In the E.U.’s version of a State of the Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sought to emphasize the 27-member club’s unity, celebrating the “strong soul in everything that we do.”
This confidence is a sharp contrast with early 2021, when the bloc struggled with the bungled rollout of its vaccine campaign, which stalled its recovery and left the continent vulnerable to another deadly wave of infections.
Vaccination rates in the European Union have since accelerated dramatically, surpassing the United States and reaching the bloc’s goal of fully vaccinating 70 percent of adults late last month. But challenges remain, particularly in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, where just 18 and 27 percent of people are fully vaccinated, respectively — disparities von der Leyen described as “worrisome divergences.”
“Corona times are not over,” she said in the speech, a trilingual affair that lasted for about an hour and alternated from English to French and German. “We face new and enduring challenges in a world recovering and fracturing unevenly. So there is no question, the next year will be yet another test of character. But I believe that it is when you are tested that your spirit — your soul — truly shines through.”
The address, which takes place at the European Parliament’s official home of Strasbourg in northeastern France, often includes a barrage of proposals, summits and task forces. But it can also serve as an opportunity for the commission to promote its role in E.U. leadership by touting accomplishments like the vaccine drive, said Rosa Balfour, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The turnaround is especially impressive, she said, because the commission had virtually no hand in E.U. health policy before the pandemic. Early on, officials were criticized for an overly cautious approach while they negotiated vaccine deals on behalf of the entire bloc, an effort meant to ensure equity.
“In early spring, things did look pretty grim,” Balfour said. “There was this sense that the U.S. and the U.K. were doing better than the E.U., which was clearly unsettling for European leaders. Now, the numbers tell a different story and vindicate the choices that were made.”
This year’s speech came exactly one month after Taliban fighters took control of Afghanistan’s capital and triggered an intense reexamination of the E.U.’s geopolitical clout, especially on military matters. European leaders expressed a sense of powerlessness after the withdrawal of American troops, reigniting a decades-old debate over whether the bloc needs its own army.
Von der Leyen endorsed calls for a 5,000-person rapid deployment force, but made a pointed critique of “the lack of political will” that has stalled past joint defense initiatives. She announced two new measures: a forthcoming declaration from the E.U. and NATO, and a summit focused on European defense with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been one of the most persistent proponents of a concept of “strategic autonomy” for the bloc.
“Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own,” von der Leyen said.
The Afghanistan crisis, which has already driven a large number of refugees from the country, has also highlighted the E.U.’s lack of a coherent migration and asylum policy. The commission presented a new plan last year, but it has languished in the months since and has yet to be implemented. Despite the “painfully slow” process, von der Leyen presented a rosy view, saying she believes “the common ground is not so far away.”
However, many European leaders remain anxious about a repeat of 2015, when the arrival of more than a million refugees caused political upheaval. This has prompted criticism from human rights groups that the bloc has been too slow to act, and it has underscored lingering divisions among member states, especially those that maintain a hard-line stance.
Von der Leyen did not devote much time to the transatlantic alliance with the United States, didn’t name-check President Biden and spent little time on foreign policy and competition with China, Balfour noted, calling the address “a bit more inward-looking.”
Unlike the U.S. State of the Union, where the president is free to depart the House chamber in a riot of applause, backslaps and handshakes at the speech’s end, the commission president must sit back down and watch from just feet away as a string of Parliament leaders respond to the address in sometimes scathing terms.
Dacian Ciolos, a Romanian member of the European Parliament’s liberal Renew Europe group, the body’s third largest, said von der Leyen has not done enough to counter recent violations of democratic norms — a clear reference to “rule of law” concerns in Hungary and Poland.
“These outbreaks of illiberalism need to be put out, Madame President, before the fire spreads — that is your responsibility,” Ciolos said. “I hear your words but I don’t see your deeds.”
He also criticized the bloc’s portrayal of itself as a world leader on vaccines, when most of the Global South is still desperate for shots and most of the E.U.’s vaccine exports have been sold to wealthy countries.
“How can we congratulate ourselves when only 3 percent of the population in Africa has received just one dose?” Ciolos said.
Other members said the E.U. should be more ambitious on its climate policy, and that von der Leyen should have devoted more of her speech to the subject.
The wide-ranging new initiatives von der Leyen introduced, from legislation that would promote media freedom to a bill that would encourage the European production of semiconductors, were each met with a smattering of applause.
However, the crowd of politicos, officials and bureaucrats saved its loudest cheer for von der Leyen’s sole guest of honor, Beatrice Vio, a 24-year-old Italian fencer who overcame severe meningitis that forced the amputation of her arms and legs to win her second gold medal at this year’s Paralympics in Tokyo.
“She has managed to achieve all of that by living up to her belief that, if it seems impossible, then it can be done,” von der Leyen said, as the hemicycle rose to a standing ovation. “This was the spirit of Europe’s founders and this is the spirit of Europe’s next generation.”
Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.