On 16 September 2020, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her first State of the Union Speech before the European Parliament. Among other, she reflected on the first nine months, which have been marked by the pandemic and gave an outlook into the closer future.
Commission President gave her long awaited first State of the Union Speech at the Plenary of the European Parliament, which had not seen such a strong audience for a long time. Von der Leyen began by thanking the essential workers, who have been working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic.
European minimum wage
As expected, Leyen also addressed the minimum wage initiative, which is planned for 28 October 2020, and based on which a legal framework shall be set up. Von der Leyen stated: ”Everyone must have access to minimum wages either through collective agreements or through statutory minimum wages”. Previously, von der Leyen, had emphasised in an interview with the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that there should be no pressure by the EU to insist that those 6 States (among them Austria), which set minimum wages exclusively by collective agreement systems, should introduce statutory minimum wages. In a first reaction, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) showed disappointment that von der Leyen had not provided more details concerning the plans for the European minimum wage. ETUC calls for an EU Framework Directive on European minimum wages, which, among other, shall include a double threshold for statutory minimum wages (60 % of the median, 50 % of the average wage). ETUC also called for including the European Pillar of Social Rights, the fight against precarious work as well as social security for EU citizens in the COVID-19 recovery package “NextGenerationEU”.
Reduction of carbon emissions by 55 % by 2030
Von der Leyen in particular addressed the necessity of implementing the Green Deal: 37 % of the funds of “NextGenerationEU” shall be allocated to projects within the scope of the Green Deal. Furthermore, the Green Deal shall also be involved in financing the “NextGenerationEU”: the programme provides for the Commission to issue bonds directly for the first time. 30 % of the 750 billion euro shall be raised through Green bonds. Von der Leyen announced that the European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55 % from currently 40 %. Even though MEP Ska Keller of the Greens welcomes the setting of 55 % as a “significant step forward”; she does, however, point out that from a scientific point of view, this target was too low. Criticism was voiced among other by MEP Manon Aubry of the Nordic Green Left, which criticised that von der Leyen would continue to want “growth at any price” and austerity policy and that she missed her providing more concrete measures to combat the climate crisis. Previously, Parliament had already condemned Council cuts in respect of the Green Deal – above all regarding the just transition fund. However, from the point of view of the Chamber of Labour and trade unions, it is above all this fund, which is key to ensure that workers in regions, which are particularly affected by the transition, are not left behind when transitioning to a more ecological economy.
Investments in the digital sector
Digitalisation, as a further main focus of the Commission, shall as well benefit from 20 % of the resources of the recovery package “NextGenerationEU” in form of an allocation of funds. Another plan is to urgently expand the broadband coverage in rural areas. Addressing data security, von der Leyen announced a “European digital identity”, “one that we trust and that any citizen can use anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle “.
Strengthening European health policy
Lessons should be learned from the health crisis: to be better prepared for future (pandemic) crises and cross-border dangers, it has been planned to set up a European agency for biomedical advanced research and development. In addition, the competencies of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shall be expanded.
Looking after the transatlantic alliance
According to von der Leyen, we should continue to cherish the transatlantic alliance, even if recent decisions by the White House were not always welcome. Independent of the outcome of the election in the USA, she announces the willingness to work on a joint transatlantic agenda and to expand bilateral relationships.
Condemnation of human rights abuses
Von der Leyen emphasises that a clear positioning of Europe in view of violations against human rights was necessary; declarations of solidarity with the people of Belarus were made. At least in the context of human rights abuses and sanctions, von der Leyen wants to depart from unanimity. However, in contrast to her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, von der Leyen did not use the speech to demand the introduction of a qualified majority in tax matters. The Commission President also clearly condemned statutory violations within the EU: just like with racism, there should be no room for LGBTIQ free zones in Europe – hate is hate. Fighting racism would never be optional. The same would apply to saving lives at sea. Some MEPs demanded that words should be followed by deeds. As to migration and fleeing, solidarity engagement is needed from the member states. Hence, on 23 September 2020, the Commission will publish a migration pact – in view of the humanitarian catastrophe in Moria – a week earlier than planned. One can only hope that this will not only focus on retaining Fortress Europe, but that the EU lives up to its responsibilities at last and no longer stands on the sidelines when people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea and at the external borders.