The EU’s future or everything Von der Leyen did not say

To gauge what the EU’s next big political fights will be, look at what Ursula Von der Leyen did not say in her annual speech to the European Parliament.

On September 15th, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen delivered her annual State of the European Union address to the European Parliament. The address is the EU’s answer to America’s State of the Union speech and is meant to set the tone for the year ahead in Brussels. EU-watchers eagerly await the Commission President’s pitch. Many were disappointed this year – Von der Leyen was noticeably silent on quite a few politically salient issues. The Commission President’s 2021 address was a good bellwether of Europe’s forthcoming problems: the less she mentioned something, the more likely it will become a thorn in the EU’s side over the next few months. Instead, Von der Leyen’s speech focused on matters the Commission think will be an easier sell to both member-states and European citizens.

Start with the latter. After a clumsy beginning, the EU’s vaccination strategy seems well on track: over 70 per cent of Europeans aged 18 or older have been fully vaccinated; and the EU was the first major vaccine manufacturing region to share production with the rest of the world. The economy is also doing well, if not as well as the US economy: GDP increased by 2.1 per cent in the EU during the second quarter of 2021, and unemployment is going down. Although some problems remain, the EU seems to have left the worst of the crisis behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as officials admit in private, has helped advancing EU policies in a way. The fall-out from the pandemic has given a fresh push to the EU’s ambition for “strategic autonomy” – which would make the EU less reliant on partners and rivals alike. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and a recent military deal between the US, the UK and Australia to counter China have further convinced some EU leaders and senior officials that the EU needs to be more independent. Unsurprisingly, Von der Leyen’s most substantial proposals are all geared towards helping the EU to go it alone, whether in dealing with a public health crisis, building critical infrastructure or asserting its interests abroad.

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