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State of the European Union: five takeaways from Ursula von der Leyen’s speech

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Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the European Union speech on Wednesday, mixing past achievements and future ambitions.

This one-hour speech is the last of its kind before the next European elections, scheduled for June 6-9.


Aware of this, the President of the European Commission took the opportunity in Strasbourg to offer a detailed retrospective of the main political feats achieved by her executive during the succession of crises which have hit the bloc in recent years.

She also looked to the future and made several major announcements that suggest her policies have not yet reached their end.

“This is the time to show them that we can build a continent where you can be who you are, love who you want and aim as high as you want,” von der Leyen told MPs.

“Once again, it is the moment for Europe to answer the call of history.”

Here are the key takeaways from this year’s State of the European Union.

It’s the economy, stupid

The health of the European economy took up most of the speech and permeated virtually every topic the president addressed.

Von der Leyen’s diagnosis was definitely mixed.

On the one hand, she described the economy as innovative, resilient and well suited to achieving climate neutrality. But on the other hand, she warned of various obstacles that threaten to hamper the bloc’s prosperity and its ability to stand up to its competitors on the global stage.

Von der Leyen identified three major challenges: a widespread shortage of workers, persistently high prices and the administrative burden faced by small businesses.

“Hospitals are postponing treatments due to lack of nurses. And two-thirds of European companies are looking for IT workers,” von der Leyen said.

“Eight million young people are neither employed, nor educated, nor trained. Their dreams (are) put on hold, their lives on standby,” she continued. “This is not only the cause of so much personal distress. It is also one of the main obstacles to our competitiveness.”


Von der Leyen then announced that she would appoint a European envoy for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) under her direct command to better understand the “daily challenges” of European businesses. She also promised to reduce reporting obligations imposed on SMEs by at least 25% and to facilitate access to financing for cutting-edge technologies.

In a surprising move, von der Leyen tasked Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank and Italian prime minister, with writing a report on the future of European competitiveness in the context of the green transition.

“Europe will do ‘whatever it takes’ to maintain its competitive advantage,” von der Leyen said, echoing Draghi’s memorable phrase at the height of the European debt crisis.

China under the microscope

In what was arguably the most eye-catching, did she really say, moment of the entire speech, Ursula von der Leyen announced an official anti-subsidy investigation into low-cost electric cars from China in the block.

The flow of these products has been incredibly rapid: Brussels estimates that Chinese electric vehicle brands enjoy a 20% price difference compared to European brands and have accumulated an 8% share of the European market, which could climb to 15% by 2025.


“Competition is only true to the extent that it is fair,” von der Leyen said. “Too often, our companies are excluded from foreign markets or victims of predatory practices. They are often undercut by competitors benefiting from enormous state subsidies.”

The president, who employed “de-risking” strategy for dealing with Beijing, reminded MEPs of how Europe’s solar industry has fallen from world leader to second-rate due to pressure from its “heavily subsidized Chinese competitors”.

The same fate, she warned, could befall the European auto industry as the market is “flooded” with Chinese-made electric cars whose “price is kept artificially low”.

“And as we do not accept this from the inside, we do not accept this from the outside,” von der Leyen said, drawing applause from lawmakers.

“Europe is open to competition but not to a race to the bottom. We must defend ourselves against unfair practices.”


The investigation could lead to the imposition of tariffs to offset the effects of Chinese subsidies, which take the form of subsidies, preferential taxes and low taxation.

Climate neutrality but don’t forget the farmers

As has been the case in all of his previous State of the Union addresses, von der Leyen spoke at length about his flagship policy – ​​the European Green Deal – and the bloc’s long-term mission to become climate neutral by 2050.

“Four years ago, the European Green Deal was our answer to the call of history. And this summer – the hottest on record in Europe – has been a cruel reminder,” she said.

Von der Leyen celebrated the numerous pieces of climate legislation that have been successfully adopted since his arrival in Brussels and praised Europe’s “unique biological diversity” made up of thousands of animal species, forests, heaths and wetlands.

“The loss of nature destroys not only the foundations of our lives, but also our sense of what constitutes our home,” von der Leyen said.

His impassioned comments, delivered in German, seemed to evoke the nature restoration law, which this spring became the target of bitter opposition from right-wing parties and barely survived a vote at daggers drawn in the European Parliament.

Conservatives had argued that the bill would reduce food production and endanger the livelihoods of European farmers, fears widely shared on social media and denied by climate scientists, NGOs and the private sector.

Von der Leyen did not mention the law by name but took a moment to praise the contribution made by the agricultural sector.

“Food security, in harmony with nature, remains an essential task,” she said. “I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to our farmers, to thank them for providing us with food day in and day out.”

Then she added emphatically: “We need more dialogue and less polarization. »

A stronger and bigger Union

In addition to the economy and the climate crisis, Russia’s war against Ukraine was the other central topic of the speech. Once again, von der Leyen promised to maintain financial and military support for Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

In particular, she avoided new promises of sanctions against the Kremlin or the use of fixed assets to finance the reconstruction of a war-torn country. Rather, his words served as an introduction to broader thinking about enlargement and the bloc’s ability to welcome new member states, such as Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans.

“In a world where some are trying to attack countries one by one, we cannot afford to leave our fellow Europeans behind,” she said. “In a world where size and weight matter, it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interests to complete our Union.”

The ultimate goal should be a union of 500 million people living in freedom, democracy and prosperity, she added, but getting there will not be an “easy road.”

The president insisted that the enlargement process was and would remain “merit-based”, powered by “hard work and leadership” and refused to commit to any fixed deadline, like Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, made last month.

“We need to move beyond the old binary debates on enlargement. It is not about deepening integration or enlarging the Union,” she said. “We can and must do both.”

Von der Leyen said she was open to reforming the EU treaties, as some leaders have called for, but this step is not essential to guarantee enlargement. As an alternative, the president said the Commission would launch a review process to identify policy areas that should be adapted into a larger union.

“The good news is that with each enlargement, those who said it would make us less efficient were wrong,” she said.

Keeping AI in Check

Von der Leyen minced no words when discussing the risks posed by one of the most disruptive technologies in human history: artificial intelligence (AI).

AI “is evolving faster than even its developers anticipated. So we have an increasingly narrow window of opportunity to guide this technology responsibly,” she warned, highlighting the “wide range” of uses these systems can have, “both civil and military.” “

The president then proposed a three-pronged approach to managing and containing AI threats: “guardrails, governance and a focus on innovation.”

As a guardrail, she invoked the AI ​​Act, the groundbreaking legislation proposed by the Commission in April 2021 and which is currently in negotiations between MEPs and Member States. The law, which imposes market rules on AI-based systems based on their potential risks to society, is “already a model for the whole world.”

On governance, von der Leyen said the world needs to strengthen an international body similar to the IPCC, the United Nations panel that monitors climate change and produces advice for governments, to develop a “rapid and globally coordinated” against the unbridled challenge of AI. evolution.

On the third point, guiding innovation, von der Leyen called for an “open dialogue” between policymakers and AI developers so that the private sector voluntarily commits to a set of basic rules before the AI ​​law does not come into full force.

“We should bring all this work together towards minimum global standards for the safe and ethical use of AI,” she said.

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