State of the Union: Did von der Leyen deliver on last year’s promises?

A year ago, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, headed to the European Parliament to deliver her first State of the Union address. The background was grim: Europe, and the whole world, was still scrambling to contain the spread of COVID-19. No vaccine had been approved and there was no clear way out of the pandemic.

Due to travel restrictions, von der Leyen was forced to deliver the speech in Brussels, instead of Strasbourg. “In these last six months, Europeans have shown how strong that human spirit really is,” she said at the beginning of the speech. Then, she began to present a long list of political and policy initiatives, proposals, intentions and priorities meant to define the EU’s direction in the following twelve months.

Euronews verifies if von der Leyen’s executive — the so-called #TeamVDL — has delivered on the main promises made one year ago.

Economic recovery

“This is our opportunity to make change happen by design – not by disaster or by diktat from others in the world. To emerge stronger by creating opportunities for the world of tomorrow and not just building contingencies for the world of yesterday.” Von der Leyen made sure the first concrete action to be highlighted in her speech was the most headline-grabbing: the EU’s EUR750-billion recovery fund to kick-start the bloc’s post-coronavirus economy and stimulate the twin green and digital transitions.

Given the urgency of the matter at hand, her executive put the fund, known as NextGenerationEU, on the very top of the agenda. Despite the political agreement reached by the European Council in July 2020, some member states took extra time to debate and discuss the legislative text underpinning the fund, which allows the Commission to raise money directly in the financial markets and gradually repay the interest until 2058. Germany’s top court briefly blocked the whole proposal.

Ratification ended in late May, when the two remaining member states, Austria and Poland, signed off the legislation. Around the same time, the European Commission approved the first national recovery and resilience plans that member states sent to Brussels for assessment. These plans, which run to hundreds of pages, outline how each country intends to spend their allocated share of the money, combining grants with cheap loans.

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The European Commission issued the first bonds on June 15 and immediately raised EUR20 billion, attracting attention from international investors. More successful auctions have followed since then, with the goal of collecting EUR80 billion in total before the end of the year.

From October onwards, the Commission plans to raise at least 30% of the money via green bonds to finance climate-conscious projects. All borrowing will cease in 2026. In early August, the European Commission began disbursing money to the member states whose plans have been approved by both the executive and the EU Council.

Notwithstanding, the European Commission is still assessing several national plans, including those of Poland and Hungary, two countries accused of democratic backsliding. Von der Leyen’s team has extended the deadline to publish its conclusions and dialogue with the capitals continues. The reasons behind the delay remain unclear, but sooner or later Brussels will have to take a stance.

Additionally, the Netherlands and Bulgaria are yet to send their national plans. Both countries are struggling to figure out their new governments following inconclusive elections. All 27 member states are expected to fully recover from the economic crisis before the end of 2022.

Vaccination

“Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk.

Vaccine cooperation saves them.” When von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union speech, no coronavirus vaccine had been approved. In fact, no pharmaceutical company had reported any satisfactory results.

Her remarks regarding vaccination were therefore brief, indicating the lack of clarity that Europe, and the whole world, had back in September. However, the European Commission was already preparing its course of action: signing contracts with manufacturers on behalf of the whole EU in order to guarantee that all member states had fast and equal access to the vaccine. The EU’s vaccination roll-out began in late December and soon encountered difficulties, obstacles and delays.

The Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca was publicly accused of sending EU-made vaccines to the United Kingdom, which had refused to take part in the common procurement scheme. The news infuriated Brussels. Von der Leyen’s executive took the radical step of implementing an exports authorisation system to monitor the use and destination of the vaccines produced inside the bloc.

The move was seen as a betrayal of the EU’s free-market mantra, but national governments welcomed the closer scrutiny over pharma companies (Italy even blocked an AstraZeneca shipment destined to Australia). Gradually, deliveries became more regular and abundant, mainly those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, whose shots are based on mRNA technology. Anticipating a prolonged pandemic, von der Leyen’s team signed a third contract with Pfizer-BioNTech for 1.8 billion shots.

The European Union managed to overcome the negative headlines and its vaccination rate is now ahead of the United States. More than 72% of the EU’s adult population is fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, only 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

In her State of the Union speech, von der Leyen promised the EU would “lead the global response”. According to internal numbers, the “Team Europe” initiative has mobilised EUR40.5 billion through a combination of EU funds, national contributions and financial help from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. However, a leaked document has exposed the limits of the EU’s solidarity: member states have so far donated less than 3% of the planned 160 million doses to poor nations. These excess doses come mainly from AstraZeneca, whose public perception has greatly worsened due to the exports row and suspected links with very rare cases of blood clots.

Out of these 160 million doses, about 126 million will go to COVAX.

Single market

“We must restore the four freedoms – in full and as fast as possible.” The EU’s frinctionless single market was in a precarious state last year. The sudden arrival of COVID-19 caused massive disruption: borders were closed, supply chains were interrupted and cross-border workers left stranded.

The bloc had never seen so many obstacles inside its much-celebrated internal market. Von der Leyen was determined to avoid a repeat of this chaotic scenario. Soon after the first EMA-approved vaccines arrived in the continent, the Commission began drafting plans for a digital pass to empower vaccinated citizens to move freely across the bloc.

The Parliament and the Council liked the idea and fast-tracked the draft proposal through the usually long legislative process in order to have the certificate operational before the 2021 summer season. The pass entered into force in early July, although many member states had already rolled out it before the deadline. In a matter of weeks, the QR-based application became an everyday tool. Some governments, like France and Italy, expanded its use to ensure that those who enter closed spaces are protected from the virus.

The measures led to street protests but served to accelerate vaccination rates. Even though freedom of the movement is still not what it used to be the pandemic, the digital pass, which legally exempts holders from burdensome travel restrictions, has fulfilled its original mission: facilitate cross-border travel.

Climate change

“The European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%. I recognise that this increase from 40 to 55 is too much for some, and not enough for others.

But our impact assessment clearly shows that our economy and industry can manage this.” Fighting climate change has become the “raison d’etre” of the current Commission. It was Ursula von der Leyen the one who unveiled the European Green Deal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, calling it the EU’s “man on the moon” moment.

Following the presentation of the Green Deal, which is a compilation of intentions and priorities rather than concrete, detailed actions, it became evident that the bloc needed to review and update its 2030 climate goal in order to meet the 2050 long-term objective. Von der Leyen’s team eventually agreed on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% before the end of the decade, a figure that some called excessive and others insufficient. The new pledge materialised in what is now known as “Fit for 55”, a package of 13 draft laws that include a border tax on polluting imports, a regulation to phase out fossil fuel cars, plans to increase the uptake of alternative fuels, an expansion to the current Emissions Trading System, higher prices on carbon and a social climate fund to tackle energy poverty.

The hard work begins now: each of the 13 laws has to be negotiated individually between the Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Council. It’s therefore too early to assess if the package is a success or a failure: the final verdict will have to wait until 2030. For the time being, “Fit for 55” has served to increase pressure over national and European legislators to take decisive, bold action before the devastating effects of climate change become irreversible.

Migration

“I want to be clear: if we step up, then I expect all Member States to step up too.

Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part. We must rebuild the trust amongst us and move forward together.” The President is well aware that migration is one of the most divisive, complex and intractable topics in EU policy-making.

Despite the shock of the 2015 migration crisis, the bloc still lacks a unified, effective approach to migration policy. This forces member states to rely on ad-hoc solutions each time the external borders feel pressure from new arrivals. To put an end to this trend, von der Leyen proposed a new Pact on Migration and Asylum designed to constitute “a proper single cohesive migration policy”.

The comprehensive text sets out, among other things, external border management, streamlined asylum procedures, solidary mechanisms for search and rescue, crisis preparedness and partnerships with key non-EU countries of origin and transit. The pact was presented last September to mixed reviews from member states and civil society. The Commission has been in regular contact with governments and authorities on the ground to advance the proposal, although progress has been slow.

An agreement is unlikely to arrive any time soon. The failure to set up an EU-wide migration policy became obvious last month when the bloc responded to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by pledging more money to help neighbouring countries host asylum seekers. The ad-hoc solution didn’t include any specific pledge to welcome refugees and simply left the door open to “resettlement on a voluntary basis”.

Rule of law

“We have a duty to always be vigilant to care and nurture for the rule of law.

Breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated. I will continue to defend it and the integrity of our European institutions. Be it about the primacy of European law, the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary or the sale of golden passports.

European values are not for sale.” Rule of law inside the European Union was already under threat before Ursula von der Leyen became European Commission President. When she arrived in Brussels, the EU had already activated the Article 7 procedure, considering the “nuclear option”, against Poland and Hungary for issues related to judicial independence, checks and balance, media diversity and corruption.

These and other topics were later covered in a novel annual report that monitors the state of rule of law in the EU. Using Article 7, the Council can eventually vote to suspend the voting rights of the accused country, effectively depriving it of participating in EU policy-making. But since this vote requires a “yes” from all member states, except the accused country, reaching unanimity has become impossible.

The Eurosceptic governments in Warsaw and Budapest have vowed to block each other’s procedure. The failure to implement Article 7 has led to new breaches of EU law. In the past twelve months, von der Leyen’s executive has launched new infringement procedures against the two countries.

In the case of Poland, because of its continuous threats to judicial independence, its refusal to accept the primacy of EU law and the establishment of LGBT-free zones. In the case of Hungary, because of the obstacles in asylum applications and a new law that bans depictions of homosexuality to minors. No major resolution has so far been achieved.

In fact, the case involving the Polish judicial reforms has now reached its final step: the Commission has requested the EU’s top court to impose daily fines on Poland until the government agrees to dismantle the controversial disciplinary chamber of judges. The primacy of EU law, considered a fundamental principle inside the bloc, has also been contested by Germany. In May 2020, the German Federal Constitutional Court said the European Central Bank (ECB) had acted beyond its competences (“ultra vires”) when it launched the Public Sector Purchase Programme (PSPP) during the European debt crisis.

The court also challenged the competence of the EU’s top court in Luxembourg to verify if the PSPP was legal or not. The defiant ruling was seen as a direct attack on the EU’s foundations and led to an infringement procedure against Berlin.

Protection of the EU budget

“The Commission attaches the highest importance to the rule of law. This is why we will ensure that money from our budget and NextGenerationEU is protected against any kind of fraud, corruption and conflict of interest.

This is non-negotiable.” The debate around rule of law has brought closer attention to the bloc’s multi-annual budget, with the European Parliament and many member states demanding a more stringent link between EU cash and respect for fundamental rights. Following the approval of the EUR750-billion recovery fund, the calls for conditionality considerably increased.

As a result, Von der Leyen’s team put forward a new instrument to allow the Commission to freeze and suspend EU payments to a member state suspected of breaching EU law. The Council must approve the Commission’s move by a qualified majority (55 per cent of member states representing at least 65 per cent of the total EU population). The Parliament celebrated the system’s introduction, which entered into force in January, and has repeatedly asked the Commission for its immediate implementation in the cases of Hungary and Poland.

But despite touting the mechanism during her State of the Union speech, von der Leyen has taken no action, arguing the executive is still drafting guidelines for the practical application and preparing legal cases. The Parliament is now considering suing the Commission over its failure to act. But MEPs seem to be overlooking one crucial aspect of the mechanism: according to the legislation, the breaches of EU law have to affect the “sound financial management or the protection of the financial interests of the Union”.

This means the Commission is compelled to prove the violation harms the EU budget’s integrity “in a sufficiently direct way”. Legislation that stiffens free speech or is considered anti-LGBT is therefore likely to fall outside the mechanism’s remit. Since the system is a new, never-tried-before instrument, von der Leyen’s team appears to be taking a cautious approach.

However, developments across the bloc might leave the executive no choice but to activate the mechanism and thrust the Commission into uncharted territory.

EU-China relations

“From the outset, I have said China is a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. We have interests in common on issues such as climate change – and China has shown it is willing to engage through a high-level dialogue.” Von der Leyen’s team claimed a big victory when the EU and China agreed on the main aspects of an investment deal that would open up the traditionally closed Chinese market to European investors and companies.

However, the deal, signed in late December, was immediately criticised by the European Parliament because of its perceived lack of provisions related to labour rights. EU-China relations deteriorated shortly afterwards when the bloc, in coordination with the US, UK and Canada, imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and one state-owned enterprise involved in the human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslin minority in the Xingjian autonomous region. In a tit-for-tat reaction, China’s Foreign Ministry sanctioned ten European individuals and four entities, including five Members of the European Parliament.

The move was seen as disproportionate and extreme by Brussels. The Parliament quickly moved to freeze the investment deal until the sanctions on their colleagues are lifted. The text is currently in legal limbo, awaiting a diplomatic breakthrough.

The “how to deal with China” question has become one of the main geopolitical quandaries for Europe, with member states pitching different – and often divergent – solutions based on their national interests, trade relations and investment commitments.