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Von der Leyen reaches for ideals, but there’s still a war to win – POLITICO

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From the moment European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen entered the European Parliament on Wednesday, the theme of her third State of the Union address was never in question: saving democracy.

Dressed in the now familiar yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, von der Leyen was blunt: “Never before has this Parliament debated the state of our union with war raging on European soil,” she began, setting the tone for her speech. . “This is about autocracy against democracy.”

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If the war in Ukraine has turned the world order upside down and destroyed the people of Ukraine, it has also given the EU a new purpose.

It has led to mea culpas over the EU’s Russia policy and to an acknowledgment that it was wrong to pursue Moscow with pipelines. It has cemented the EU’s stance against China – it was only suggested as a partner in a potential trade deal last year. And it has revived long-dormant talks about eastward expansion to preserve democratic values ​​along EU borders, with leaders granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status earlier this year.

Yet at times the crisis has also revealed a gap between the EU’s lofty ideals and its ability to perform quickly. That theme was woven into Wednesday’s powerful speech, when von der Leyen made firm appeals that did not always align with the likely direction of EU members.

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A switching SOTEU

The EU’s annual State of the Union address is typically an opportunity for the Commission President to finalize a list of achievements and set policy priorities for the year ahead.

This year’s episode was about something bigger.

Yes, there were specific pledges – details of previously suggested tariffs to raise billions from energy companies, plans for a new European Hydrogen Bank, new EU legislation on critical raw materials, all designed to move Europe away from a dependency on other countries and its own resources.

But Wednesday’s speech was less about legislative proposals and more about advocating for European values.

“This is not just a war that Russia is unleashing against Ukraine,” she said. “This is a war against our energy, a war against our economy, a war against our values ​​and a war against our future.”

Von der Leyen outlined a vision of Europe’s place in the world as opposed to its place in the arc of history.

The post-World War II international system, established to bolster peace and security, has today become “the target of Russian missiles,” she said. And Moscow has continued to denounce Beijing, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping set to meet this week to discuss the war in Ukraine, among other things.

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Echoing the language of US President Joe Biden, who regularly calls for an alliance of like-minded democracies, von der Leyen pleaded with her audience, “Now is the time to invest in the power of democracies.”

Moscow continues to sue Beijing, while Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping will meet this week to discuss war in Ukraine | Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

And then she broadened the scope: “This work begins with the core group of our like-minded partners: our friends in every democratic nation in the world.”

A core part of this vision, she suggested, is not only building new supply chain networks, but also a renewed emphasis on trade agreements, with von der Leyen advocating greater collaboration with “trusted partners and key growth regions.”

The reality gap

But the gap between von der Leyen’s visionary aspirations and practical reality is huge.

It was a comment made by Manfred Weber, head of Parliament’s large centre-right bloc, the European People’s Party, in his response to the speech. In fact, Weber’s home country of Germany has yet to fully ratify an EU-Canada trade agreement reached nearly five years ago.

The gap between rhetoric and reality became painfully clear at other points during von der Leyen’s hour-long speech.

Once again, the EU was confronted with contradictions between its calls for cooperation with countries that share the EU’s values ​​and its inability to confront countries within its own ranks that do not meet democratic standards.

Von der Leyen’s speech had little to say about the ongoing battles with Poland and Hungary over rule of law standards – a major scourge of Parliament. She pledged only to “continue to push for judicial independence” and pledged to “protect our budget through the conditionality mechanism”, a nascent tool that will allow the EU to cut payments to its anti-democratic truants.

Instead, von der Leyen announced plans for a new “Defense of Democracy” package, which will address issues of corruption and foreign actor interference, rather than dealing directly with errant countries within the bloc. She specifically monitored China, noting how a China-funded entity within a Dutch university was spreading “lies” about forced labor camps in Xinjiang.

Likewise, the speech contained almost no mention of the EU’s defense and security policy, despite a war raging on the EU’s doorstep.

Von der Leyen also did not offer any new pledges to help strengthen the Ukrainian military or further punish Russia – both important Ukrainian requests. Instead, von der Leyen announced a €100 million fund for the reconstruction of Ukrainian schools and made vague promises to further integrate Ukraine into the EU’s single market – an issue she will discuss with Ukraine’s Ukraine later on Wednesday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when she visits Kiev.

While von der Leyen’s speech was strong on great values, it lacked significant new announcements on the main problem European citizens are currently facing: the cost of living crisis.

As expected, von der Leyen continued the Commission’s previous proposals to tackle the energy crisis, including supporting a tax on energy companies that take advantage of skyrocketing gas prices.

But there weren’t many details about the wider issues fueling Europe’s economic woes, beyond proposals to relax tax rules for small and medium-sized businesses and speed up the recognition of foreign workers to address a dire labor shortage.

As von der Leyen turns the page of her third State of the Union address, her 2022 offering may go down in history as one of the more far-reaching speeches in terms of defining Europe’s place in the world and celebrating its history as a fulcrum for democracy. But it will probably do little to solve the immediate problems of its own citizens.

Stuart Lau contributed to reporting.

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