She cautioned however that the pandemic is far from over and that now is not the time for complacency as less than 1% of doses worldwide were 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," she said.

She announced that the EU is upping its donation commitment by a further 200 million doses by the middle of next year.

The bloc has committed to spending €1 billion to accelerate the production capacity of mRNA vaccines — which include Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna — in Africa and to share 250 million doses.

Finally, she said the other priority for the EU will be to strengthen its preparedness for future health crises through the creation of a European Heath Union. The Commission has proposed to get the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) up and running.

She said the new health preparedness and resilience mission should be backed up by a €50 billion investment by 2027.

Watch in full: State of the EU speech 2021

Climate change: 'The COP26 summit will be a moment of truth'

On the issue of global warming, von der Leyen welcomed the adoption over the past few months of a legally binding obligation for EU member states to reduce net greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

She also urged MEPs and leaders to back the Commission's proposal for a Social Climate Fund to tackle energy poverty that currently affects about 34 million Europeans.

"When it comes to climate change and the nature crisis, Europe can do a lot. And it will support others," she said, announcing that the bloc is to double its external funding for biodiversity.

The COP26 Summit to be held in Glasgow in November was described by von der Leyen as "a moment of truth."

She welcomed climate neutrality ambitions set by Washington and Tokyo but called for them to "be backed up by concrete plans in time for Glasgow." She also called on Beijing to provide more details about its own strategy.

"Every country has a responsibility," she affirmed, in particular major economies, which she said, have a "special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries."

"My message today is Europe is ready to do more, she said. To that effect, the EU will increase its climate finance contributions by $4 billion until 2027.

In past COP summits, the world committed to providing $100 a year until 2025. The EU has so far contributed $25 billion per year.

"We expect the United States and our partners to step up too. Closing the climate finance gap together — the US and the EU — would be a strong signal for global climate leadership."

However, Greens/EFA group co-president Philippe Lamberts, said the goals outlined were not going far enough, arguing that "the European Parliament called for an immediate end to fossil fuels subsidies, but the European Commission is taking half measures, spread out over a decade."

The environmental Friends of the Earth NGO also said in a statement following the State of the European Union speech that the Commission chief "rightly praised the leadership of young people on the climate crisis, but the commitment they are looking for, to end the era of gas and other fossil fuels, was glaringly absent".

"This Commission is over-relying on failed market-mechanisms and unproven techno-fixes to ‘clean’ our polluting and unfair energy system. After a summer of lethal floods and fires, we need immediate action to end funding for fossil fuels, including fossil gas," it added.

Defence: 'Afghanistan shows Europe should do more on its own'

The events in Afghanistan, where the Taliban militant group have seized power after a lightning-fast campaign over the summer, have meanwhile reinforced the need for Europe to develop its own defence capacities, von der Leyen said.

"Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen," she said.

"To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.

The bloc is currently working on an EU-NATO Joint Declaration on Afghanistan to be presented before the end of the year, she added.

"But this is only one part of the equation," she continued. "Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own.

She described it as "vital" for the member states to improve intelligence cooperation as well as interoperability in order to understand threats in its own neighbourhood and further afield and enable better joint decision-making.

A possible avenue for the latter would be to waive VAT when buying defence equipment developed a produced in Europe, the Commission chief said, highlighting that it would have the added advantage of reducing current dependencies.

On cyber-defence, she called for member states to "bundle" their resources and called for a European Cyber Defence Policy.

"If everything is collected, everything can be hacked," she said. "It is time for Europe to step up to the next level."

She also announced that a Summit on European Defence will be convened by the French Presidency in the first half of 2022.

Migration: Progress to manage it has been 'painfully slow'

On the issue of migration, she said divisions between member states were being exploited by opponents and human traffickers.

She referred to Belarus, which Brussels has accused of encouraging migrants to cross the border with EU member states.

According to the Commission chief, its proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum "gives us everything we need to manage the different types of situations we face" but she deplored that progress on the legislation "has been painfully slow."

The comprehensive text sets out, among other things, external border management, streamlined asylum procedures, solidarity mechanisms for search and rescue, crisis preparedness and partnerships with key non-EU countries of origin and transit.

"This is the moment now for a European migration management policy. So I urge you, in this House and in the Member States, to speed up the process.

"This ultimately comes down to a question of trust. trust between Member States. Trust for Europeans that migration can be managed. Trust that Europe will always live up to its enduring duty to the most vulnerable and most in need," she added.

Respect for EU values: 'Worrying developments'

Von der Leyen stressed that the judgements of the European Court of Justice "are binding", in a veiled reference to Poland with which Brussels has tussled over the respect of the rule of law.

The Commission chief said that there are "worrying developments in certain member states" over the rule of law and warned that Brussels is "determined" to defend the values the bloc was built on, including democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of speech and independent media.

"We will never waiver in that determination," she said.

Supremacy of EU law is considered a foundation principle of the bloc: EU law prevails over domestic law in the areas where the EU has competence.

But in recent years, the principle has come under attack. In Poland, the Constitutional court has dismissed an injunction from the EU's top court, arguing it was inconsistent with the Polish constitution and therefore non-binding. In Germany, the Constitutional court challenged the competencies of both the EU's Court of Justice and the European Central Bank. Both cases infuriated Brussels and have led to infringement procedures.

Poland has drawn Brussels' ire following reforms of its judiciary and a crackdown on abortion. Hungary has also been sternly criticised for legislations seen as muzzling the media and hindering the work of NGOs. Both countries have also been rebuked for anti-LGBT laws.

The Commission chief announced that from 2022, the annual rule of law reports will come "with specific recommendations" to member states.

She also called for protection "for those who create transparency — journalists" to be strengthened via a Media Freedom Act to be delivered next year.

Several prominent anti-corruption journalists have been killed across the bloc in recent years including Daphné Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, and Peter de Vries in the Netherlands.

Renew Europe President Dacian Ciolos accused von der Leyen of talking the talk on the rule of law but failing to walk the walk.

"All over Europe, we see pockets of illiberalism developing," he said. "These hotbeds of illiberalism must be extinguished, Madam President, before the fire spreads, and that is your responsibility."

"You have the means to do so. For the moment, I can hear you, but I cannot see the effects yet. I do not see you using, for instance, the conditionality mechanism for protecting the rule of law.

"You have to find the political courage to use this mechanism, because that is why we decided on it and although it has been nearly a year since it came into force, it has yet to be applied, he also said.

The conditionality mechanism enables the Commission to suspend, reduce or restrict access to EU funds for member states found to have breached rule of law values.

Europe's youth, women and... microchips

At several points throughout her address, von der Leyen referenced Europe's youth and called for the bloc to take inspiration from its young.

"Our Union will be stronger if it is more like our next generation: reflective, determined and caring. Grounded in values and bold in action," she said.

She warned however that this next generation has been cheated out of some of their most formative years because of the pandemic and announced the creation of an ALMA programme — an Erasmus-styled work placement scheme.

The next year has also been declared the Year of European Youth with young people encouraged to help lead the debate in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The pandemic was also a time of heightened fear for some women facing domestic abuse, von der Leyen emphasised.

"Their abusers must be brought to justice," she said, announcing that the Commission will propose a law to combat violence against women — "from prevention to protection and effective prosecution, online and offline" — by the end of the year.

Finally, the pandemic has also shown how crucial the transition to a digital sector is.

"Digital is the make-or-break issue," she said. The pandemic forced many people to work from home but also slowed down supply chains globally. One of the impacted sectors was that of semiconductors which are used in every device.

Most of the world's chips are produced in Asia and von der Leyen called on Wednesday for a reversal of the trend. The Commission will present a European Chips Act to that effect.

"This is not just a matter of competitiveness. This is also a matter of tech sovereignty," she said.

As it happened: How von der Leyen's speech unfolded on Wednesday

09.15.2021
11:02

EU must strengthen Social Climate Fund: S&D

Iratxe Garper, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group, meanwhile said it is "essential to strengthen the Social Climate Fund" in order to "avoid a social fracture as we advance in environmental policies."
"The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities of an unjust economic system," she continued.
"We need laws to build a true social pillar" and against poverty "with legally binding objective", she added.
09.15.2021
10:54

Greens accuse Commission of taking 'half measures' on climate change

Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens/EFA Group in the EU parliament, said that the climate disasters over the summer — including devastating floods and Belgium and Germany and wildfires in Greece and Italy — show that "we have to speed up, raise our level of ambition and align our targets."
"The European Parliament called for an immediate end to fossil fuels subsidies, but the European Commission is taking half measures, spread out over a decade.
"President von der Leyen, you have all the cards in hand to put an end to this," he added. 
09.15.2021
10:49

Weber welcomes defence initiative, calls for new US trade deal

Manfred Weber, leader of the European People's Party Group in the EU parliament, took the floor after von der Leyen.
He said the EU "urgently" need new jobs, arguing that "international trade is a job machine."
"Why not with the US? Let us negotiate an EU-US trade emergency programme for the mobility sector, mechanical engineering and the digital economy as soon as possible," he also said.
On defence, he said he "fully welcomed" von der Leyen's initiatives.
"What are we waiting for to strengthen our European defence?," he went on. "If we want to create a reaction force, we should do it. And do it now!"
09.15.2021
10:40

EU to present law against gender-based violence

Ursula von der Leyen also highlighted during her address that many women lived in fear through the pandemic because of abuse.
"Their abusers must be brought to justice," she said, announcing that "by the end of the year, we will propose a law to combat violence against women."
09.15.2021
10:36

Paralympian Beatrice Vio is VDL's guest of honour

The Italian athlete was praised by von der Leyen for her "talent, tenacity and unrelenting positivity."
"She is the image of her generation: a leader and an advocate for the causes she believes in," she added. "Let's be inspired by Bebe and by all the young people who change our perception of the possible."
 
09.15.2021
10:28

Protection for journalists should be strengthened: VDL

On media freedom, the Commission President emphasised that "journalists are being targeted simply for doing their job."
In recent years, several investigative journalists have been murdered: Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, Ján Kuciak in 2018, and Giorgos Karaivaz and Peter De Vries in 2021. The killings sent shockwaves across the continent, increasing calls for EU-wide protection for journalists
Von der Leyen announced that the EU's executive will deliver a European Media Freedom Act in the next year. 
"Information is a public good. We must protect those who create transparency," she argued. 
.
09.15.2021
10:23

VDL warns of 'worrying' rule of law developments in some member states

The Commission chief said Brussels is "determined" to defend the values the bloc was built on, including democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of speech and independent media.
"We will never waver in that determination," she said. 
She announced that from 2022, the annual rule of law reports will come "with specific recommendations" to member states, flagging that "there are worrying developments" in some countries.
Supremacy of EU law is considered a foundation principle of the bloc: EU law prevails over domestic law in the areas where the EU has competence.
But in recent years, the principle has come under attack. In Poland, the Constitutional court has dismissed an injunction from the EU's top court, arguing it was inconsistent with the Polish constitution and therefore non-binding. In Germany, the Constitutional court challenged the competences of both the EU's Court of Justice and the European Central Bank. Both cases infuriated Brussels and have led to infringement procedures.
Poland has drawn Brussels' ire following reforms of its judiciary and a crackdown on abortion. Hungary has also been sternly criticised for legislations seen as muzzling the media and hindering the work of NGOs. Both countries have also been rebuked for anti-LGBT laws. 
09.15.2021
10:15

Opponents and traffickers taking advantage of EU division on migration, VDL warns

Belarus enabling migrants to cross their border with EU countries and the increase in illegal crossings into the bloc in recent months show that "every country has a stake in building a European migration system," von der Leyen said.
"As long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that," she also said.
According to the Commission chief, its proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum "gives us everything we need to manage the different types of situations we face" but "progress has been painfully slow."
The comprehensive text sets out, among other things, external border management, streamlined asylum procedures, solidarity mechanisms for search and rescue, crisis preparedness and partnerships with key non-EU countries of origin and transit. The pact was presented last September to mixed reviews from member states and civil society. 
09.15.2021
10:00

Time to 'step up' on defence: VDL

It is "vital" for the European Union to "step up" on intelligence cooperation, Ursula von der Leyen said.
"We need a common assessment of the threats we face and a common approach to dealing with them," she told MEPs.
She announced that the French presidency of the EU will convene a summit on European defence. 
She said the bloc should consider its "own joint situational awareness centre" and waiving VAT when buying defence equipment "produced and produced in Europe" which would help "decrease our dependencies of today". 
The issue of a joint European defence is divisive with some member states, particularly Eastern and Baltic countries, opposing the prospect of the EU's military autonomy because they argue the overlap would weaken the NATO alliance, an assessment also shared by Washington.
From 2021 to 2027, the EU is poised to funnel almost €8 billion into its new European Defence Fund. The programme doesn't entail the establishment of an EU army and is simply focused on supporting cross-border research and development in the field of defence.
On cyber-defence, she called for member states to "bundle" their resources.
"If everything is collected, everything can be hacked," she said. "It is time for Europe to step up to the next level."
09.15.2021
09:49

EU 'stand by Afghan people'

The Commission President reiterated the bloc's support for the Afghan people, warning of the risk of major famine and humanitarian disaster. 
She announced that the EU will increase its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by €100 million. This will come on top of the €200 million humanitarian package already announced. 
The EU froze its €1 billion development aid funding to Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of the country.