On September 13, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State Of The European Union address to the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg. As always, this speech sets out what the bloc's executive arm is planning for the future, but this year it had a special significance, as it was the last such address before the elections to the European Parliament in June 2024.
The outcome of those elections will have a significant impact on who will be selected as the new European Commission president by the EU's 27 heads of state and government who meet in Brussels some days after the vote. As an unwritten rule, the next commission president should come from the political party that secures the most votes. Normally, that is the center-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Von der Leyen belongs. Given that her address sounded very much like a pitch for another five-year term, it's possible she will run again.
For nearly three-quarters of the hour-long address, Von der Leyen appealed to European voters, talking about "domestic" EU concerns such as inflation, job security, and the forest fires and floods that have blighted parts of the continent this summer.
She talked up the European Green Deal, which is Brussels' attempt to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, saying that the bloc would make it easier to get permits for wind turbines. She enthused about the growth of "clean steel" plants in the EU and how Europe is attracting more "clean hydrogen" investments than China and the United States combined. She then thanked European farmers "for providing us with food day after day" and proposed "a strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU."
Finally, she vowed to invest more in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and protect European industry from being undercut by third-country, state-sponsored companies.
Deep Background: So, what about foreign policy, especially events in Eastern Europe? While Von der Leyen addressed issues connected to the war in Ukraine toward the end of her speech, there was little fighting talk. Rather, it seemed as if she had just taken note of news reports about growing local tensions with Ukrainian refugees in some parts of the EU.
"We will be at Ukraine's side every step of the way. For as long as it takes," she proclaimed, and added that the 4 million Ukrainians taking refuge in the EU "are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks."
She also announced that the European Commission will propose the extension of the so-called temporary protection measures for Ukrainians in the EU until 2025, allowing refugees to have access to housing, health care, and the job market.
What was lacking, however, were any new proposals on how to deal with Russia. There were no new ideas on EU sanctions. A 12th round of sanctions targeting Moscow doesn't appear to be in the pipeline. There were no new proposals on how, for example, to seize Russian assets that have been frozen by the bloc or how to ramp up weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
- On future EU enlargement, a topic that has become increasingly pertinent in recent months and is likely to dominate political discussions this fall, Von der Leyen was more prudent than the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, who in late August stated that the EU should be ready to accept new members by 2030.
- She didn't offer any timelines. Instead, she played it safe and stuck to the time-honored Brussels line on when new members can join: "Accession is merit-based -- and the [European Commission] will always defend this principle."
- She also didn't talk of a future EU of 33 or 35 or 37 members but rather mentioned 30-plus throughout her speech. So, who might those countries be? She noted that "the future of Ukraine is in our union; the future of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) is in our union; the future of Moldova is in our union."
- So far, so clear. But it was what she added later that was most intriguing: "I know just how important the EU perspective is for so many people in Georgia." Quite what that means for Georgia's chances of getting EU candidate status later this year is anyone's guess, but it's interesting that it was the people, rather than the government in Tbilisi, that she name-checked.
- It could be worse. Turkey, an official EU candidate country that wants to get closer to the EU after many years of frosty relations, wasn't even mentioned at all.
- The big question in the coming months will be how an enlarged EU will function. Several ideas on this will be floated, starting with a group of French and German think-tankers, who on September 19 will present their findings on what needs to be changed for the bloc to accommodate more members. EU leaders will debate those findings when they convene in the Spanish city of Granada on October 6.
- Some suggestions of what might have to change in a bigger EU are already well-known. To name a few: not all EU member states should get their own European commissioner; the bloc should move away from the unanimity-voting rule in some fields, such as foreign or economic policy; and the increased use of "constructive abstention," which means that EU member states don't agree with but, at the same time, don't block a decision.
- Von der Leyen's first input into this debate was both measured and radical. The measured proposal was that the European Commission will start a series of pre-enlargement policy reviews to see how each policy area may need to be adapted for a larger union. This involves how the European Parliament and the commission -- both already overstuffed, according to most observers -- will function at 30-plus members, but also how the EU budget should be financed and where the money will go.
- That all might seem like a fun bureaucratic exercise for EU wonks but policy reviews rarely solve anything. And that is where Von der Leyen's radical proposal comes in: "treaty change if and where it is needed."
- Even just the words "treaty change" can send shudders through even the steeliest of Brussels bureaucrats. Changing the EU's fundamental treaties -- which set out rules and objectives for EU institutions and govern how decisions are made among its member countries -- is seen as a Pandora's box, which, when opened, could lead to all sorts of demands and potential roadblocks. Anything from "a federal EU" to allusions about the bloc's "Christian foundations" can be floated, leading to endless fights, time-consuming compromises, and potentially even national referendums in some countries to approve the final text.
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