After Ursula von der Leyen’s ambitious first State of the Union address: It’s time for EU action!


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s first State of the Union speech showed an ambitious and a strategic approach to the many crises hitting Europe and the world. However, words are not enough. They must be backed up by actions and coherent policy measures.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivering her 2020 State of the European Union speech.

In her first State of the Union (SOTEU) address to the European Parliament, von der Leyen outlined the political and policy priorities of the European Commission for the coming year. In view of the urgent need for responses to tackle the ongoing multiple crises (climate, health, economy, migration policy), von der Leyen’s vision of a humane EU striving for “change by design, not destruction” and of a “Union of Equality where no one is left behind” shows political support for a more inclusive European project.

Von der Leyen reaffirmed the European Commission’s ambition and commitment to a green economic transition and recovery, and fundamental rights and values. It is now up to the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament to ensure these intentions become reality. Germany has to play an important role during its EU Council Presidency.

European Green Deal

Von der Leyen announced an increase of the 2030 target for emissions reduction from 40% to at least 55%. Albeit a step in the right direction, a 55% reduction is not enough to meet the Paris Agreement obligations – even less so when land-use accounting tricks water the goal down. However, a 65% reduction is needed to keep the possibility of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and meet the Paris Agreement obligations, and for becoming climate neutral by 2050. President von der Leyen further announced that 30% of the €750 billion Next Generation EU budget will be raised through green bonds, and that 37% funding will be invested in European Green Deal objectives. Agriculture was considerably missing in her speech, with no reference on how to align the European Green Deal with the new Common Agriculture Policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy or the EU Biodiversity Strategy.


Von der Leyen set out three priorities in terms of digitalisation: the use of data, artificial intelligence and infrastructures. She defended a world where digital technologies are used to build a healthier, greener society declaring that “the next decade must be Europe’s digital decade”. For this, the EU will invest 20% of Next Generation EU's budget in digitalisation. However, digitalisation and the European Green Deal should not compete with each other. Von der Leyen made a very clear statement saying that “algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong”. Keeping algorithms in check as well as fighting bias and discrimination in algorithmic decision-making systems is of utmost importance for the European Commission’s upcoming proposals on regulating Artificial Intelligence (AI). There is still a lot of work to do for building a people-centred, democratic digital future with respect to fundamental rights.

Role of the EU in the world

Ursula von der Leyen’s push to embrace qualified majority voting on external relations, starting with human rights and sanctions implementation, definitely offers the chance for a new and more coherent role of the EU in the world. But this approach has necessarily to be embedded in a strategy for the revitalisation and reform of the multilateral system, including the UN, WTO and WHO, in which the EU should use its leverage in certain policy fields to set international binding standards. As well, EU agriculture and trade policies must urgently be better aligned with climate targets. Additionally, the EU has to make sure that EU-Africa relations become a real partnership. The new EU Comprehensive Strategy with Africa and the negotiations of the Post-Cotonou Agreement with African, Caribbean and Pacific states are key steps in this regard. The EU has to support democratisation processes in its neighbourhood and worldwide. Arrests and repression in Belarus must stop. Pressure on Minsk and Moscow must be raised and activists in danger allowed into the EU.

New Pact on Migration and Asylum

Von der Leyen’s assertion that “migration has always been a fact for Europe (and it will always be)” and that it has “defined our societies, enriched our cultures and shaped many of our lives” is an urgently needed -and long missed- clear message from the top of the EU in times of badly divided positions on this issues between EU Member States. As she stressed, “saving lives at sea is not optional”, and EU countries at the forefront of the migration challenges must be able to rely on the solidarity of the whole European Union. It will be key that the Pact on Migration and Asylum, which the European Commission promised to present on 23 September 2020, is based on the principles of solidarity and abides to international law and human rights. As von der Leyen clearly stated, the images of the Moria camp are a “painful reminder of the need for Europe to come together”. But this is not enough - European governments have to finally act after the devastating fire in Moria, stop inhumane conditions in refugee camps and allow cities and regions committed to solidarity to provide shelter and receive refugees.

Rule of law, equality and anti-racism

Von der Leyen in her speech clearly put a new and special emphasis on the rule of law, as the guarantor of basic rights and freedoms. She stressed that breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated. A new annual rule of law report covering all Member States will be published before the end of September 2020, as a preventive tool for early detection of challenges and for finding solutions. Although this report is a good step forward, specific and effective measures are needed to safeguard the rule of law and citizens’ rights in EU Member States.

The European Commission’s proposal for a rule of law mechanism to be embedded in the budget was drastically watered down during the July 2020 European Council Meeting, in response to pressure from the Polish and Hungarian governments. Is still not clear whether this mechanism will be implemented at all. It is absolutely appalling that the Hungarian government, which is trying to cement its power for eternity, receives EU resources despite its clear anti-democratic political line. Undermining democratic institutions, bringing the media and cultural institutions under governmental control and putting the democratic opposition inside and outside of Parliament under pressure, are all measures that violate the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Von der Leyen condemned LGBTQI-free zones, labelling them as “humanity-free zones” that have no place in the European Union, in a clear reference to the inaction of the Polish government towards this breach of fundamental rights. She also reassured that her Commission will fight against hate and racism, also announcing the appointment of the institution’s first-ever anti-racism coordinator, to keep this issue at the top of the agenda and to work directly with people, civil society and institutions.

However, words are not enough. They must be backed up by actions. It is high time to act now!