Today, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union speech before the Members of the European Parliament. The mere fact that this session was held in Strasbourg as is customary for EP plenaries, and that it was held physically, are signs of a returning to normality in our daily lives.
The speech was held in a context of a pandemic that left the EU and the world economy reeling on its knees, eagerly looking forward to turning the page. The pandemic has created an opportunity for the EU to assess whether potential gaps existed within the Union, particularly the way a pandemic should be handled.
Choosing ‘Strengthening the soul of our Union’ as the main theme for the speech was quite right for the times we are living. The European Union is once again at a crossroads, this time round after a devastating global pandemic, never experienced in this century. The EU needs to do some soul searching for it not to lose its political compass. Issues of migration, defence, and rule of law remain as divisive as ever, with the issue of migration taking top spot. It has exposed the weakness of the European Union by not acting decisively and coherently. COVID–19 too exposed these weaknesses where Member States imposed unilateral measures to stem COVID–19 effects.
What is the European Union?
While it is often a hobby of politicians to blame Brussels for the malaises befallen each Member State and claim all the merit when it is all rosy, the European Union is us, the Member States. All Member States sit around the table when decisions are taken. The European Commission, acting on its own, does not have the power to enact any law or regulation. It needs the Council of the EU (which is composed of all Member States) and the European Parliament to push through legislation.
Malta used as an example on rule of law reforms.
All the Member States need to assess what a Union we want to give to future generations, similarly to what Robert Schumann and other European leaders did in the aftermath of the Second World War. Politicians need to be bold enough to position the EU towards the future by taking painful decisions which will benefit future generations.
The COVID–19 pandemic, the recent geo-political developments most strikingly the Afghanistan debacle, demonstrated that the EU cannot and should not rely solely on the U.S. The European Union is coming to terms with the fact that it needs to have the capabilities to act decisively on the world stage. Similarly, the EU cannot rely on other countries for some of the important production capabilities.
Europe is currently relying on Asia to produce micro-chips, and while demand has increased dramatically, supply has slowed. Yet, these microchips are needed to run our tech dependent society, from power station motherboards to smart phones and so on. As the European Commission President rightly put it: this is matter of “tech sovereignty”.
Towards a Defence Union
Another issue which the EU will need to face is the issue of defence. Afghanistan was a wake-up call for the EU to come to terms with its defence and security weaknesses. Its borders have been threatened by the regime in Minsk, and it could happen again even in our backyard, the Mediterranean.
The European Union is us, the
While the President of the Commission argued for a European Defence Union, such a proposal is likely to have raised some eyebrows in some quarters, not least in Malta. The devil will be in the details and one can only assess the merits of such a proposal once the text is on the table. Few doubt the fact that the EU needs its own defence capabilities in some form or another. Threats range from military to cyber and hybrid, and the EU needs to be prepared for this.
The challenges the Union faces are manifold, and some are from within. The Polish and Hungarian issues are prime examples of how the EU could be threatened from within. Upon membership, all member states have subscribed to a set of principles that are enshrined in EU law, particularly the primacy of EU judgements. While the EU was unequivocal in its position with Poland and Hungary, both member states simply chose to ignore.
By contrast, Malta was used as an example in Von der Leyen’s speech regarding the rule of law reforms that Prime Minister Robert Abela managed to implement in a very short span of time. Reforms which should have been implemented years ago under previous administrations.
“Se sembra impossible, allora si puo’ fare”- if it is impossible, then it can be done. This was the spirit of the Commission President speech, calling on European politicians to embrace the European spirit and come up with bold solutions.
“Europe has a soul. It has a future”. It is up to us to make it stronger.