Blog AnalysisEuropean policy

Von der Leyen's first State of the Union address. Good words, few concrete and many approximations

(B2) The State of the Union address delivered by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, on Wednesday (September 16) in front of the European Parliament, was filled with beautiful reflections. But it was rather weak in terms of proposals, and strewn with certain omissions or false information

An excellent speech without too much concrete

For a first speech as president, when Europe has just experienced a particularly intense Covid-19 crisis – a crisis which is far from over in terms of health, economics and politics – we expected a little different nothing but fine words. Ursula von der Leyen made a good assessment of the various challenges or problems facing Europeans (read: Ursula von der Leyen draws the outlines of a bolder Union). But, very often, she did not draw the conclusions, containing words where actions were needed. A position that seems to be a constant with the European leader who did not show a very great propensity for action during the Covid-19 (read: Coronavirus crisis. Is Ursula von der Leyen up to it?)

Belarus, Russia, Turkey, a geopolitics of words

In external matters, we thus understand that Europe is on the side of the demonstrators in Belarus, that forging close ties with Russia is not appropriate or that Turkey must respect its neighbors. But no consequence is drawn from his remarks, which could almost be described as 'counterfeit' if they were not made by the head of one of the most powerful European institutions. What will we do with relations with Moscow? Should the Nord Stream gas pipeline be stopped? Establish new sanctions? How are we going to help the Belarusian opposition? And with Ankara, what language do we establish? Will the accession process be stopped if the Turkish provocations continue? These legitimate questions cannot be answered.

Main conflicts and defense ignored

Nothing either on Syria and Libya, the two major conflicts at the gates of Europe. And zero mention of the role of defence, yet displayed as one of the European priority projects. Decidedly, the 'geopolitical commission' is having a hard time advancing its brands. The same is true at the domestic level on the rule of law. European values ​​are displayed first. But what will happen when they are violated? It is definitely difficult to go beyond the 'sermon' language of the Sunday meal.

Limited digital sovereignty

In industrial matters, some comments are interesting, particularly on the digital economy. But we would have liked to know more. Europe will invest 8 billion in supercomputers. What for ? Will we make a European cloud? Will we be able to create European pipes (social network, delivery system to free ourselves from the grip of GAFA (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook)? We expect more from the evocation of words as engaging as " digital sovereignty ».

Unmodest language on the EU's role in Covid-19

Finally, regarding the Covid-19 crisis, a little modesty and feedback would not have been too much. Rather than this feeling of hearing a children's story. Europe has done well everywhere. And if she couldn't, it's the fault of the bad Member States who didn't give her powers. It's not entirely untrue. But this is largely inaccurate. And this is where Ursula von der Leyen's point is largely flawed.

The ball of omissions or inaccurate information

The speech is full of some approximations, omissions, even erroneous information. This is very embarrassing at a time when the European executive is affirming that it wants to fight against disinformation as a priority. Just on the passage of European action linked to the Covid-19 crisis, I noted four examples that made me jump.

First element: a lack of skills to act? Or a lack of will?

The President draws up a positive assessment praising the Commission's action during Covid-19, " all this without having the full skills ". Which is slightly false: the Commission has certain notable competences in matters of the free movement of persons, such as goods, health and civil protection (1). Strengthened competence in this last area since the Treaty of Lisbon. And a skill she hasn't used to the full.

NB: It's an old refrain. As soon as it could be criticized for not having acted, the Commission pulls out the argument — I have no competence — and throws the baby back on the Member States. All this to mask (sometimes) a lack of will and cascading errors. As has been the coronavirus crisis. Read also: Faced with the Coronavirus, acting and being united is not a faculty, it is an obligation. Says the treaty.

Second element: six weeks to send fifteen doctors to Italy

« Our civil protection mechanism has enabled Romanian doctors to treat patients in Italy or Latvia to send masks to its Baltic neighbors says U. von der Leyen. She forgets a fundamental element: the Romanian doctors only arrived in Italy on April 7. That is more than six weeks after Italy's official call for aid to Europe. Such slowness has rarely been seen in a humanitarian crisis. And the fault does not really lie with the 15 Romanian staff (11 doctors and 4 nurses). But is due to the slow decision of the von der Leyen Commission (and the lack of response from the Member States who have not really made their bells ring). A little of mea culpa, and feedback, to give directions for the future, would have been more interesting.

Third element: a false figure on repatriations

« When more than 600.000 EU citizens were stranded in all parts of the world, the EU repatriated them says Ursula von der Leyen. This is not correct, indeed completely false. Most of the staff (nearly 90%) was repatriated by the Member States or by the persons concerned themselves. The Union has certainly made a significant contribution to this effort, via the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which has financed or coordinated certain flights. Exactly 82.064 EU citizens — and about 10.000 other non-EU citizens (UK, Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Serbia, etc.) — were thus repatriated with the support of the European Protection Mechanism civilian, according to official figure (as of September 10). Suffice to say that it is a lot, but very, very far from the “more than 600.000” praised by the president. We are no longer there in the approximation, but in the dissemination of false news.

Fourth element: forgetting a skid

« When some countries imposed export bans on essential medical products, we ended them and ensured that essential medical equipment got to where it was needed. We have worked with European manufacturers to increase the production of masks, gloves, tests and respirators. " It's true. But here again, the President of the European Commission is dodging the truth. The disorderly reaction of European countries in terms of blocking borders, blocking free movement has led to little European reaction. And this aspect is carefully crossed out from the presidential remarks.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. The Treaty clearly defines that 'common public health security issues' are one of the shared competences of the European Union (Article 5). And it has competence in the field of 'protection of human health' as ​​well as 'civil protection' for " support, coordinate or supplement the action of the Member States (section 6).

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).