SOTEU 2020: Health and climate change to top European Commission agenda
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today delivered her first State of the Union speech at the European Parliament in Brussels. This year’s speech was somewhat different from the ones that preceded it for the obvious reason that Europe is still in the middle of a pandemic. This was not only visible from the face masks worn by those present and the socially distant seating of MEPs but also from the issues highlighted throughout the speech. After paying tribute to care workers, doctors and nurses, and all frontline workers, von der Leyen outlined the Commission’s plans on health, which was clearly the main theme of her speech. Here are the main takeaways from today’s speech.
President von der Leyen’s intentions on health going forward are clear, “for me it is crystal clear, we need to build a stronger European Health Union”. With all that has happened in the last six months, the Commission will not be passive on health issues any longer. While praising the European Parliament and its efforts and commitment to increasing the budget for health in the negotiations with the Council, she emphasised that the budget dedicated for the health sector needs to be increased further for the EU4Health Programme to be made “future proof”. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and has shown that its role and remit need to be strengthened.
Further, the Commission is planning to put forward a proposal for the creation of a new Agency – A European Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The Commission will also step up plans relating to strategic stockpiling, especially of pharmaceuticals. Importantly, the Commission President said that there must be a serious discussion on the question of an EU Health Competence, which will be a “noble and necessary” task for the Conference on the Future of Europe. In collaboration with the Italian Government, the Commission will be hosting a Global Health Summit next year in Italy.
Shifting her attention to the Single Market, von der Leyen stressed that all Europeans should have access to minimum wages, either through collective bargaining or mandatory minimum wages. She personally will advocate of collective bargaining, however if this mechanism will not achieve the intended goals then a Europe-wide minimum wage would be the next-best option. She emphasised that “minimum wages work, and it is time that work paid”. The Commission is determined to tear down internal barriers, cut red tape, step up implementation and enforcement of regulations, and restore the four freedoms which are the pillars of the European Union. The lynchpin is the Schengen Zone, and the Commission is committed to work with European Parliament and Member States to bring this topic high up on the political agenda and will propose a new Schengen Strategy shortly. In the context of recent developments, the Commission will also commit itself to update Europe’s Industrial Strategy, which is expected to be published in the first half of next year.
President von der Leyen proposed to increase the EU emissions reductions target to at least 55% by 2030, up from the previous target of 40%. This is in line with Europe’s ambition to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. By next summer, all relevant legislation will be updated to reflect this new ambitious target. Around 37% of NextGen EU Budget will be dedicated to delivering on the European Green Deal, and green finance will play a key part in achieving the EU’s objectives. The Commission will also set a target of 30% of NextGen EU Budget to be funded through Green Bonds. The NextGen facility will also aim to create “hydrogen valleys” across Europe, hydrogen being increasingly seen as a vital new energy source. The Commission is committed to enable the EU to become a global leader in circular economy and the Renovation Wave will play a key part in its overall strategy. Moreover, the Commission will propose plans for the creation of a “European Bauhaus” – a place where architects, designers, artists, students can come together to create the new sustainable buildings of the future.
The next ten years will be the EU’s digital decade. Following criticism that Europe has been lagging behind in the digital sphere, the Commission will propose the creation of a European Data Cloud, based on GaiaX. Moreover, work will start on the creation of a Single European Digital Identity, which would entail one single individual online identity, which citizens could use for all their online needs (“from renting to paying taxes”) that is inter-operable across the Union. This will ensure that citizens have full control over their own data. This will go hand-in-hand with a planned increase in broadband access for rural areas and the allocation of €8bn spending on super-computer technology, dubbed “High-tech, Made in Europe”. On top of these, 20% of NextGen EU funds will be earmarked for the digital sector.
Discussing the area of foreign policy, President von der Leyen, praised Europe’s role as a leader in providing access to vaccines across the world. The EU has also recently joined Covax and funded €400 million towards safe access to vaccines to those in need. “Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives” stressed von der Leyen. The Commission believes that a strong UN allows the world to find solutions for global crisis, a strong WHO to find solutions for pandemics, and a strong WTO for fair competition for all. There is also the necessity to review and revitalise these international frameworks, highlighting that “we need to change, but we need to change by design, not by the destruction of our international institutions”. The EU will be a leader on WTO and WHO reforms, as there is a clear need for EU to take global positions.
On China, the Commission President said “China is a negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival”. Europe expects China to live up to the Paris Agreement, and the EU will push for fair access to markets and to rectify the unbalanced trade and investment partnership with China. There are very clear differences in values and government systems between the two blocs and “we need to speak out, on Hong Kong, and on the situation with the Uighurs.” von der Leyen said that there seemed to be a fundamental problem of EU inactivity on such matters, placing the blame on the EU’s decision mechanisms. She called for a move towards a qualified majority voting system on such issues, a statement which seemed to please the attending MEPs.
Moving on to foreign policy closer to home, the European Commission will come forward with a proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act. “To those who say we need closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Navalny is not a one-off. The pattern is not changing, and no pipeline will change that” were the strong words from President von der Leyen. She continued that Turkey cannot persist in intimidating its neighbours. Greece and Cyprus can always count on the EU to protect their sovereignty and rights.
There will be a strong commitment by Europe towards a Trans-Atlantic Alliance, and “no matter who sits in the White House”, Europe and the US will need to work together to maintain this Alliance. The Commission will put forward a new Transatlantic Agenda. On Brexit, the President of the Commission said that the affection for the British people will never fade, but the chances for an agreement will. She continued by strongly condemning the backtracking from the Withdrawal Agreement, which she said guaranteed “peace in Ireland, and cannot unilaterally changed, this is a matter of law, of trust and good faith.”
The opening of Accessions talks in the Western Balkans was truly historical, and the future of the whole region lies in Europe, stressing that the “Western Balkans are Europe”. The Commission will come up with an economic recovery package for the Western Balkans, focusing on regional investment, and will also prepare a similar package for Eastern Member States. Turning to Africa, von der Leyen said that Africa was not just a neighbour but a partner, and highlighted that the relationship with Africa was a key part of the EU’s foreign policy strategy.
Referring to the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, von der Leyen said that carbon must have its price, because nature cannot pay this price anymore. The Commission will ensure that this is implemented in a WTO-compatible way. The EU will also strive to realise the infamous tax on digital services within the OECD and G20 Frameworks, however the Commission is adamant that if no agreement can be reached the EU will put forward its own proposal by early next year.
Moving on to the hot topic of migration, the Commission will be presenting a Migration Pact next week. In response to intense criticism levied against the Commission and its approach on migration, von der Leyen said that “saving lives at sea is not optional” and those countries who “fulfil their moral and legal commitments, and those who share an unfair burden due to their geographic position” deserve EU-wide support. She also said that there should be a closer link between asylum and return, and a clear distinction between those immigrants who can stay and those who cannot. For those who can, a credible perspective on opportunities and integration, should be made available for them to feel welcome. The Commission is currently working on a pilot project with the Greek government to improve conditions in refugee camps, and furthermore the Commission President called on Member States to step up their efforts on migration, stating that this is a Europe-wide challenge.
Rule of Law
The Commission will present its first annual Rule of Law report by the end of this month, and President von der Leyen demanded a collective effort by all Institutions to ensure there is no backsliding in this regard. There will be a push for EU funds to be linked to Rule of Law, so that no money goes to corruption and the circumvention of the rule of law. von der Leyen also explicitly mentioned “Golden Passports”, stating that European values are not for sale.
The Commission will present an Action Plan on building a truly anti-racist union, and a proposal to extend the list of EU crimes to include all forms of hate crimes and hate speech, in any form – gender, race, sexuality etc. “Freedom to love who you want without fear or recrimination” were words welcomed by the MEPs present, as the Commission will continue its fight against LGBTI free zones which the Commission President labelled as “humanity free zones”. The Commission will also push for EU-wide mutual recognition of family relations because “if you’re a parent in one country, you’re a parent in every country”.