State of the Union address: Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for a second term in office


In her address, European Commission President von der Leyen missed the opportunity to develop bold proposals for the future. This contribution analyses her informal bid for a second term in office by looking at her thematic focuses.

Auf Deutsch.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivering her State of the Union address at the European Parliament, on 13 September 2023.

Political speeches towards the end of a term in office tend to be stocktaking exercises with extra feel-good factor rather than geared to the future. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address was no exception. It was chiefly a vehicle to praise her own Commission. During her term in office, she said, Europe had set itself an historic mission. Warming to her theme, she spoke of “historic achievements” and “historic accessions”. The actions of the past, then, were placed at front and centre, while any talk of future actions remained timid.

It was a cautious, inward-looking application speech for a second term in office. Her audience was comprised of the EU Member States and democratic families of the European Parliament. No experiments, ticking off achievements with a steady hand and most importantly, no rocking the boat – these were the real key themes of her speech. Against this backdrop, she ignored a number of challenges facing Europe – from spiralling costs of living for its citizens and the growing divisions within society to the perilous condition of European democracy. She painted a positive picture of past successes and neglected to take the opportunity to explain how Europe can fit itself to deal successfully with the many historic challenges facing it.

The EU office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Brussels has analysed the State of the Union speech by looking at its thematic focuses.

Green transformation

European Green Deal and international climate policy

Although the European Green Deal (EGD) was highlighted at the beginning of her speech as a great achievement, there was no mention of any renewed vision for it. Von der Leyen emphasised support measures for the economy rather than the implementation of existing laws, let alone new legislative proposals. Meanwhile, many very important and controversial dossiers of the EGD have yet to be concluded, such as methane regulation to reduce global warming. Nor did she mention the circular economy, the CO2 border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) or COP28 and the EU’s international climate efforts. The announcement of a new CO2 reduction objective for 2040 – currently scheduled for early 2024 – would have been an important climate policy signal for the EU to send out.

Energy policy

Anybody expecting concrete plans as to how the EU’s climate and energy objectives the 2040 will be structured over the next year was left disappointed by the President’s speech. There was no strategy for a 100% renewable Europe.

Von der Leyen made the case for using the EU’s cumulative market power not only on the global natural gas markets, but also for imports of hydrogen. Without any clear sustainability criteria, however, this brings with it the danger that the EU will repeat the mistakes it made with fossil fuel imports and create new dependencies.

At this point, the speech contradicted itself. On the one hand, von der Leyen stressed her intention of reducing the energy economy risks to EU businesses. On the other, she focused on plans for hydrogen pipelines and power networks in the Gulf region rather than prioritising the desperately needed network expansion in Europe.

The European Wind Power Package, one of von der Leyen’s very few new ideas, could help to overcome barriers. But the package was just as vague as its principal useful idea, that of improving production systems for wind power – because EU Member States have yet to strike a deal on reforming the energy market.

Economic and social policy

Von der Leyen’s announcement of a future representative for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and creating new dialogue platforms between the European Commission and industrial sectors was beyond question an important one. The key here is to build in transparency and to involve all social partners and civil society.

The announcement of an investigation to be launched into possible competition-distorting subsidies for Chinese electric vehicles caused something of a sensation in Brussels. The proposal failed, however, to mention the fact that European car builders also receive support through various programmes. It was also unclear how the EU would tackle subsidy programmes in other countries as well, such as the USA’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – an issue that involves many sectors, particularly in the field of green technologies.

As well as cutting red tape, von der Leyen stressed the need to start taking Europe’s shortage of skilled workers seriously. At the same time, she addressed the high rates of youth employment in certain EU Member States – 8 million young Europeans are not in education or employment. Youth unemployment represents one of the EU’s structural inequalities: while Germany, for instance, has a very low rate of 5.6%, this figure is 27% in Spain. As no clear ideas on addressing structural inequalities have so far been forthcoming, expectations of a new Val Duchesse social summit are high.

Biodiversity and agriculture

Whilst extolling Europe’s “unique biological diversity”, Ursula von der Leyen made no mention of either the vitally important Regulation on Nature Restoration – currently being negotiated in trilogue – or the EU Soil Strategy. On the plus side, however, she highlighted the importance of peatlands and the critical role played by forests. 

She described “food security in harmony with nature” as an “essential task” and announced a “strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU”. Perhaps, though, this should really be interpreted as a signal for the urgently required reform of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

She did not explicitly mention the importance of a sustainable production system in the fight against climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

Digital policy and artificial intelligence

Von der Leyen rightly praised the EU as a “global pioneer of citizens’ rights in the digital world”. But the fact remains that legislation is regularly proposed by the European Commission that runs counter to the fundamental rights of the citizens, or that significant reforms end up being delayed for years (such as the e-Privacy regulation).

The European Commission sees the EU as a forerunner in the field of artificial intelligence. Von der Leyen quoted from an open letter signed by figures such as Sam Altman, CEO of Open AI, warning that AI could lead to the extinction of humankind.

Von der Leyen suggested safeguards on what AI may and may not do and that international cooperation on AI could take their inspiration from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, the EU Commission President wants tech companies to be included in any such committee, which would make nonsense of its scientific independence.

Gender equality

In a speech, von der Leyen stressed the unbreakable link between gender equality and freedom from violence, particularly against women and girls. She argued energetically in favour of including the principal of “No Means No” in the directives on combating violence against women and domestic violence. Yet the proposed directive aiming to guarantee a minimum degree of protection from such violence is still waiting to be concluded.

For all this, the EU has made some progress in matters of gender equality: a directive on improving the gender balance among directors of listed companies requires at least 40% of these offices to be held by women by 2026. In June 2023, the EU signed up to the Istanbul Convention, in an important step towards tackling violence against women and domestic violence. In April 2023, furthermore, the pay transparency directive was concluded, to fight pay discrimination and bridge salary discrepancies between the sexes throughout the EU

EU enlargement and foreign, security and asylum policy

EU enlargement

Particularly in the wake of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, EU enlargement has taken on new strategic and security policy relevance. Von der Leyen stressed that enlargement of the Union also means its political deepening, to the point of convening a European Convention with a view to treaty change “if and where it is needed”.

In a different approach from Charles Michel, President of the European Council, the EU Commission President took a cautious tone concerning possible timeframes and the scope of future waves of enlargement. On the positive side, she expressed the intention of making a report on the rule of law situations of candidate countries accessible. Less encouragingly, however, she said almost nothing about the state of European democracy and the rule of law, in stark contrast to last year’s state of the Union speak, in which she laid particular emphasis on this matter.

In 2021, she stressed the fight against corruption, defending media freedom and the need to bolster European democracy. In previous speeches, von der Leyen has also highlighted supporting democracy movements outside the EU. In view of the hammering democracy is taking across the planet and the erosion of the rule of law in the EU Member States such as Hungary and Poland, it is unfortunate that the European Commission President chose not to call attention to these.

Foreign and security policy

Von der Leyen made it abundantly clear that unreserved support for Ukraine must continue to be guaranteed “for as long as it takes” – a resoundingly unambiguous and powerful message to Ukraine – and the Kremlin. The European Commission intends to stand at Ukraine’s side not just with additional financial resources, but also with a proposal to extend the temporary protection for war refugees from Ukraine and a promise that “the future of Ukraine is in our Union”.

Von der Leyen took a clear stance towards China, with the focus on de-risking rather than de-coupling. But the actual strategies underpinning de-risking and economic security, and which Member Dtates she is able to convince of the measures, remain less clear.

Von der Leyen placed particular emphasis on the countries of the global South, from Latin America and Africa to the Indo-Pacific. She announced that a new strategic concept for Africa will be drawn up, to be submitted at the next EU-AU summit. She stressed that these partnerships must be mutually beneficial and that the EU stands alongside the global South and will “lead efforts to make the rules-based order fairer and make distribution more equal”. But if these are to be more than just words, the EU must bring this promise, and the EU Global Gateway Initiative, to life. The planned India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is a laudable initiative, although many questions remain unanswered.

Migration and asylum policy

On the subject of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, von der Leyen called for a rapid conclusion of the negotiations in trilogue. But what von der Leyen sees as an “historic opportunity” to make the European migration and asylum policy fit for purpose is a missed opportunity to establish a human rights-based migration and asylum system in the EU. For what she describes as a new balance “between protecting borders and protecting people” is clearly tipped to the disadvantage of the latter.

There was silence on EU governments making solidarity with those in search of protection a criminal offence and when illegal pushbacks occurred on the EU’s external borders. There have also been attempts to delegate responsibility for refugees to third countries. This externalisation agenda does not simply transfer solidarity and responsibility for the protection of human rights elsewhere, it also raises questions of transparency and accountability – values and principles the EU is supposed to espouse.


In a speech, von der Leyen set out to communicate security. This approach is understandable, given the numerous challenges facing Europe, but it is not consistent with Europe’s “historic task” of which she spoke. There was no honest analysis or bold ideas on the EU. Yet this approach puts her very much at risk of criticism from certain EU Member States or political families of the European Parliament. In this way, it was very much the speech of a European Commission President indirectly applying for an extension of her own post.

The fact that she does not appear to seek confirmation as the CDU/CSU’s lead candidate for a seat in the European Parliament suggests that she wishes to continue to move outside the existing Spitzenkandidaten system. Ursula von der Leyen is making her own way towards pre-election. The speech laid the groundwork for this and unofficially kicked off her election campaign for the European elections of June 2024.

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