State of the Union 2020 – Will von der Leyen’s dream turn into a nightmare? – Long read

This morning all eyes were on Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who for the first time since the start of her term addressed the European Parliament for the annual State of the Union speech. After a year marked by a global pandemic and economic downturn, the growing threat of climate change, Brexit, troubles at the EU’s borders and tensing relations with global powers such as Russia and China, the Commission President was certainly not short on topics to tackle.

Despite all setbacks faced in Europe over the last twelve months, Ms von der Leyen gave Europeans a bold and energising vision for the future of the EU. In her hour-long remarks, she laid out her plans to make the EU a global leader in innovation, sustainability, and the promotion of liberal values.

Here is the Whitehouse re-cap and analysis of the most striking points of the speech.

The fight continues on sustainability

The dire climate situation in the United States, where one side of the country floods and the other burns, was the setting used by Ursula von der Leyen to remind Europeans that the fight against climate must go on.

The Commission President delivered on her original promise, part of the European Green Deal, of increasing the EU’s 2030 target for emission reductions. Following a public consultation from March 2020 and an impact assessment exercise, the Commission will bring forward a proposal to increase the 2030 target from 40% to at least 55%. This will contribute to the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal and towards meeting the bloc’s Paris Agreement obligations. To support von der Leyen’s increased ambition, the Commission will review existing climate legislation to make it fit for the new target, and boost investment in sustainable transport, alternative fuels such as hydrogen, and renewable energy. Funding will come from a 37% spending commitment of the EU’s €750 billion Next Generation EU programme (a new temporary recovery instrument), which will be spent directly on European Green Deal objectives.

An increase of at least 15% in emission reductions over a 10-year period is no small feat for the world’s largest economy: every sector will have to face green reforms, from agriculture to transport, services, or chemicals. One of the most promising sectors according to the Commission President is construction. With 40% of the EU’s emissions being generated in buildings, the EU will use the Next Generation EU programme to launch a green renovation wave that will make the bloc’s structures fit for a sustainable future – this will not only focus on using more circular materials and increasing energy efficiency, but also on aesthetics. To continue to mobilise society towards sustainability, the EU will link the European Green Deal to a cultural movement and establish a new European Bauhaus – where architects, artists, designers and engineers will work together to develop a sleek new generation of sustainable architecture.

The Commission should expect hurdles in the green reform of major pieces of European legislation such as the Common Agricultural Policy or the EU’s Emissions Trading System. In the Council, clashes between Member States on climate change are not new, and von der Leyen will most certainly struggle to get countries such as Poland, – who has not yet pledged to go carbon neutral – to tag along for her race.

A stronger voice against human rights abuses

Focusing on developments abroad, the Commission President took an unexpectedly strong and critical stance on the EU’s response to international developments of concern. Indeed, on foreign affairs, Ms Von der Leyen’s hands are tied. Much like directing an off-key choir of 27 singers all with their unique interpretation of the same music score, finding a common and unified voice for the EU on issues of foreign affairs can prove to be a slow, difficult, and wrenching process. More often than not, it is the EU who takes the blame for the watered-down statements and delayed responses agreed among the Member States, each with their individual foreign policy, internal issues and global interests, as seen recently in the EU’s response to human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Belarus. To critics, von der Leyen was clear: “When Member States say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting – at least on human rights and sanctions implementation.” This may be wishful thinking – we will have to wait and see if there is willingness for reform in the Council – but it shows she will not take the blame for the shortcomings of the EU’s heads of state.

Highlighting the difficult relations between the EU and China, a country she defined as “a negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival”, the President did not measure her words when stating that Europe must always call out human rights abuses whenever they occur, citing Hong Kong and the Uyghurs as examples.

While most of the EU’s action in the field of human rights lies in the hands of individual Member States, the President announced that the Commission will bring forward a proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act, the legislation which will give the EU the legal framework to issue sanctions against individuals who have committed or contributed to human rights violations in a unified voice. This would represent a win for the Commission in its ability to respond to international human rights crises, though her strong words against some Council members may come back to haunt her ambitions.

A Union to protect all

Since being elected, von der Leyen has been ambitiously trying to bring Europeans together to share their similarities, promoting the “European way of life”, if you like. Her speech gave her another opportunity to remind EU citizens of their commonalities and the shared experience of living through a global pandemic, despite the very different approaches Member States have taken to tackle the impact of the disease.

She said that we must learn from the pandemic by increasing funding for the new EU4Health programme, which is part of her plan to ‘build a stronger European Health Union’ as well as ensuring the EU’s crisis management is strengthened to allow a greater level of preparedness for the future. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven that achieving cross-border unity will not be an easy task due to the wide variation in strategies and policies each member state has imposed on their citizens. However, the plans the President had to try and achieve this goal include building a European BARDA, an agency for biomedical advanced research and development. She hopes the legislative proposal would support the Union in achieving greater capacity and readiness to respond to cross-border threats and emergencies (natural or deliberate). To achieve this, she said there would be a focus on procurement of pharmaceutical products. Already, the EU has had plans to lead the global response for a COVID-19 vaccine which she hoped would mean safe vaccines would be available for everyone who needs it in a ‘vaccine cooperation’ strategy.

President von der Leyen plans to convene a Global Health Summit next year in Italy to address the issues she had spoken about regarding health, to reiterate that the Union ‘is there to protect all’. She did address the issue of having to learn lessons from the global health crisis, nevertheless her priorities for achieving unity in healthcare seem very ambitious and will require a huge amount of coordination from the EU27 members, each of which has sovereignty over public health in their respective countries.

The EU’s digital decade is upon us

On digital, von der Leyen reiterated that the pandemic has made digital progress more important than ever, and pledged to make the 2020s Europe’s ‘digital decade’. To make it happen, the EU will allocate 20% of the COVID-19 recovery funds to digital initiatives, with an investment of €8 billion from the Next Generation EU programme to be allocated to fostering the development of supercomputers and next-generation processers in Europe.

After establishing the bloc as the leader in data protection, the future – according to the Madam President – lies on industrial data, and the EU is set to not let this opportunity go to waste. To ensure the EU takes the lead in the industrial data space, the Commission will push for the establishment of common data spaces, in areas such as energy and healthcare, to foster innovation and technological development.

To further ensure citizens are aware and in control of the way in which their data is used across the internet, the Commission will propose a form of e-identity platform, that will allow citizens to have access to cross-border digital services.

On Artificial Intelligence, the Commission will ensure that transparency is at the core of any developments in this space and will introduce regulations on the ethical use and investment of the technology. She added that unconscious bias needs to be tackled, not only in people and institutions, but also in Europe’s algorithms.

The Commission will also tackle the problem of slow internet connections across rural areas in Europe (those who are leaving cities to pursue a rural life will rejoice), with a review of its state aid policy on public financing of broadband networks and the introduction of a Broadband Cost Reduction Directive to make internet deployment cheaper and more widely available.

Despite a grandiose vision for the future of European digital policy, the Commission President shied away from mentioning this year’s most ambitious piece of EU legislation, the Digital Services Act, which will reform the rules for digital platforms operating in Europe by attempting to crack down on platform giants, the sale of illegal and counterfeit content online, or online market dominance.

Equality across the continent

During von der Leyen’s first 100 days as President, she set targets to achieve gender parity between men and women, notably to address persistent gender-based violence and stereotypes, while also committing to include an ‘equality perspective in all EU policy areas’. However, her initial plans appeared to only tackle equality from a gender perspective, almost seeming blind to other areas of discrimination.

The 2020 state of the Union speech reiterated her plans to fight discrimination and hate crimes by planning to address the gaps in the EU’s racial equality laws and to use the bloc’s budget to ‘address discrimination in areas such as employment, housing or healthcare’ pledging to use tougher enforcement where implementation lags behind. President Von der Leyen said ‘fighting racism will never be optional’ and pledged to improve education and knowledge to address the historical and cultural causes of racism. In an unprecedented move, she announced that the EU would appoint the first-ever Anti-Racism Coordinator at the Commission to keep the issues at the top of their agenda and work directly with citizens.

Another issue she spoke about were LGBTQI rights, and how discrimination had no place in the EU, saying that the Commission will soon put forward a strategy to strengthen LGBTQI rights as well as pushing for mutual recognition of family relations across the Member States. She said, ‘If you are a parent in one country, you are a parent in every country’. Her words are promising yet further action will have to happen for the LGBTQI community for people to be satisfied with her pledge.  A plan to strengthen humanity during these times of uncertainty is a positive one for EU citizens, nevertheless clear hurdles are in the way of this being a smooth and straightforward process for von der Leyen.

The UK will have it its way

Negotiating a deal with the UK has been one of the most challenging obstacles for von der Leyen to overcome, and it is likely she did not expect to have more to say on the matter whilst preparing for this speech. Alas, the controversial passing of the UK’s Internal Market Bill, a breach of international law, will give UK Ministers the power to undermine clauses in the Withdrawal Agreement, which von der Leyen mentioned as something they had worked ‘relentlessly on… line by line, word by word’. She quoted a favoured predecessor of the Conservative government, saying the UK should follow in the words of Margaret Thatcher: ‘Britain does not break Treaties…’. She said the EU and the UK had agreed the Withdrawal Agreement was the ‘best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland’ and reiterated that the EU would never backtrack on that.

The ‘finish line’ for Brexit negotiations is now in sight, the 31st December 2020, and as von der Leyen put it, ‘talks have not progressed as we would have wished. And that leaves us very little time’. The future of UK-EU relations is still uncertain, and the speech seemed to point to a lack of faith in the ability to strike a deal, at this late stage of the year.

The President’s speech reflected back on her first and difficult year as Brussel’s top civil servant and laid out a vision for a more prosperous and generous future for European citizens. Von der Leyen is set on working towards strengthening the bonds between the EU27 members and create more unity than ever before. To achieve this, she will need to fight the current rise in populist politics, which have divided European citizens’ opinions on their union. But if von der Leyen is serious about strengthening the Union, she will have her work cut out for her.

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients in the European Union, the UK and beyond. For more information on how the Commission’s work may impact your business, please contact our Director of European Affairs, Viviana Spaghetti at