European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has delivered her speech detailing results and aspirations on the European level, or, for short, the State of the Union, or SOTEU 2023. Expectations were high, considering the issues towering above the decision-makers, let it be rule of law questions, competitiveness, artificial intelligence, possible accession or migratory pressure and its management. True European issues but instead of starting or continuing meaningful conversation about those, von der Leyen practically staged a wake for Europe as a potent power.
Contradictions began right at the start when the Commission’s President stated that Europe – just like she aspired in her program – has become a geopolitical power but never in the speech has she told her audience what that means exactly. If she wanted to hint at Europe being able to replicate rhetorically what the United States has been saying about supporting Ukraine in the war “for as long as it needs”, that is hardly any geopolitical power. Ukraine and many of the other, negatively affected countries – especially Moldova –, alongside some countries in the Balkans have expressed their wishes to join the European Union but that is hardly von der Leyen’s achievement.
Fault in attribution is not the President’s biggest fault, however. Laziness and dullness are. Von der Leyen has been lazy to think farther than leftists who think the world is black and white and instead of thinking about viable, smart solutions, has decided to take the easy road: rejection. With the intention to ban Chinese EV investments, announcing investigation is going to strain Chinese-EU relations even more. No willing to do it in the smart way, so let’s do it the hard way, seems to be the motto for the next year. Sounds a lot more like reality than “when Europe is bold, it gets things done.” No boldness and relative inaction, with the all-too-familiar spiel of establishing platforms, dialogue and bloated institutions. (Which could be new interfaces for corruption, but that is a whole another story.)
All in all, the State of the Union was in fact a very solemn confession on Europe stepping back from being an economic superpower with close political cooperation into a scrutinizing, institutionalist club. A club that cannot even handle itself.
Ursula von der Leyen said “Ukraine” 17 times in her speech and although the war has brought about consequences that no doubt left their mark on the bloc yet maybe the “state of the union” is more influenced by how a union manages its membership. Only because the latter simply has to have primacy over talking about expansion.
Yet, von der Leyen proved to be over-cautious, never mentioning rule of law, conformity with the values of the European Union or the processes in progress that could make members more uniform, or, if not, the chances of introducing qualified majority voting. Ukraine seemed to be more important however, than starting meaningful discourse on problems actually about the future of the European Union.
In the end SOTEU 2023 was a typical campaign speech, with an emphasis on the Commission President’s achievements and with enough length for everybody to think this has been a time of true development. If VdL runs again, let us hope that real action is next.