On Wednesday, 13 September 2023, Commission President von der Leyen delivered the annual State of the Union (SOTEU) address at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. The last SOTEU in this legislative period before the upcoming EU elections in June 2024 focused on green transition, artificial intelligence (AI) and enlargement. The social perspective was addressed with individual important points, for example with regard to the role of the social partners. However, overall it fell too short. For example, there was no fundamental commitment to the continuation of the European Pillar of Social Rights in the next legislative period.
With EU elections less than 300 days away, Ursula von der Leyen’s speech was a review of the work of past years. She outlined remaining projects in the current legislative period, but also included topics for the next Commission. From the workers' point of view, the strong commitment to EU gender equality policy is to be welcomed: the Commission President referred to the Women on Boards Directive, the Accession to the Istanbul Convention and the Pay Transparency Directive as “groundbreaking and pioneering work” by the EU. The latter directive must be implemented promptly and comprehensively, especially in Austria, one of the EU countries with the largest gender pay gap. The Commission President's insistence on bringing the negotiations on the Violence against Women Directive to a conclusion soon is also to be welcomed.
Green Deal with focus on industry
Against the backdrop of the hottest summer in history with forest fires and floods across Europe ("This is the reality of a boiling planet"), von der Leyen referred to the importance of the climate agenda, which has become an economic agenda. Specifically announced were Clean Transition dialogues with industry, a package for wind power in Europe and an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles from China. "From wind to steel, from batteries to electric vehicles, our ambition is crystal clear: The future of our cleantech industry has to be made in Europe" – with this statement, the President once again made a clear commitment that European value creation must be promoted and driven forward in key technologies that are important for the future, as also envisaged in the Green Deal Industrial Plan. These efforts are to be supported but must also focus on the interests of workers. Public funds and economic policy measures may only be made available under the condition that they create employment security and a high quality of employment as well as sustainable prosperity.
Whether the announced anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles from China, which are gaining more and more market shares in Europe, especially in low-priced electric is the right way to protect the European car industry from Chinese competition is debatable. Rather than further straining the already tense relationship with China with possible punitive tariffs, a strategy aimed at rewarding the more ecologically demanding methods of European manufacturers is likely to be more effective. In addition, it would make sense to motivate Chinese car manufacturers to produce their electric cars in Europe as well, thus creating European employment and purchasing power.
Childcare, social partners, but no strong social orientation
As regards to EU social policy, the Commission President correctly pointed out the lack of existing childcare facilities in the EU. This would make – as the Chamber of Labour repeatedly emphasises – access to the labour market or full-time employment impossible for many women. Von der Leyen's strong commitment to the social partners, whose expertise the EU wants to increasingly draw on, for example in the areas of skills, labour shortages and AI, is to be positively emphasised. Here, the Commission President also referred to the great importance of the European Social Dialogue, which was established 40 years ago in Val Duchesse. In the coming six months, another social partner summit is to take place in Val Duchesse under the Belgian Presidency.
However, apart from that, the SOTEU speech lacked key milestones for a social Europe. It is incomprehensible that the European Pillar of Social Rights was not mentioned at all. Nor was there any other commitment to further legal acts in respect of EU social policy that could create European minimum social standards. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) pointed out that the speech offered "no solutions for workers struggling today with the cost-of-living crisis". S&D Group President Iratxe García Pérez called for a stronger commitment to social rights, including a minimum income and a strategy to fight poverty.
SMEs, Competitiveness & AI
In order to promote small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Commission wants to appoint an EU SME Envoy this year, as well as introduce a legislative proposal to reduce reporting requirements for companies by 25%. Against the background of past experience with the Commission's Better Regulation agenda, such as the One In-One Out principle, great caution is called for here, as cuts in important protective regulations could be threatened under the heading of administrative burden reduction. The conclusion of further trade agreements with Australia, Mexico and the Mercosur Agreement are planned, which the Chamber of Labour rejects for social and environmental reasons. A report on the future of EU competitiveness is to be prepared by Mario Draghi. It is to be criticised that the important and topical issue of the necessary reform of EU fiscal rules did not find its way into the speech.
With regard to artificial intelligence (AI), the Commission President proposes a new global framework on AI with three pillars: (1) the EU AI Act as a human-centric and responsible blueprint for the entire world, (2) a governance system for AI modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (3) a deepening of the European leadership role in the field of supercomputers by opening it up to European AI start-ups. Only the conclusion of the trialogue negotiations currently underway will show whether the EU AI Act can actually succeed in anchoring a human-centric approach. It would be important to now follow the proposals of the EU Parliament to improve the AI Act (including a clear exception for national labour law, a ban on the use of biometric identification, separate rules for generative AI, collective legal protection for consumers) and to also present a separate Directive on Algorithmic Systems at Work.
Enlargement & Reform of the EU
In conclusion, von der Leyen's speech contained a clear call for EU enlargement: the future of Ukraine, the Western Balkans and Moldova is in the EU, said von der Leyen. The EU perspective is also important for the people of Georgia. This is understandable, but without deepening through far-reaching reforms, the EU cannot admit new members. The EU's integration capacity is also an integral part of the Copenhagen criteria. In this context, Council President Charles Michel gave a concrete date for the first time in a speech at the end of August 2023 - the EU should be ready for enlargement by 2030.
The plans announced in the State of the Union address in connection with enlargement, to open up the Rule of Law Reports to accession states as well, and to initiate a review of policy areas and the budget by the EU Commission, are important. However, they are far from sufficient to make the EU receptive. The demand for the convening of a convention to reform the EU Treaties, as raised by the European Parliament or the Chamber of Labour, has therefore to be placed right at the top of the EU agenda and must also be fully supported by the EU Commission. The tight corset of the EU treaties – with the one-sided economic policy stipulations and the requirement of unanimity – severely restrict the socio-ecological further development and the democratic ability of Europe to act.
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