This year’s State of the Union (SOTEU) address should have included a clear statement regarding the commitments that the EU is bound with over the war in Ukraine, Alfred Sant, Head of the Partit Laburista’s European Parliament delegation, believes.
European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, delivered her last annual address prior to next June’s European elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the 13th September.
“That there should be full support for the Ukrainian effort against Russian aggression, I agree,” Sant told The Journal. “But there should be some concept about what an acceptable endpoint for the war could be from an EU perspective and how to reach it. There was nothing of the sort in the speech.”
Having said that, he explained that he sees the SOTEU itself as an inflated event in the EU calendar which is frequently used to mask the fact that what is being proposed is business as usual. Von der Leyen is a past master at doing this, much more than her predecessor, Juncker, he noted.
The former Maltese Prime Minister said he would also have expected a clearer statement about how the strategic autonomy approach currently being advocated by the EU will be fleshed out. He agrees that something in this direction has become necessary but stressed that more clear perspectives are needed. Otherwise, strategic autonomy will end up – unless it already has – as meaning all things to all people, depending on what one wants to make it mean. Clarity would give it real strength.
Emphasis on social issues
Referring to the lack of meaningful reference to current social issues in this year’s SOTEU, Sant remarked that, on inflation, von der Leyen contented herself with the statement that the European Central Bank, under Mme Lagarde, was well-equipped to handle the problem. He added that, regarding the problem of stagflation, she contented herself with the buzzword which the centre-right has been driving, namely the need for improved competitivity and what should be done about it. So, she is going to set up a task force to work on the issue.
He also referred to how the EU finds itself hard-pressed, given its existing resources to deal with all the arising challenges, those it has set for itself, and those it has needed to cover as they arose, like the Covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine.
Also, the approaching electoral challenges – not just the European Parliament contest but also national elections – are dominating perspectives. “Von der Leyen has been trying to consolidate the centre-right vote, which she hopes to swell in order to run successfully for a second time as European Commission President. That makes her focus more on upper middle-income concerns at the expense of wider social issues, which affect lower income voters, many of whom are less likely to vote, while others among them have been floating towards the extreme right,” Alfred Sant remarked.
While asserting that the emphasis by the socialists on social issues in their reaction to the SOTEU 2023 is correct, he expressed his concern that they have been consistently punching below their weight within the EP and the EU as a whole, without questioning why this has to be so.
Way forward on enlargement
On the enlargement issue, Sant said the EU has been under pressure to open membership discussions with the Balkan states like North Macedonia and Albania, which which it has held longstanding discussions and during which they accepted radical changes to their internal set-ups to qualify for membership talks. Their demands that these could not be left pending any longer have been gaining substance.
Meanwhile, given the war in the Ukraine and the EU’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause, the situation has fast ratcheted up to the point that the Ukraine’s request to be considered for membership could not be brushed aside, at least in terms of the rhetoric that leading EU figures began to deploy.
The impression was given that the Ukraine, Moldova and, perhaps, Georgia, would be fast tracked towards membership, despite the huge institutional, economic, and social divide that exists between them and EU structures, he noted. Though big reservations still exist about these developments, the project to expand the Union has gained traction and 2030 has been set as a target date for further enlargement of the Union. However, he warned, the process will be laborious and extremely costly.
The worry is that the required funds will in part limit what existing member states, especially those in the lower welfare half by GDP measures, get from the EU budget. Besides, the membership project will curtail the funds required to keep the EU’s flagship projects – the Green Deal and digitilisation – afloat. These considerations cannot be easily dismissed.
He also mentioned a second concern, related to how decision-making will apply in an enlarged membership context. Already with the present membership, decisions are arrived at very slowly or sometimes not at all. The concept of a widened qualified majority voting for decisions to be taken is being pushed. A number of Member States, signficantly including France and Germany, believe that there is no other way forward if the EU is to remain coherent, with or without enlargement, but especially with the latter.
“Both these concerns are of interest to Malta, as we would not like more interest to be given by the EU to the ‘East’ rather than to the ‘South’,” he said. “Meanwhile, qualified majority voting would be very detrimental to the possibility of small states to defend their essential interests.”
Main Photo: European Union (Photographer: Begum Iman)