Enthusiasm about vaccination. Deep concern about climate change. The challenge of facing a new geopolitics after the Afghan crisis. And the unemployment that punishes the new generations of Europeans. These are some of the main supports of the speech on the state of the EU that its president, Ursula von der Leyen, offered this Wednesday in Strasbourg with a format reminiscent of pre-pandemic times: in person and before a much larger group of MEPs than in the previous speech in 2020. In the chamber was even the fencing teacher and Italian Paralympic sports star Beatrice Vio, guest of honor for her example of improvement.
The German leader made a broad review of the agenda. The freshest issue, due to its recent nature, was the need to advance a community Defense system, understanding that the reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban and the chaotic withdrawal of the United States – and, ultimately, of its allies – reveals the need for the EU to take steps in the military field. Of course, at no point did she use the word army, given the reluctance that existed among the partners about how such a body would be composed in the EU, under what type of mandate and with which country at the helm. Instead, she opted to strengthen collaboration with NATO.
Von der Leyen thus called the “political will” of governments in defensive matters, the debate of which will be the focus of a monographic summit next spring under the French presidency. He took the opportunity to ensure that “we support the Afghan people” and report that humanitarian aid to this country will be increased by one hundred million euros. He also invited reflection “on how this mission has ended so abruptly.”
Probably the most innovative announcement in his speech is the intention to create a ‘Labor Erasmus’ to relaunch youth employment on the continent. The initiative, called ALMA, follows the philosophy of the well-known university exchange program and aims to enable young Europeans without work or training to “have temporary work experience in another Member State” in order to “gain skills, create links and forge their own European identity,” said Von der Leyen. The president exclaimed that “Europe needs its youth” and the Union must be in charge of generating “a soul and a vision” that engages this group. For now, 2022 will be considered the European Year of Youth.
That was one of the president’s looks towards the future. In retrospect, she released a resounding “we have fulfilled” as a claim to have already vaccinated 70% of the European population. «Despite all criticism, Europe is among the world leaders in vaccination. “She has done well and we can be proud,” she highlighted in an intervention seasoned with self-complacency, without big announcements and with a touch of emotion that led to the defense of “Europe with a soul.” The event did not have the presence of the President of the Chamber, David Sassoli, “due to illness” detected the night before. The protocol against covid-19 was applied to the Italian politician, although at the time of going to press the reason for his illness had not been revealed.
The German claimed responsibility for the Community Executive’s management of the pandemic. “We follow science, we have complied before Europe and the rest of the world, in the European way,” he stressed. “We have been the only ones to have shared half of our vaccine production with the rest of the world.” In total, 700 million doses to more than 130 countries. The community leader identified accelerating immunization globally as an “urgent” priority and announced that the EU will make another donation of 200 million doses until the middle of next year and an investment of 50 billion in prevention systems so “that no virus local becomes a pandemic again.
The climate transition, vindicating European leadership and demanding commitment and evidence from countries like China, also had its weight in Von der Leyen’s speech, which recalled the importance of the upcoming Glasgow summit in November. It was the only section where she was most critical, of course, towards third countries from which she demanded a less passive stance and more diligence in the provision of funds for environmental improvement. To demonstrate the Union’s commitment, he announced that, in addition to the 21 billion euros it donates annually to the fight against global warming, it will add another 3,400 million until 2027.
In relation to the large fund of 800,000 million euros for post-pandemic recovery, the German spoke of the “great scope” of the measures that will be nourished by this aid package. “We invest in short-term and also long-term recovery,” she said, with express references to details such as the reform of the labor market in Spain. She also spoke about the return to fiscal rules (debt and deficit) following the already known thesis: «We will launch a discussion on economic governance in the coming weeks. The goal is to build a consensus on the way forward well before 2023,” she stressed, while also claiming the extra tax burden for large companies, since “they must contribute their fair share.”