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State of the Union: Was von der Leyen's speech a precursor to EU election campaign?

Ursula von der Leyen did not mention whether she will stand for a second term next June.
Ursula von der Leyen did not mention whether she will stand for a second term next June. Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Stefan Grobe
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Ursula von der Leyen delivered a "reactive" as well as an "election campaign" speech this week, one expert argues.

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This week saw one of the highlights of the political calendar in Europe: the annual State of the European Union address.

Modelled on the US president's traditional address to Congress, the speech has been delivered by the Commission president before the European Parliament's plenary chamber in Strasbourg since 2010.

But what is a prime-time TV event with huge ratings stateside is not exactly a must-watch for European viewers.

Most Europeans have never heard of the speech, let alone seen it, which might have something to do with the fact that it starts at nine in the morning.

As the text is made available to members of parliament and journalists in advance, some in the audience were following Ursula von der Leyen’s address rather casually, checking phone messages or, like the commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, knitting.

State of the EU, according to von der Leyen

Typically, the speech takes stock of the work done in the past year and identifies policy priorities for the coming months – and on Wednesday, it was, in fact, the same.

Ursula von der Leyen touched upon gender equality, migration and the economy and many other key political policy areas.

An element of surprise was provided by the odd concrete policy announcement, with von der Leyen announcing an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric cars.

“Global markets are now flooded with cheaper Chinese electric cars. And their price is kept artificially low by state subsidies... So, I can announce today that the Commission is launching an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles coming from China".

Regarding Ukraine, von der Leyen urged Europeans to bring the country into a European Union of more than 30 member states, casting enlargement as an epoch-defining decision for the 27-nation bloc.

“The future of Ukraine is in our union,” she said.

And after reiterating EU support for Ukrainian refugees, she had another announcement.

"And, Honorable Members, this was Europe answering the call of history. And so, I am proud to announce that the Commission will propose to extend our temporary protection to Ukrainians in the European Union. Our support to Ukraine will endure," she said.

Invoking the call of history was certainly justified, as it was von der Leyen’s last State of the European Union address – or was it?

European elections looming

She certainly left people in the dark on whether she plans to run for another five-year term next year.

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Is she ready to campaign? Does she want to retire? Or is she eyeing up other options?

Euronews talked to Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to see whether he could shed some light on the situation.

In general, Kirkegaard considers the speech a reactive, rather than a proactive one.

"It was really a speech focused on continuing to implement the Green Deal, digitalisation, the Ukrainian EU accession process, etc., but then also dealing with the consequences of the decisions taken in her last term," he told Euronews.

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And even though von der Leyen did not at any time mention the next European elections and her possible candidature for a second term. Kirkegaard is pretty confident that she will stand.

"It was very difficult for me to not look at this speech and also view it, quite frankly, as an electioneering speech," he said.

"It was part of her election campaign. She promised to clearly a number of member states to look after them and protect them against the consequences of the Green Deal, China rising, challenges for the European agricultural sector. So, I don't think she had to spell it out to make it explicit that she's running. I certainly believe she is".

Catalan march in Barcelona

One problem that Ursula von der Leyen did not have to deal with as Commission president was Catalan independence and a break-up of Spain – at least so far.

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This week, tens of thousands of people marched through Barcelona to mark “La Diada”, also known as Catalan National Day.

Six years after a failed attempt, they demanded independence again.

The march came as Madrid remains in political limbo following an inconclusive national election with Catalan separatist parties holding crucial seats that could help Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez remain in power – or not.

In a nod to separatists, Sanchez is now pushing for Catalan to be added to the EU’s official languages – something that has already ruffled some feathers in Brussels.

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Whether this gesture will lead to more concessions remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain: Catalan independence continues to haunt Spanish politics.

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