On September 13, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State Of The European Union address to the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg. As always, this speech sets out what the bloc's executive arm is planning for the future, but this year it had a special significance, as it was the last such address before the elections to the European Parliament in June 2024.
The outcome of those elections will have a significant impact on who will be selected as the new European Commission president by the EU's 27 heads of state and government who meet in Brussels some days after the vote. As an unwritten rule, the next commission president should come from the political party that secures the most votes. Normally, that is the center-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Von der Leyen belongs. Given that her address sounded very much like a pitch for another five-year term, it's possible she will run again.
For nearly three-quarters of the hour-long address, Von der Leyen appealed to European voters, talking about "domestic" EU concerns such as inflation, job security, and the forest fires and floods that have blighted parts of the continent this summer.
She talked up the European Green Deal, which is Brussels' attempt to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, saying that the bloc would make it easier to get permits for wind turbines. She enthused about the growth of "clean steel" plants in the EU and how Europe is attracting more "clean hydrogen" investments than China and the United States combined. She then thanked European farmers "for providing us with food day after day" and proposed "a strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU."
Finally, she vowed to invest more in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and protect European industry from being undercut by third-country, state-sponsored companies.
Deep Background: So, what about foreign policy, especially events in Eastern Europe? While Von der Leyen addressed issues connected to the war in Ukraine toward the end of her speech, there was little fighting talk. Rather, it seemed as if she had just taken note of news reports about growing local tensions with Ukrainian refugees in some parts of the EU.
"We will be at Ukraine's side every step of the way. For as long as it takes," she proclaimed, and added that the 4 million Ukrainians taking refuge in the EU "are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks."
She also announced that the European Commission will propose the extension of the so-called temporary protection measures for Ukrainians in the EU until 2025, allowing refugees to have access to housing, health care, and the job market.
What was lacking, however, were any new proposals on how to deal with Russia. There were no new ideas on EU sanctions. A 12th round of sanctions targeting Moscow doesn't appear to be in the pipeline. There were no new proposals on how, for example, to seize Russian assets that have been frozen by the bloc or how to ramp up weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
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