State of the union: How’s Europe doing? Actually, pretty well

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. – AFP
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. – AFP

After nearly two years of dire challenges, it appears the path ahead is more promising

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Mon 27 Sep 2021, 11:35 PM

It was an upbeat yet realistic speech as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recently delivered the annual European State of the Union report outlining issues and achievements facing the 27-member bloc.

After nearly two years of dire challenges, it appears the path ahead is more promising despite the EU’s legendary reputation for disputation and discord.

How is Europe doing? Quite well, actually, especially compared to much of the wider world.

In her speech titled ‘Strengthen the Soul of Our Union’ von der Leyen quoted EU founding father Robert Schuman: “Europe needs a soul, an ideal, and the political will to serve this ideal.” Later she quoted former Czech president Václav Havel on “great European values”.

And she ticked off some of the measures that have demonstrated those values over the past year.

The first woman president of the European Commission said that after a slow start, the EU’s vaccination programme has been a success overall. An unprecedented economic package to help in economic recovery from pandemic is also in the implementation phase.

As well, the EU continues to demonstrate leadership on a range of issues including online regulation, ambitious initiatives to battle climate change and humane policies that attempt to assist the least advantaged.

Though the union is preparing for a summit of member country leaders in October, it could take a moment to savour its achievements. Now more than ever it appears to be the global gold standard in attempts at compassionate governance.

Not surprisingly, von der Leyen opened her report with praise for the bloc’s response to the global health crisis. Though sharply criticised at the start of the year for the slow pace of vaccination compared to the US and the UK, the EU soon caught up with its global counterparts. With 72 per cent of adults fully vaccinated it has now surpassed the US.

“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” she said, noting that more than 700 million doses have been delivered to member states and that an equal number has been distributed by the bloc to more than 130 countries worldwide.

“We are the only region in the world to achieve that,” she said. “We did it the right way because we did it the European way. And it worked.”

Yet she warned that the pandemic is far from over as less than one per cent of doses worldwide have been administered in low-income countries.

“The scale of injustice and the level of urgency are obvious,” she said. “This is one of the great geopolitical issues of our time.” She announced that the EU will expand its donation by a further 200 million doses by the middle of next year. The bloc has also committed to spending €1 billion to boost production capacity of mRNA vaccines in Africa.

Von der Leyen took a similar approach to summarising the EU’s climate change efforts: praise followed by pragmatic appraisal. As global leaders prepare for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November — seen as one of the most important summits on global warming in history — she said “Europe is ready to do more” as it increases its contribution by $4 billion until 2027.

In past COP summits, the world committed to providing $100 billion a year until 2025. The EU has so far contributed $25 billion per year.

She described the upcoming summit as “a moment of truth”.

“Every country has a responsibility,” she said, in particular major economies, which have a “special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries”.

“We expect the United States and our partners to step up too. Closing the climate finance gap together — the US and the EU — would be a strong signal for global climate leadership.”

Von der Leyen lauded climate neutrality ambitions set by Washington and Tokyo but called for those promises to “be backed up by concrete plans in time for Glasgow”. She also called on Beijing to provide more details about its own strategy.

On the digital front, she said the EU will put forward “a new European Chips Act” designed to make Europe less reliant on imports for its own cutting-edge computer technology. “We depend on state-of-the-art chips manufactured in Asia,” she said. “This is not just a matter of our competitiveness. This is also a matter of tech sovereignty. So let’s put all of our focus on it.”

The leader of the EU’s administrative body said the bloc continues to struggle with efforts in a united security approach backed by military might. She appeared to endorse greater EU military independence, a policy commonly known as “strategic autonomy”.

“Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own,” von der Leyen said.

She called for a European Defense Union, but her initial proposals were the promise of more talk, referencing an in-the-works “joint declaration” with Nato and an upcoming EU “defense summit” in the first half of 2022. But more talk could be exactly what’s needed rather than boots on the ground and all-out warfare. It seems the US will now take an approach more similar to the EU.

In a recent speech to the UN, President Joe Biden said the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a turning point in US history in which “relentless war” would be supplanted by “relentless diplomacy”. That sounds a lot like what the EU has been doing already, for better or worse.

Concluding her second state of the union address since taking up the president position last year, von der Leyen returned to the theme of Europe’s soul.

“We should not hide away from our inconsistencies and imperfections,” she said. “But imperfect as it might be, our union is both beautifully unique and uniquely beautiful.”

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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