Health, climate, digital. Ursula von der Leyen's first SOTEU between ambition and reality

Mattia Ceracchi

The EU ambition to lead the way out of the global crisis, the constant reference to the current challenges and founding political priorities, and the reality of the Commission’s limited powers to deliver on these. One year after her appointment and nine months after taking office, Ursula von der Leyen gave her first speech on the State of the Union, the annual event in which the President of the Commission addresses the European Parliament in a plenary session (this time, as an exception, in Brussels), to take stock of the past year and set out the EU government’s priorities for the upcoming twelve months. Von der Leyen’s speech, full of quotations and cultural references, dealt with Europe’s response to the health, economic and social crises, relaunching the EU executive’s key priorities (the green transition and digital transformation). It also laid the foundations for a more ambitious common foreign policy, following up (at least verbally) the aspiration for a “Geopolitical Commission” set out at the beginning of the current institutional cycle. Ambitions and objectives that, however, must deal with the reality of historically limited competences and a common European budget inadequate for the future challenges.

The most important commitments of von der Leyen’s speech regarded health policy. The President stated her intention to build a stronger European Health Union, proposing to discuss during the Conference on the Future of Europe the revision of the Union’s health competences as defined by the Treaties. This had already been raised several times on the top floors of the Berlaymont building during the most difficult months of the health emergency, before the difficulties of effectively coordinating the crisis response measures adopted at national levels. A proposal that risks, however, to remain on paper, both because it remains unlikely that the Conference can seriously debate and adopt binding conclusions on the reform of the Treaties, and because of the historic opposition of Member States to sovereignty transfers in the health sector. As von der Leyen herself pointed out, the Commission’s ambition must take into account the will of the countries, which less than two months ago, as part of the agreement on the Recovery Plan, decided to cut heavily – from 9.4 to 1.7 billion euros – the budget of the new EU4Health programme, proposed by the Commission to support the strengthening of health security and preparedness for future health crises.

Von der Leyen also announced that the EU government will follow up on the lessons learned from the crisis to strengthen preparedness and management of serious cross-border health threats. Specifically, the Commission will propose to strengthen the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). It will also set up a European Agency for Advanced Biomedical Research and Development, modelled on the US BARDA, which will inter alia support Europe’s need for strategic stocks to reduce dependence on the global supply chain for pharmaceuticals. This issue has been mentioned several times in recent months in Commission documents as the cornerstone of a possible industrial strategic autonomy of the Union and will be at the heart of the forthcoming pharmaceutical strategy. Finally, Von der Leyen has announced that a world health summit will be held in Italy next year, to be organised “together with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the Italian presidency of the G20”.

The President of the Commission then relaunched the two key priorities of the executive’s action. These are the green transition and the digital transformation, already outlined in the political programme at the beginning of the current institutional cycle, and reiterated in the Recovery Plan, as the main guidelines for the formulation of national plans and the allocation of the Recovery Fund. In relation to the Green Deal, von der Leyen has therefore announced the proposal to increase the emissions reduction target by 2030 from the current 40 % to 55 %. This is a necessary effort for Europe to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. In concrete terms, the Commission formalised the revision of the 2030 target by submitting an amendment to the Climate Law and confirmed its commitment to reviewing all energy and climate legislation by mid 2021 (ETS, renewables, energy efficiency, taxation, among others).

The legislative plan is accompanied by promises for investments. Von der Leyen announced that the Commission will commit to raising 30% of the 750 billion euros of Next Generation EU through green bonds and that 37% of the funds raised will go directly to Green Deal objectives, in line with the agreement reached in the European Council in July, which set at 30% the share of funding from the common budget and the Recovery Instrument to be dedicated to climate objectives. Von der Leyen then dwelt on the main projects to be supported by the Recovery Fund, mentioning also the creation of the “European hydrogen valleys” and announcing the launch of a new European Bauhaus, “a common creative space in which architects, artists, students, engineers and designers work together” to meet the challenge of sustainability on a cultural level.

Commitments reaffirmed and strengthened also in the digital field. “We must make the next ten years the European digital decade,” said von der Leyen, reiterating that the Old Continent must set the goal of leading the digitisation process and the definition of standards in the coming years, otherwise Europe will be forced to follow and submit to the rules formulated by its global competitors. She then took up Commissioner Breton’s narrative about Europe’s leadership on industrial data and reaffirmed the need to establish common data spaces, particularly in the energy and health sectors, and relaunched the creation of a European cloud based on Gaia-X, the Franco-German initiative that aims to create a federated and integrated data-cloud ecosystem based on European standards. Von der Leyen also confirmed that the Commission’s legislative proposal on the regulation of artificial intelligence will come early next year and that the EU executive will soon propose the establishment of a European digital identity “that every citizen will be able to use anywhere in Europe to do anything, from paying taxes to renting a bike”.

There was no lack of reference to the infrastructure issue. Von der Leyen reiterated the need to revitalise rural areas and ensure access to fast broadband connections (only 60% of rural residents are currently equipped with broadband connections). Again, opportunities to be seized on will come mainly from Next Generation EU funding. On the one hand, the Commission President announced that 20% of the 750 billion will be dedicated to digital, with a specific focus on secure connectivity and the expansion of 5G, 6G and fibre. On the other hand, it should be recalled that further European investment will be minimised where Digital Europe, the new programme dedicated to digital, will have a budget for the years 2021-27 of 6.8 billion, barely 0.6% of the common European budget. It is now clear that a real quantum leap in Europe’s ambitions will be achieved mainly through the definition of common fiscal policies and a European budget redesigned on the basis of future priorities.


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