On 15 September 2021, Commission President von der Leyen delivered her highly anticipated second State of the Union Address, giving an overview of the EU Commission’s priorities over the next twelve months. Even though many announcements by the Commission President are considered to be positive, von der Leyen failed to provide clear messages and suggestions for improvement, in particular with respect of employment and social issues.
Commission President von der Leyen commenced her speech by invoking the successes of the past year in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and its socio-economic consequences. Thus, health policy will remain at the top of the European Agenda. The EU plans to set up a new authority called HERA (Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority) to be able to react faster and more efficiently to future health emergencies. Apart from that, the Commission intends to accelerate Covid-19 vaccinations both in Europe as well as globally. An important step would be to suspend the TRIPS Agreement to expedite vaccine progress in particular in countries of the Global South.
Economic Governance in the EU
“We learned the lessons from the past”, said von der Leyen referring to the Economic and Financial Crisis 2008/09. Instead of relying on austerity, extensive investments within the scope of the NextGenerationEU Programme were launched as a reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Apart from that, von der Leyen held adjustments out in prospect regarding Economic Governance, where – from the Austrian Chamber of Labour’s point of view – a clear need for reform exists. With this in mind, there are cautious signs of a departure from the primacy of austerity policy within the scope of the Stability and Growth Pact, which – in particular in Southern Europe – resulted in massive cuts in the health and social policy sector.
Digitalisation and the new European Chips Act
Von der Leyen once again stressed the importance of not falling behind in the digital transformation. The Commission President explicitly emphasised the key role of semi-conductor production for the technological sovereignty of the Union. In order to ensure security of supply in this context and to reduce independence on foreign providers, von der Leyen announced a European Chips Act.
Green Deal & Climate Social Fund
Apart from the digital transformation, the EU Commission’s priority list also includes the environmental transformation within the scope of the Green Deal and thus aims to close the existing finance gap to fund climate protection measures. In this context, von der Leyen announced to double the funding for biodiversity and to make available 4 billion Euro for global climate protection measures. Furthermore, von der Leyen once again declared her commitment to set up a Social Climate Fund, which had been presented in July 2021 within the scope of the Fit for 55 package and whose aim it is to ensure a socially just environmental transformation.
ALMA – Erasmus for young unemployed people
In addition, it is planned to launch ALMA, a new Erasmus-style placement scheme, which shall give young people the opportunity to gain work experience in other Member States. Even though this initiative is to be welcomed in general, vital challenges in respect of (youth) unemployment were not mentioned. One can only hope that ALMA does not promote unpaid internships and precarious working conditions, which already are far too common.
Human rights and violence against women
Von der Leyen presented clear proposals regarding the preservation of human rights in the global production process. Hence, products that have been made by forced labour shall be banned in the EU. There was also a concrete announcement in respect of tackling violence against women; the Commission will submit a proposal for a Directive before the end of the year.
The lack of the social dimension
Apart from a few concrete proposals, clear efforts by the EU Commission in respect of work and social issues are missing. Even though von der Leyen committed herself to implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights, there was no announcement regarding next steps to implement the Action Plan. Unfortunately, the Minimum Wage Directive, which was still presented as a priority in von der Leyen’s first State of the Union Address, was not mentioned. The speech also lacked clear solution approaches on issues such as platform work, gender equality, inequality and poverty. The “European Soul”, which von der Leyen invoked several times in her speech, is clearly lacking a social foundation.
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