About soul and sovereignty: our reaction to Ursula von der Leyen’s 2021 State of the Union address


In her 2021 State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appealed to Europe’s soul, which, she said, has been tested to the core in times of multiple crises. The team of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union did its own soul-searching, pointing at the good, the not-so-good and the missing in von der Leyen’s speech.

Teaser Image Caption
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivering her 2021 State of the European Union address.

In her second State of the Union (SOTEU) address to the European Parliament as European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen vehemently told the European Parliament that, in spite of the many challenges ahead for Europe and the world, the EU is on the good way to become stronger, “if it is more like our next generation: reflective, determined and caring”. Wisely reminding everyone that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over, von der Leyen offered a pinch of optimism, and a few soundbites outlining what to expect from the European Commission in the coming year.

The aim of the annual State of the Union speeches is to prepare the ground for the next political and legislative cycle, based on the initiatives that are announced, stressed, (re-)launched, given funding to, or omitted. Our team has analysed von der Leyen’s speech, scoring how closer the proposed agenda for the next year brings Europe to a green, inclusive, just and solidary recovery.

A Europe united through adversity and recovery

Covid-19 and vaccines

Ursula von der Leyen stressed that one of the EU’s most urgent priorities for the year to come is to speed up the global vaccination against Covid-19. She also announced plans to donate more vaccine doses and support production capacities of mRNA vaccines in Africa. However, this will not be enough to solve the very uneven distribution of vaccines worldwide. While over 70% of all adults living in the EU are fully vaccinated, many people in low-income countries are still waiting for the vaccine campaign to really start. Therefore, the EU must finally agree to the proposal made by South Africa and India in the WTO already in October 2020 to suspend patent protection for vaccines, at least temporarily, in order for low-income countries to be able to produce the vaccines domestically.


President von der Leyen stressed the importance of the digital single market. Last year’s proposals on platform regulation are a bold step towards keeping the power of online platforms in check. She underlined the democratic responsibility of those platforms. Nevertheless the hate and abuse that groups like the LGBTIQIA+ community and People of Colour, especially Black women, face have been ignored for far too long. Von der Leyen emphasized that Digital is the make-or-break issue” for democracy but also for Europe’s place in the global world order. Beefing up the EU microchip industry will be welcomed by all who want more investments and more tech sovereignty in order to restrain reliance on Chinese technology. However, what can ‘digital sovereignty’ in the contest for influence and leadership look like?

Von der Leyen mentioned very succinctly the phenomenon of misinformation, although only as an example of reckless tools in times of global hyper-competitiveness. She omitted that this is also a problem within the EU, with increased homegrown state- and party-sponsored disinformation.

A Europe united in responsibility

While the State of the Union speech reiterated right from the beginning that the European Green Deal can serve as an ideal that, according to Robert Schuman, Europe needs, it featured less prominently and was mentioned later in time than in 2020. The message was: ambitious proposals are on the table, the ball is now in the court of the European Parliament and EU Member States. Von der Leyen clearly said she “count[ed] on both Parliament and Member States to keep the [Fit-for-55] package and to keep the ambition together”. Von der Leyen did not go into detail on different files from the European Green Deal. She emphasised the progress made on the EU Climate Law and recalled the need for a just transition, using the catchy slogan by environmentalist Bill McKibben during a demonstration back in 2016:“It's warming. It's us. We're sure. It's bad. But we can fix it.” As the Greens/EFA MEPs stressed in a letter prior to the SOTEU address, speeding up measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission is the only way to make the European Green Deal a success.

Alongside the SOTEU speech's less explicit elaborations on the European Green Deal, the European Commission’s letter of intent for the next year announces a legislative proposal on the "right to repair". This could be a game changer for supply chains and consumers, since it would provide the Circular Economy strategy with political clout to fight built-in obsolescence of devices, in particular for electronics. It would provide consumers with concrete information on repair services (e.g. availability of spare parts) at attractive prices when they purchase new products.

Like last year, agriculture was considerably missing in her speech, with no reference on how to align the Common Agriculture Policy with the EU Farm to Fork Strategy or the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This is very regrettable as, without profound changes in the way Europe produces and consumes its food, the objectives of the European Green Deal are out of reach. When it comes to the implementation of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, much will depend on the national strategic plans and political will in the EU Member States. While an increase in international funding for climate and biodiversity (see below) are welcome, the EU also needs to clean up domestically to be credible. Given the environmental impact and the spending share of agriculture in the EU, it can be considered the biggest shortcoming yet. Circular Economy, another big fish to fry on the way to a zero pollution, climate-neutral and biodiversity protecting Europe, did not play any role, either. Lastly, greening trade policy was not an issue despite upcoming legislation on due diligence and deforestation-free value chains.

The speech contained noteworthy statements relevant to the international level. Von der Leyen announced that the EU will double its external funding for biodiversity as well as propose an additional 4 billion euro for climate finance until 2027. She made clear, however, that she expects “the United States and our partners to step up too”. Industrialized countries are currently failing on their promise to deliver $100 billion annually to the developing world: payments are far from the amount pledge and 80% of the funds are in the form of loans or private finance, instead of grants. Current financial flows mock the scale of the crisis: annual costs of adaptation are likely to be $180 billion a year between 2020 and 2030 and the costs of climate-induced loss and damage will reach around $300 billion by 2030 in the Global South alone.

The urge to step up ambition, applies to climate action per se. In her speech, she rightly noted that “current commitments for 2030 will not keep global warming to 1.5°C within reach”. Indeed, the emissions pledges by countries sent in ahead of COP26 have a 78% probability of exceeding 2°C if fulfilled, while the current policy pathways have a greater than 97% probability of exceeding 2°C. The truth is, though, that the EU’s own commitments are largely insufficient as well.

The speech was direct and critical when it came to China: “The goals that President Xi has set for China are encouraging. But we call for that same leadership on setting out how China will get there. The world would be relieved if they showed they could peak emissions by mid-decade - and move away from coal at home and abroad”. So far, China has only pledged to become climate-neutral by 2060, but without sufficient further details or immediate action points. In fact, President Xi visited a coal plant only a day before von der Leyen’s speech, focusing not on eliminating coal but on “upgrading” the use of what China calls green coal.


“We stand by the Afghan people” said von der Leyen. It is praiseworthy that the European Commission will support and coordinate the actions of the European Member States in reaction to the multifaceted crisis resulting from the rushed withdrawal of European and US troops and the seizing of power by the Taliban. The European Commission President also rightfully stressed the enormous threat that the seizing of power by the Taliban means for women, children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders. However, besides the much-needed humanitarian aid for Afghans in Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries announced by President von der Leyen, the European Union also needs to engage in resettling Afghan refugees while suspending deportations to Afghanistan.

European Defence Union

The emphasis on defence was prominent in her address, as von der Leyen dedicated a good portion of her speech to stepping up to the next level of efforts on European defence industry, interoperability and capabilities, while calling for a European Defence Union. She proposed three step-stones to increase common defence action: “build the foundation for collective decision-making”, meaning, better coordination; “improve interoperability”, meaning, more investment in “made in Europe” military equipment; and developing tools to counter cyber threats. Von der Leyen criticised the lack of political will and declared she and President Macron will convene a Summit on European defence during the upcoming French EU Council Presidency. It is uncertain whether this summit will be the starting point for greater political willingness to pool national competences with regard to defence policy.

While von der Leyen announced a new EU-NATO Joint Declaration to be presented before the end of 2021, she also added that “there will be missions where NATO or the UN will not be present, but where the EU should be”. The call for a better EU coordination in defence policy is not new at all. However, it should not replace the EU’s soft power.

Western Balkans

Accession of new Member States was not a priority in this year’s State of the Union address. Only briefly, von der Leyen sent a strong signal of commitment to the EU accession process of the Western Balkans. However, visiting the region and declaring commitment will not be enough. Serbia’s standing, for example, has been downgraded by all international indices in terms of democracy, rule of law and media freedoms. EU progress reports have never been so vocal on shortcomings, and no accession chapters have been opened or closed since December 2019.

Global Gateway

A promising announcement was the soon-to-be-presented new EU connectivity strategy called ‘Global Gateway’ with the aim to foster “investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services around the world”. Von der Leyen said the European Commission “will take a values-based approach, offering transparency and good governance to our partners.” Creating links and not dependencies is her vision of global connectivity. It is good news she wants to put this new initiative on the agenda during the next EU-Africa Summit in February 2022.

Combatting forced labour

Von der Leyen stressed that products manufactured under forced labour (which she estimated at 25 million people worldwide) cannot end up for sale in European shops. She will propose a ban on products in the EU market that have been made by forced labour, adding that “Human rights are not for sale – at any price”. Her remarkable proclamation is in line with reiterated calls by the European Parliament for a new EU instrument that allows for import bans on products related to forced labour. The EU should reconcile its trade policy with EU values and use its soft power to promote decent working conditions worldwide.

A Europe united in freedom and diversity

Rule of law

Democracy and EU values resonated strongly in the EP Plenary chamber, as von der Leyen reaffirmed the EU’s commitment with the rule of law. She mentioned specifically the follow-up of the Rule of Law reports, citing the justice reforms in Malta or corruption inquiries in Slovakia. Yet, there was no mention of Poland, Hungary or Slovenia. From 2022, the EU Rule of Law reports will come with specific recommendations to Member States.

Positive announcements include a law to combat violence against women (from prevention to protection and effective prosecution, online and offline) and the will to protect media freedom. Remembering journalists assassinated in EU Member States (Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia, Slovakia’s Ján Kuciak and Dutch Peter de Vries), von der Leyen announced an upcoming Media Freedom Act, being one of the strongest and most remarkable announcements in her address.

Migration and asylum

Von der Leyen sees the New Pact on Migration and Asylum as the right tool to manage migration and flight to Europe. She also assessed the lack of agreement between the Member States, and between these and the European Parliament, as the single important issue standing in the way of a balanced and humane system. This very much differs from our assessment. The New Pact does not provide for a reform of the Common European Asylum System but perpetuates the path taken since 2015, of externalisation of responsibilities to third countries, a focus on returns, framing flight and migration as a management and security issue as well as restricting fundamental and human rights for refugees.

Looking ahead

In comparison to 2020, the 2021 SOTEU address sounded a bit disperse, wanting to add many policies and initiatives. The context also demanded von der Leyen to offer some hope, and a few ways out of the multiple crises affecting Europe and the world.

The recurring keyword of the SOTEU 2021 was “soul”, and the underlying concept was “sovereignty”, as von der Leyen pledged for more EU independence, notably on digital, defence, investment and climate. Whether EU Member States will accompany her call for a strong European soul and vision citizens can connect to, especially young people, remains to be seen. Only time will tell if the multiple hurdles and the political context (economic recovery, Covid-19 pandemic, climate crisis, migration policy, elections in Germany and in France) will facilitate or shelve von der Leyen’s wish and proposals. One thing is clear: a strong European soul is only possible if EU Member States show solidarity, a word von der Leyen only mentioned twice, with regard to the donation of additional vaccination doses outside the EU, and when she talked about Europe’s youth, “putting meaning into empathy and solidarity”. It is definitely right to praise all the young and inspiring Europeans for their urgently needed wake-up calls. However, Europe should not put the task to finally embrace and live the concept of solidarity solely to the young generation.