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State of the European Union: How many promises from last year's speech did von der Leyen fulfil?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wore yellow and blue at last year's State of the Union address to showcase her "unshakable" solidarity with Ukraine.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wore yellow and blue at last year's State of the Union address to showcase her "unshakable" solidarity with Ukraine. Copyright Dati Bendo/EC/DATI BENDO
Copyright Dati Bendo/EC/DATI BENDO
By Jorge LiboreiroMaria Psara
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Ahead of this year's State of the Union address, Euronews examines how many of the promises made last year by Ursula von der Leyen have been fulfilled and how many have been abandoned.

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During her hour-long speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the president of the European Commission put forward quite a hefty list of legislative ideas and policy initiatives that she vowed to undertake in the following twelve months.

Russia's war on Ukraine was the main topic, as reflected in the yellow-blue outfit that von der Leyen donned for the occasion. But she brought more to the table: the energy crisis, the economy, fiscal rules, trade deals, corruption, migration and the defence of democracy all featured prominently in the president's political pitch.

Euronews looks back at the main promises made last year to see how many were fulfilled and how many were abandoned along the way.

An 'unshakable' solidarity

The promise: Ursula von der Leyen vowed to maintain intact the European Union's supplies of military equipment and financial assistance to help Ukraine face up to Russia and cope with the fallout of the brutal war.

The outcome: The European Commission first proposed a €18-billion package of financial aid to prop up Kyiv's budget across 2023, which was only approved after Hungary lifted its veto. Later, the Commission unveiled a €50-billion facility, made up of grants and loans, to provide financial assistance in the long term. This envelope is still under negotiations and is linked to the review of the bloc's multiannual budget.

Additionally, the EU increased its military support for Ukraine under the so-called European Peace Facility (EPF) from €2.5 billion to €5.6 billion and fast-tracked a €500-million industrial plan to ramp up production of artillery shells.

Bringing Ukraine closer

The promise: Ursula von der Leyen declared her executive would bring Ukraine into the European free-roaming area and grant the country "seamless access" to the single market.

"Our single market is one of Europe's greatest success stories. Now it's time to make it a success," she said.

The outcome: The European Commission adopted in February a proposal to enable Ukraine's entrance into the free-roaming area, but the process is not yet complete as Kyiv still needs to align its legal framework. However, the price of calls has been reduced.

Meanwhile, when it comes to access to the single market, the opposite actually happened: the EU imposed temporary bans on Ukrainian grain due to the complaints of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, which argue the tariff-free cereals are depressing prices for local farmers. The restrictions have infuriated Kyiv and caused friction between the five Eastern European countries and their fellow member states.

The controversy over Ukrainian grain remains unsolved to this day.

'Sanctions are here to stay'

The promise: "This is the time for us to show resolve, not appeasement," von der Leyen told MEPs, as she made it clear the EU will continue imposing sanctions to cripple the Kremlin's ability to wage war against Ukraine.

The outcome: Since last year's State of the Union speech, the bloc has imposed an extra four rounds of sanctions on Russia, raising the total to eleven. The most remarkable move came in early December, when the EU, in coordination with the G7 and Australia, established a price cap on the maritime trade of Russian crude oil and refined products, which are considered to be one of the Kremlin's main sources of revenue.

Brussels also tightened the screws to tackle the circumvention of sanctions, which has been detected in the trade links between Russia and countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Armenia. In a first, the bloc blacklisted three China-based companies suspected of taking part in the evasion.

Still, the long-touted plan of sanctioning Russian diamonds has not materialised.

A dependency hard to quit

The promise: "Dependency on Russian fossil fuels comes at a much higher price. We have to get rid of this dependency all over Europe," von der Leyen said, echoing comments she had made since the outbreak of the war.

The outcome: While the EU managed to wean itself off Russian coal and Russian seaborne oil, flows of Russian gas continue to flow into the bloc, particularly liquefied natural gas (LNG). A report released last month showed the EU as a whole was the top client forRussian LNG, ahead of China. Three coastal member states – Spain, Belgium and France – were singled out for their continued purchases.

Nevertheless, the shift has been tectonic: less than 15% of all EU gas imports came from Russia in the first half of 2023, down from 45% in 2021. 

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European Union, 2023.
Ursula von der Leyen has made several trips to Kyiv to showcase the European Union's continued support for Ukraine.European Union, 2023.

Unconscious uncoupling

The promise: Last year's State of the Union address came in the midst of the energy crisis, with rampant speculation and uncertainty pushing gas prices to record highs and making electricity unaffordable.

"We have to decouple the dominant influence of gas on the price of electricity. This is why we will do a deep and comprehensive reform of the electricity market," von der Leyen said.

The outcome: The idea of "decoupling" refers to the rules of marginal pricing, under which the final price of electricity is set by the price of the most expensive fuel used to meet consumer demand. In most cases, that fuel is gas. During the worst part of the energy crisis, when gas fees spiralled out of control, this correlation led to cries for a transformative overhaul.

But once gas prices returned to tolerable levels, the desire to interfere with the dynamics of marginal pricing, a fundamental element of free-market economies, evaporated. When the European Commission unveiled its reform in March, there was no mention of decoupling at all. Instead, the review bets on long-term contracts to increase predictability and stability in prices.

The fund that never was

The promise: Throughout her mandate, President von der Leyen has passionately embraced the concept of "strategic autonomy" to make the EU more self-sufficient and resilient against global shocks. She made two related promises in last year's speech. First, a "European Critical Raw Materials Act" to decrease the bloc's reliance on foreign suppliers of rare earths that are needed for the digital and green transition. And second, a "European Sovereignty Fund" to finance domestic projects of cutting-edge technology.

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The outcome: The Critical Raw Materials Act was presented in mid-March and is undergoing negotiations between member states and the European Parliament, both of whom have welcomed the legislation and signalled their intention to move it forward.

The sovereignty fund, however, fared much worse. Following the State of the Union, von der Leyen name-checked the sovereignty fund in numerous public speeches, building up hype around a collective pool of money to pay for EU-made tech. But the grand plan soon met with the resistance of most member states, who opposed the issuance of fresh EU debt to build a common fund, as it was done during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a remarkable defeat, von der Leyen's team was forced to downgrade the sovereignty fund and turn it into the Strategic Technologies European Platform (STEP), a €10-billion envelope contained in the review of the bloc's multi-annual budget.

Cracking down on Trojan horses

The promise: Towards the end of her speech, von der Leyen shared a reflection on the "toxic lies" that autocratic regimes spread to destabilise democratic countries.

"We need to better shield ourselves from malign interference. This is why we will present a Defence of Democracy package," the president said. "We will not allow any autocracy’s Trojan horses to attack our democracies from within."

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The outcome: One year later, the Defence of Democracy package is nowhere to be found. According to the Commission's website, the executive is currently examining the feedback obtained during the consultation period, which ran from February to April.

But the idea of bringing "shady funding to light," as von der Leyen put it, has already prompted the outrage of civil society. In May, more than 200 NGOs, including Transparency International, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, signed a joint statement denouncing a preliminary plan to set up a register that would force commercial and non-profit organisations to disclose foreign funding. The register, they said, could embolden repressive governments to silence civil society.

The Commission said the in-the-works legislation was not meant to curtail any activity and would instead promote "common transparency standards."

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