State of the European Union Address 2022: Changing rhetoric in times of war
By Domenico Sorrentino, Research Assistant, Public Policy Brussels
- Overarching tone of the speech revolved around reform and concrete action in defence of values, both within and beyond the bloc.
- Key policy themes focused on overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic; green, digital and just transitions; democratic governance and values; and support for Ukraine.
- New initiatives, which will be detailed in the 2023 Work Programme to be published 18 October 2022, will include:
- efforts to reduce energy dependencies and introduce human rights and environmental standards as trade conditions
- a proposal on mental health
- a European Critical Raw Materials Act
- Absent from the speech: the issue of food security, and challenges to the global food supply chain.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her third State of the Union Address last week amid unprecedented geopolitical and economic challenges for the European Union and its Member States. Rising energy prices and accelerating climate change are testing the EU’s resilience, and the impact of war on the European continent was felt in several ways. On a positive side, most of the post-COVID recovery and resilience plans have been approved, and the Next Generation EU programme will provide financing for the EU’s green transformation, particularly important at a time of high fossil fuel prices. At the same time, the enforcement of EU values, and in particular the rule of law, remains a challenge even within the Union.
Delivered to the European Parliament by the President of the European Commission, the EU State of the Union address dates to 2010. The address, established as a custom by the 2010 Framework Agreement on relations between Parliament and the Commission, takes stock of the achievements of the past year and presents the Commission’s priorities for the year ahead.
Von der Leyen focused on four themes in her speech: support for Ukraine, overcoming the pandemic, green, digital, and fair transitions, and democracy. Support for European values and the opposition between autocracies and democracies were also a continuous thread throughout her speech.
This is reflected in a number of choices in the field of energy policy. The Union wants to reduce its dependence on foreign countries in fossil fuels and gas, and when it does need to import energy, introduce the protection of human rights and higher environmental standards as conditions.
The references made during the speech to a European Political Community, and especially the call for a reform of the EU’s governing treaties, confirm the trend followed by the Union in recent decades: that the Union is a cumbersome mechanism that only makes significant advances in times of crisis.
Turning to a detailed analysis of the issues addressed, we are not surprised by the references to the Next Generation EU and its importance in ensuring a green and digital transition. The Commission President announced the forthcoming adoption of a European Hydrogen Bank. It will be able to invest 3 billion Euros to help build the future market for hydrogen. After two years, any reference to Covid-19 would disappear even though the topic of a European Health Union is still being debated in the context of the rapid spread of new viruses worldwide (e.g. COVID, monkeypox). Echoing an initiative proposed by citizens at the Conference on the Future of Europe, the President announced a proposal on mental health for next year, reflecting other activities and campaigns launched by several MEPs in recent months.
President von der Leyen also announced a European Critical Raw Materials Act to secure supplies of essential raw materials for EU companies. The Commission thus aims to avoid the creation of a new dependency on the only country that produces materials such as lithium and rare earths, namely China.
Absent from the speech were the topic of food security and the crisis in the food supply chain. Despite prompting heated debate in various international for a since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and acknowledgement from many EU stakeholders that the fight against climate change needs to go hand in hand with securing sustainable agricultural production in Europe, the topic failed to materialise over the course of the speech.
This phenomenon was not exclusive to food security. Topics that many commentators would have expected to appear in the speech – e.g. more details about the measures that will be taken in the coming months in the event of gas shortages in Europe – likewise went unaddressed. Nevertheless, it promises to feature prominently on the institutional agenda for the remainder of the year, with an extraordinary EU Energy Council already scheduled for 30 September and further Summits on the horizon.
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