“Von der Leyen should create a sense of urgency concerning democracy”
“I don’t expect but I hope Ursula von der Leyen tries to force a breakthrough, a sense of urgency concerning democracy, the rule of law, corruption”. Wouter Wolfs, lecturer European Politics at Leuven university, looks ahead at the ‘State of the Union’ speech of the president of the EU Commission at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday morning September 14.
According to Wolfs, the EU can only face the present challenges if there’s a constructive collaboration between all members states and all EU-institutions (Commission, Parliament, Council). He doubts this collaboration is today good enough to function properly. “I’m sceptical because of the composition of the government in several member states.” There’s of course Hungary that has favoured closer ties with Russia, while violating the rule of law and the media freedom. There’s also Poland. And there’s the possible success of right wing populism in Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria, in elections these weeks.
“We have to understand the EU is surrounded by instability: there was the Arabic Spring, the refugee crisis, now Ukraine. The foreign policy of the EU is largely decided by unanimity. The EU can only be powerful if all member states allow this. Will there still be support after those upcoming elections? It will be harder to reach a compromise.”
Wolfs is especially worried about Hungary, where prime minister Orban was able to consolidate his power, because the European Commission reacted too little, too late. “Europe is only powerful if it’s supported by the member states; if member states obstruct EU policies, nothing is possible.”
Concerning geopolitics, Von der Leyen has to address the relationship between the EU and its neighbours, and with the candidate member states, such as Ukraine. “The problem is the gap between the expectations the EU created and the lack of willingness on the part of existing member states. When a country wants to become a member state, there are clear conditions concerning democracy, rule of law and anti-corruption, but once it’s a member state the EU lacks the necessary instruments – and courage – to safeguard these principles. This leads certain EU countries to slow down the entire enlargement process out of fear to take in new members.”
For Wouter Wolfs, this is a crucial time for the EU. “Today Europe should be able to prove its value. When people are unable to pay their energy bills, the EU should be able to do something about it, since it is an EU-wide crisis. But this will depend again on the willingness of the member states, in the short run, but also in the longer run in the fight against climate change. The current crisis feels like a make-or-break moment concerning the ambition of the EU to become climate neutral by 2050.”
The EU-level is important in the current energy crisis, and will be essential to foster the production, the cross-border transport and the storage of climate-friendly electricity, but depends on the willingness of the member states to achieve such a Europe-wide energy market. Of course, also the price cap on electricity or the taxation of excessive profits by energy companies are important topics today.
Von der Leyen-Commission
In contrast to his scepticism about the future, Wolfs is rather positive about what the Commission of Ursula von der Leyen has done so far. It took a quick start with several initiatives, well structured around six priorities (climate, economy, digital affairs, ...). However, about half of these proposals are still being negotiated by Parliament and Council.
For Von der Leyen this State of the Union is the last chance to announce major legislative initiatives. In 2023, we’re only some eight months away from the elections of a new EU-parliament. Her last State of the Union will thus only have political messages. Wolfs expects von der Leyen will then focus mainly on getting a second term.
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