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

(B2) The State of the Union speech delivered by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, on Wednesday (16 September) to the European Parliament was full of 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, while Europe has just experienced a particularly intense Covid-19 crisis – a crisis which is far from over at the health, economic and political levels – we expected something a little different nothing but beautiful words. Ursula von der Leyen has provided a good overview of the different 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 consequences, limiting herself to words where actions were needed. A position which seems to be a constant among the European leader who did not show a very great propensity for action during Covid-19 (read: Coronavirus crisis. Is Ursula von der Leyen up to it?)

Belarus, Russia, Turkey, a geopolitics of words

In external matters, we hear that Europe is on the side of the demonstrators in Belarus, that building close ties with Russia is not appropriate or that Turkey must respect its neighbors. But no conclusions are drawn from his remarks, which could almost be described as 'counter-provoking' if they were not uttered by the head of one of the most powerful European institutions. What are we going to 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 are we establishing? Will we stop the accession process if Turkish provocations continue? These legitimate questions cannot be answered.

Main conflicts and defense ignored

Nothing either on Syria and Libya, the two major conflicts on Europe's doorstep. And zero mention of the role of defense, even though it is displayed as one of the priority European projects. Clearly, the 'geopolitical commission' is having a hard time making its mark. The same goes domestically on the rule of law. European values ​​are displayed as priority. But what will happen when they are raped? We definitely have difficulty getting 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 create a European cloud? Will we manage to create European pipes (social network, delivery system to free ourselves from the influence 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 gone amiss. Rather than this feeling of hearing a children's story. Europe has acted well everywhere. And if she couldn't, it's the fault of the bad Member States who didn't give her the skills. This is not entirely false. But this is largely inaccurate. And this is where Ursula von der Leyen's remarks largely fall short.

The ball of omissions or inaccurate information

The speech is riddled with some approximations, omissions, and even erroneous information. Which is very embarrassing at a time when the European executive says it is a priority to fight against disinformation. Just in the passage of European action linked to the Covid-19 crisis, I noted four examples which made me jump.

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

The president gives a positive assessment praising the action of the Commission during Covid-19, “ all this without having the full skills ". Which is slightly false: the Commission has certain notable powers in matters of free movement of people, goods, health and civil protection (1). Strengthened competence in this last area since the Lisbon Treaty. And a skill she didn't use to its fullest.

NB: It’s an old refrain. As soon as it could be criticized for not having acted, the Commission drops the argument — I have no skills — 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 case with 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 allowed 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. More than six weeks after Italy's official appeal for help 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 this is due to the slowness of decision-making by the von der Leyen Commission (and the lack of response from the Member States who have not really had their bells rung). A little of mea culpa, and feedback, to provide ideas 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 accurate, if not completely false. Most of the workforce (nearly 90%) was repatriated by the Member States or by the interested parties themselves. The Union has certainly contributed significantly to this effort, via the European Civil Protection Mechanism which financed or coordinated certain flights. Exactly 82.064 EU citizens — and around 10.000 other non-EU citizens (United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Serbia, etc.) — were thus repatriated with the support of the European Protection Mechanism civil, according to the official figure (as of September 10). Suffice to say that it is a lot, but very, very far from the 'more than 600.000' boasted by the president. We are no longer in the realm of approximation, but in the dissemination of false news.

Fourth element: forgetting a slip-up

« When some countries imposed export bans on essential medical products, we put an end to 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 avoiding the truth. The disorderly reaction of European countries in terms of blocking borders and blocking free movement has led to few European reactions. And this aspect is carefully deleted 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 complement the action of 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).

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