State of the Union: Which Perspectives for Europe?

Politics - September 13, 2023

On 13th September 2023, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, delivered the EU State of the Union. 

The President also sent a Letter of Intent to the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain, who currently holds the Presidency of the Council. Addressing Metsola and Sánchez, von der Leyen reviewed the main priorities of the European Union for 2024, such as the European Green Deal, digitalisation, the economy, and the EU’s industrial competitiveness, all of which are also covered in the State of the Union letter. The particularity of the text addressed to the two European presidents lies in the fact that the President of the Commission made a point of emphasising and reiterating that the objective remains that of preparing the next generation of the European project, and that in this long journey the Commission will always play a central role on which both the Council and the Parliament can rely. This is certainly a statement to be admired, but one that at the same time suggests she will strive not to relinquish the position she achieved in 2019.

In the ‘State of the Union 2023’ letter, the President recalls, of course, that in less than 300 days there will be elections for the European Parliament, which will be an opportunity for all EU citizens to cast their vote and decide on the future of Europe. It will also be an opportunity to reflect on the work of the last few years, and to understand which issues should be central. 

Among these, there are the war in Ukraine, climate change, artificial intelligence, as well as the economy and work issues. And it is exactly on these topics that the citizens of Europe will decide who best represents and who can best work in the coming years. 

In her letter, President von der Leyen also emphasises the need to gain the trust of the people, which is a fundamental first step in responding to their aspirations and concerns.

In addition to thanking Parliament for its work, she wanted to highlight the key points of the programme she presented in 2019 and which, according to her impressions, she was able to implement over the course of these years.  

She therefore referred first and foremost to the subject of the environment. It was inevitable that she would speak out in favour of the European green deal and the ambitious, yet unrealistic, goals that this plan proposes to achieve in a far too short timeframe. Ms. von der Leyen reiterated the importance of continuing along the path marked out by her and her majority so far and emphasised how crucial it is to move towards a fair and just transition. Although, in reality, this was not very true.

The green transition is also accompanied by the challenge in economic, social and competitiveness terms of the European Union. Her speech states that the three main elements to focus on are labour, inflation and the business environment. It is these three elements that should be considered to revive the labour market and the economy, but also to increase competitiveness at EU level. But not only that, because one of the possible solutions proposed is also skilled migration, which according to the Commission President should be encouraged. The NextGenerationEU is then mentioned as an instrument that has been able to boost the economy and labour market in Europe, increasing the list of achievements that the 2019 programme, according to von der Leyen’s words, would have been achieved in these years.

Again, with regard to NextGenerationEU, von der Leyen emphasised that referring to the subject of digitalisation, the target of 20 per cent investment in digital NextGenerationEU projects had been exceeded. In this regard, it was emphasised that digitalisation is on the one hand a great resource that must be properly exploited, but whose high risks must also be taken into account. Similarly, this must also be done with regard to artificial intelligence. “It will improve healthcare, boost productivity, address climate change. But we should also not underestimate the very real threats,” she confirmed, taking into consideration the fact that it is evolving even faster than the creators themselves could have predicted. On this, fortunately, the European Union moved some time ago by presenting the first legislation on artificial intelligence. 

Another hot topic addressed in the letter is that of security and migration. In particular, von der Leyen underscored: “We need to show the same unity of purpose towards Africa as we have shown for Ukraine. We need to focus on cooperation with legitimate governments and regional organisations. And we need to develop a mutually beneficial partnership which focuses on common issues for Europe and Africa.” She mentioned the importance of managing immigration efficiently and quickly, as this is one of the most pressing issues on the European but also the global political agenda. Finally, special mention was made of the war in Ukraine. The President took the opportunity to confirm the EU’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause, and that this support should continue tirelessly until the end of hostilities and as long as necessary.  

In the conclusions of her speech, von der Leyen makes an explicit reference to the future of the Union, which will depend on the outcome of the elections to be held next June 2024, without concealing a hope of continuing the path started by her majority in 2019. But also, aware that it will be important to “listen to the Europeans voice”. 

The letter of the President of the EU Commission seems to be almost an election manifesto and often appears self-referential, wanting to bring out more points of light than the many problems that the community of Europe has to live with and faces every day.  Today, President von der Leyen’s priorities do not seem to reflect those of the citizens she intends to address. Rather, she seems to be focused on continuing a project that is already underway and that does not adequately take into account the inevitable, often sudden and unpredictable changes that our society has undergone, first and foremost the Ukraine crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, which have forever changed the way people cope with life and altered their priorities.

In the opposite way, today Europe’s conservatives propose a practical and concrete alternative to the inertia too often experienced at EU level. There’s a will to reform economic governance by putting growth and investment at the centre, by stopping the ECB’s continuous senseless rate hikes that do not bring down inflation but cause recession. There’s a will to act in the name of an ecological transition that is based on realism and not on ideological goals that do not consider businesses and industries, especially those in manufacturing and agriculture. There’s a will to unbureaucratise the European Union, supporting and facilitating the work of small and medium-sized enterprises, bringing strategic production back to Europe. Finally, there’s a will to act immediately to find a concrete solution against human trafficking and illegal immigration that makes our cities unsafe. In short, conservatives want more action and less talk.

2024 represents an important new phase in the history of Europe, which has, now more than ever, the chance to change the path, if the citizens allow a new political coalition to demonstrate how, in the same way as many right-wing governments in the member states are doing, it is possible to have a large and well-governed conservative Europe that truly prioritises the interests and needs of its citizens.