The annual State of the European Union address by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is a formal occasion where the European Parliament can gauge the progress achieved in the past year and listen to plans for the coming year.
This year’s address was characterised by the usual tone of optimism about the future and a description of some of the sobering realities that afflict the union.
Some of the issues raised by von der Leyen impact all member states while other topics focus on particular countries. In the case of Malta, it is not surprising that the political backdrop of the last few years, dominated by the aftermath of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, was given prominence by the commission president.
In her speech, von der Leyen welcomed the rule of law reform undertaken in the last several months. She went further and promised legislation for greater protection of the media. Malta too would have to adopt these rules, keeping it on track for an eventual rehabilitation of its reputation in the eyes of international institutions.
The fight against COVID and climate change will be the main priorities for the EU in the coming year. Von der Leyen was justifiably proud of the rare cooperation among member states in the battle against the pandemic. This cooperation has the potential to be further strengthened by the setting up of the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to enhance the bloc’s readiness for future health crises.
On the economic front, the von der Leyen plan aims to build on the success of the €750 billion investment of the NextGenerationEU, which is helping in the economic recovery. The acid test of this economic plan is whether this investment will generate long-term prosperity beyond short-term recovery.
The promise to revise the fiscal governance rules enshrined in the Stability Pact, which were temporarily suspended at the onset of the pandemic, will, undoubtedly, generate heated debate among member states.
Further strategic economic measures contemplated in the commission president’s speech include strengthening the EU’s technological sovereignty.
The present shortage of semiconductors used in most modern devices has revealed the supply chain’s vulnerability in the manufacture of these appliances.
Most of the world’s chips are produced in Asia. The enactment of a European Chips Act to encourage more chip production in Europe is the von der Leyen plan’s way of overcoming this weakness. The president argued that “This is not just a matter of competitiveness. This is a matter of tech sovereignty. Digital is the make-or-break issue”.
She also raised controversial issues that are unlikely to be resolved in the coming year. These include the need for Europe to develop its defence capability following the withdrawal of the US from the policing of geopolitical hotspots. Non-NATO member states are unlikely to favour the setting up of an EU military force, as seems to be the undeclared intention of the European Commission.
Von der Leyen’s admission that progress in managing migration has been “painfully slow” indicates the depth of division that still exists between member states on this fraught issue.
The State of the European Union was characterised by the president’s avoidance of controversial statements. But it highlighted the many outstanding issues that tend to undermine the union’s cohesion – issues that will continue to prove challenging to resolve in the coming year – as well as the strong values and goals that bind it.
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