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Von der Leyen’s Last State of the Union: A Farewell or a Start of the Campaign?

By Ville Rajala

Ursula von der Leyen’s last State of the European Union speech was filled with reflection on the past four years of the Commission’s mandate and achievements. However, ambitious new initiatives were unveiled, raising questions about whether Von der Leyen is preparing for a second tenure as the EU’s executive chief.

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On 13 September, the EU’s top brass and media members gathered in Strasbourg to listen to Ursula von der Leyen’s possibly last State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech.

As von der Leyen’s last SOTEU of this term, many were expecting a campaign kick-off speech to establish her as a lead candidate for a second term as the Commission President. However, a shower of promises and a list of achievements was presented instead.

The SOTEU has two main purposes: it serves as a platform to share new legislative initiatives and, secondly, it gives an opportunity to share the previous year’s accomplishments.

So what was said and promised? And was this a farewell speech or a soft launch of a campaign to establish Von der Leyen as the frontrunner for another term?

The Future is Dealt With in Green

The Green Deal, or “The call for history” as she named it, has been a central part of the Commission's priorities throughout the five-year mandate. The central nature of the pact is evident as it has, by a long shot, the most legislative proposals or initiatives when compared to other policy programmes.

Political realities changed with the rising political backlash from the central right on the Green Deal. The Green Deal primus motor Frans Timmerman’s sudden return to Dutch politics did not help either.

Von der Leyen underscored the utmost importance that various industries have in the green transition. Essentially addressing criticism from the political right, Von der Leyen pledged to involve the sectors by starting “a series of Clean Transition Dialogues”. The main aim of these dialogues is the help such companies in achieving decarbonisation in a more complete way.

However, the most significant new initiative was for one specific sector - wind energy. Unveiling the European Wind Power Package, the Commission seeks to fast-track permits, improve auction systems, and ensure access to financing.

Unveiling the package at this point could be interpreted as a snapback to her own political group EPP which has started framing itself as the farmer’s party in the Green Deal.

Von der Leyen sought to show that despite her centre-right political background, her Commission would staunchly continue efforts to pursue the 2050 target of climate neutrality.

Regulating and Innovating in the Digital Space

No one was more proud of the EU’s efforts to make the digital world a more level-playing field than Von der Leyen. In her speech, she used the Digitial Markets Act and Digital Services Act as examples of an EU that can protect individuals' fundamental rights online.

Von der Leyen also encouraged co-legislators to close on the revolutionary Artificial Intelligence Act. In addition to the AI Act, she introduced the EU’s intention to construct a global framework to govern AI. The act would be used as a blueprint to achieve this ambitious goal.

What was surprising was the unveiling of an initiative to open up European supercomputer capacity to ethical and responsible AI start-ups. This initiative would shake up the EU’s image of being just a regulator in the digital space. If successful, the initiative would show that the EU can breed innovation in a responsible way.

Preparing People for Enlargement

Although not as in a pivotal role as in the 2022 SOTEU speech, the war in Ukraine was still an important geopolitical topic.

Unlike in 2022, this time Von der Leyen used Ukraine to mellow the crowd with the idea of possible enlargement. She almost comes in lockstep with Council President Charles Michel’s announcement that by the year 2030, the EU should have enlarged.

Enlargement has not been such a salient issue for a decade. In the SOTEU, Von der Leyen laid down the goal of her Commission by setting out a vision for successful enlargement.

Essentially, her core argument underpinned that a new type of Union - a geopolitical one - was formed due to the EU’s continued support of Ukraine.

Von der Leyen did not solely use Ukraine as a catalyst to advocate for EU enlargement. Just like in 2022, she continued to vouch for never-ending support for Ukraine and proposed another 50 billion euros for investments and reforms in the war-torn country.

Ukraine will undoubtedly stay high on the agenda for the foreseeable future. However, after the SOTEU, cracks have started to appear in certain member states, most notably in Poland.

The Ukraine fatigue in Poland is mainly caused by the dispute over grain imports. Whether this is impulsive populism or a more structural discourse remains to be seen.

A Farewell or Campaign Bid?

The 2023 SOTEU followed a very traditional form: first by introducing the best achievements throughout the mandate and secondly, by proposing new legislative initiatives and priorities.

The list of achievements, from the historic Green Deal to unwavering solidarity with Ukraine, followed a very much farewell speech pattern. After all, it is not an unfair assessment that Von der Leyen had to lead her Commission through one of the most turbulent times in recent history. As such, a celebratory recollection of past achievements is expected at the end of her tenure.

It is the unveiled initiatives, in contrast to other SOTEUs, that make this year’s speech appear like a soft launch of a re-election campaign. There are approximately nine months left on the mandate before the European Parliament’s elections.

Since it is impossible to deliver on all initiatives before the mandate runs out, it is rather likely that Von der Leyen used her SOTEU as a signal of what her political priorities for the future will be.

Sources: BBC, European Commission, European Parliament, Politico, Reuters

Written by Ville Rajala

September 2023

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