As we learned from the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm, tradition is something that is invented. The tradition of State of the Union (SOTEU) speeches by the European Commission president was invented in 2010, in the wake of the great financial crisis. It has always provided a panorama of EU policies, sending out open or encrypted messages about priorities and concerns, endeavouring to rally parliamentarians and other stakeholders to tackle the key challenges of the period. It also became the annual exercise to highlight the real opportunities and initiatives to move the integration forward, and in which unfortunate fields the Commission is only aiming managing expectations.
In the year of the coronavirus, the SOTEU had to tackle the pandemic first and foremost. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took the royal road to thank all the frontline workers of Europe, and gave a positive response to the July decision of the European Parliament to create a Health Union. Remember that until recently those who wanted to shrink the Brussels bureaucracy routinely pointed to the health portfolio as one to be culled in the absence of real competences. Now, it is the realm of real breakthrough.
If a motto was to be found behind von der Leyen’s rhetoric, this motto would be: “Wir schaffen das“. What was said by Angela Merkel in 2015 amidst the dramatic refugee crisis, is now the underlying philosophy of von der Leyen in the maelstrom of COVID-19: we will cope with this, we will control this, and we will recover even stronger. Objectively, this message is not false: since April, the EU has displayed a host of bold and forward-looking measures. However, while Merkel had already entered the Pantheon of politics for proving her opponents wrong, von der Leyen is still at the beginning of her European journey, and her speech appeared less titanic and more Teutonic than necessary.
With von der Leyen, Manfred Weber and Ska Keller in the roles of the lead speakers, and Michael Roth playing himself at the end (as Europe minister representing the German presidency), this plenary looked like a proxy Bundestag, with visiting Southern Socialists like David Sassoli and Iratxe Garcia Perez.
The spirit of Wir schaffen das came through at least on three accounts: when von der Leyen spoke about migration towards the end (to remain true to the origin of the expression), but also when she elaborated on the COVID-19 crisis, and at great length when she outlined the vision, ambition and targets to tackle the climate challenge.
The speech was about projecting European confidence, but a most important undertone of the speech was about the German origins of the crisis response on various fronts. This was more than appropriate when von der Leyen proudly highlighted the newly created instrument, called SURE, providing EU-financed loans for the implementation of Kurzarbeit (short-time work) schemes. She explicitly referred to her time as minister of employment, to convince the audience that the vehicle she is selling surely works. She even doubled down by extending the sales exercise to the minimum wage (which in reality was only introduced in Germany after she moved from employment to the defence portfolio and the Social Democrat Andrea Nahles took over at Wilhelmstrasse).
On the other hand, it was not entirely appropriate to highlight the German connection when the speech arrived at the question of rule of law, and when von der Leyen invoked Walter Hallstein, the only previous German Commission President (1958-67). While it is true that the word Rechtsstaat (rule of law) was introduced in Germany over two hundred years ago, and that despite contradictory episodes the concept somehow survived in the country of origin, the way Hallstein popularised the term ‘community of law’ was not primarily about the quality of democracy and the functioning of checks and balances within the Member States. In reality, it was a way to underscore the role of law in the European project, which has been described by political scientists precisely as ‘integration through law’.
Where von der Leyen managed to be surprisingly inspirational with an unexpected German reference was the unveiling of the idea of a New European Bauhaus. This should not only appeal to design nerds, but to everybody who is sick and tired of references to the Californian Silicon Valley, which are supposed to make us all feel inferior, and aspire for deregulation and venture capital. Bauhaus was indeed a remarkable centre of European creativity in the interwar years, until the Nazis found it too cosmopolitan and evicted the artists first from Dessau and then also from Berlin. László Moholy-Nagy relaunched the project in Chicago as New Bauhaus and promising a new European edition today might signal the birth of a brand comparable to Erasmus. (Of course, it may also happen that this becomes a quickly forgotten bon mot.)
With a Europe built out of Kurzarbeit, Rechtsstaat and Bauhaus, nothing can go wrong. Still, reactions to the speech, including from Iratxe Garcia Perez, rightly asked the question where the social dimension was. Did the Commission President notice that the coronavirus caused not only a health crisis but also a social one, and an anti-poverty strategy would be timely?
For sure, the minimum wage is a more than strategic initiative, but the Child Guarantee should not just be left on the roadside. This reductionism was not just accidental. One should not forget that originally von der Leyen wanted Nicolas Schmit to be a Commissioner for Jobs only, and that Social Rights were added to his title at the insistence of the Socialists and Democrats. This omission is rooted in a certain German ideology, which recognises the importance of EU level employment policy (to the extent it helps feeding the labour demand of the Mittelstand by boosting mobility), but rejects the EU role in social policy, and in particular in ensuring the access of migrant workers to equal social rights and standards.
A similar omission or superficial approach could be observed on the question of rule of law, von der Leyen clarified that the name of the game is to protect the “money from our budget”, without even hinting to the need to protect the people in the countries hijacked by aspiring dictators. We have to acknowledge that she went beyond mentioning fraud, corruption and conflict of interest, and added issues concerning the freedom of press, the independence of judiciary, and the sale of golden passports as controversial ones. However, speaking about “prevention” after so many years of degeneration in Hungary and Poland, may not have been sufficiently convincing for the MEPs, especially for those who already were present during the debates on the Tavares Report and the Sargentini Report.
Von der Leyen’s speech was detailed but boring on economics, presenting this chapter as a kind of business plan. The single market is an opportunity, and the free movement must be restored as soon as possible, amended by a new strategy for the future of Schengen. Only after the industrial strategy, the President came to the question of climate, where everybody expected the announcement of the only concrete target. And it came indeed, by increasing the emission reduction target to at least 55 %. But don’t worry: this will create millions of extra jobs. (Those who think this is a new idea will find that in the 2010 speech the than EC president José Manuel Barroso envisaged 3 million green jobs by 2020). Mentioning that 37% of Next Generation EU spending will serve the Green Deal was an answer to those asking where the money for the necessary investment is coming from since last summer.
Messages in political speeches can be delivered simply by smart sequencing. Arriving to Brexit at the very end was a strong message to Boris Johnson. Affection for the British people was explicitly voiced, together with the concern that Downing Street’s behaviour is increasingly likely to lead to no deal, and to aggravate the loose-loose nature of Brexit.
On the other hand, a positive surprise was presented on the question of racial equality. Surely, this is a signal to those who might consider the Brussels bureaucracy inward looking. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the President recognised that Europe also has a lot to do in this field. The fight against discrimination can become a meaningful one, by paying equal attention to immigrant communities as well as to segregated Roma minorities. Appointing the very first anti-racism coordinator in order to give this issue priority can be a game changer. An open question is however, why these matters were overlooked last year, when von der Leyen appointed commissioners for justice, rule of law and values, as well as democracy and demography (not forgetting the one that is supposed to promote the ‘European way of life’).
Since everything is under control, there is no need to invent further fora for discussion, the President may believe. The very lukewarm approach she displayed towards the conference on the Future of Europe (only one positive mentioning, linked to the Health Union) gave the impression of deliberately displeasing the Parliament, as if the speaker just flew in from Berlin. But there is time and room for improvement. Arguably, Barroso’s best SOTEU speech was delivered in 2012, when he found himself in competition with the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, to lead the reform of the EMU, as well as with Mario Draghi who caught the limelight and imagination by promising to do whatever it takes to save the euro. And the best SOTEU speech from Jean-Claude Juncker was in 2017 (when, among other post-Brexit initiatives, he also announced the European Labour Authority), following almost three years when the Commission’s main preoccupation was to make the work program slimmer and deliver as few initiatives as possible.
This first SOTEU speech by von der Leyen exposed her as still in transition from a CDU-minister to becoming a genuine EU leader. Hopefully, the best of von der Leyen as Commission President lies still ahead. In future speeches she might present less theatrical hand gestures and avoid saying “safe heaven” instead of “safe haven”.