Ursula von der Leyen is not giving up on her project for a “Europe of health”, despite the reluctance of the Member States. In her State of the Union speech, delivered on Wednesday September 16 in Brussels, the President of the Commission put on the table the UE4Health program, which had been badly planed by the European Council in July, from 9.4 to a budget of 1.7 billion euros over 7 years. She considers that the Conference on the Future of Europe must modify the treaties to give back the hand to the Commission in the face of a common health threat.
It also proposes to create a new European agency specializing in “biomedical” and to strengthen the skills of the ECDC (European Center for Disease Control and Prediction). The frugal countries, led by the Netherlands, have made cuts in the 2021-2027 long-term European budget. Ursula von der Leyen is now counting on the resistance of the European Parliament to increase the health budget during the interinstitutional negotiations. A world health summit is expected to be held under the Italian presidency of the G20 in 2021.
A new “Bauhaus” style
The second big expected announcement concerns the climate: the President of the Commission estimates that by 2030, the European Union must be able to reduce its emissions “by at least 55%” (instead of – 40%) of carbon to more surely achieve its objective of carbon neutrality by 2050. “We know that we must change and we know that it is possible”, she proclaims, considering that this objective is in no way incompatible with more wealth. It is based on past figures: since 1990, CO emissions2 fell by 25% in Europe while European economies grew by + 60%.
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To meet this objective, 30% of the 750 billion euros of the European recovery fund will have to be devoted to the thermal insulation of buildings, to green innovation, to the establishment of a hydrogen sector which will hardly replace little to fossil fuels and will reduce our dependence on external supplies (Russia, Middle East, etc.). The construction of buildings – responsible for 40% of emissions – must, according to her, lead to the emergence of a new eco-sustainable architectural style “like the Bauhaus”, this artistic movement born in 1919 in Weimar.
The European minimum wage via collective agreements
Carbon taxation will be the cornerstone of this change with the strengthening of the ETS system and the creation of a border carbon tax aimed, by the way, to encourage countries that trade with the EU – and primarily China – to adopt the same objective of climate preservation. This taxation was presented to Xi Jinping by Angela Merkel, in charge of the rotating presidency of Europe. We do not know the reaction of the Chinese authorities since Xi Jinping did not attend the press conference at the end of the EU-China mini-summit on Monday, September 14.
For the President of the Commission, Europe‘s delays are also social and she promises to set up, where he is absent, a “minimum wage” through collective agreements. It is not a common minimum wage, but a minimum wage adapted to the economy of the country concerned.
A European microprocessor
“The next decade must be a digital decade,” she says. There, the delays of Europeans are numerous, but can be made up if the EU does not miss 5G, 6G and optical fiber. The business data market could be a lifeline for Europe, without ignoring the protection of personal data. It is for this reason that the Commission will propose a “secure digital identity” for each citizen in order to “pay their taxes or rent a bicycle” while avoiding piracy. The deployment of digital technology in rural areas could be a source of economic “revitalization” of the countryside. In the field of supercomputers – indispensable in fields as diverse as smart cities, health, agriculture, etc. -, the European Union will invest 8 billion euros. Moreover, Ursula von der Leyen announces that European research must result in providing the continent with its own new generation microprocessor, both less energy consuming and more efficient. In total, 20% of the funds from the European recovery plan will go to digital transition.
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Finally, the European Union remains a union of values which cannot ignore its internal challenges such as external violations of human rights. Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that the Commission would propose a European “Magnitski Act”, namely identical legislation to that of the United States which allows for faster sanctions against third countries violating human rights. Preparatory work has been taking place since last April when member states lifted their reservations.
Foreign policy by qualified majority
To achieve this, the EU would need to adopt a more effective, better coordinated common foreign policy. However, for the moment, the unanimity rule often blocks any initiative. Ursula von der Leyen proposes, like Emmanuel Macron, that the EU pass a qualified majority on its subjects. There is still a great deal of resistance as the Member States hold to their sovereignty in the diplomatic field at the heart of sovereign prerogatives. We can measure it at this very moment in the Greco-Turkish crisis. The calls for solidarity in favor of Cyprus and Greece in the face of provocations from the Turkish regime are numerous and cost nothing. But, in a few days, when the European leaders will meet around the Council table, it will be necessary to take action. And the rule of unanimity voting can be dramatically paralyzing in the face of an authoritarian regime that depends on the will of one …
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, through the migration issue, a key means of pressure on the European Union. The V4 countries (Hungary, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia) are generally sensitive to it, considering that they do not have to bear the migratory weight of the countries of the Mediterranean coasts. On this issue, Europe has been stumbling and breaking up for four years. The decision to “compulsory quotas” (a decision in the Council of European Ministers) created a deep schism between the V4s and the rest of the Union. After a first proposal which was not successful in 2016, the Commission puts back on the table, Wednesday 23 September, a “migration pact” to overcome past divisions.
The political challenge of the new “migration pact”
The details will not be known until that day, but Ursula von der Leyen, today, is part of the tradition of welcoming Europe, in other words in the footsteps of Angela Merkel. “Saving human lives at sea is not something we choose to do,” she said to the nationalist right in the European Parliament. But it will also ensure that only genuine refugees, those who deserve the right of asylum, are welcomed in Europe and that a “closer link” is established between “asylum and return”. Those who have not legitimately crossed the borders of Europe must be returned. For this, a “legal channel” for migration must be set up. Ursula von der Leyen paid tribute to “the energy” and “talent” of refugees, Syrian doctors and others, who have helped Europeans face the pandemic.
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All in all, it is a huge legal, industrial and diplomatic project that President von der Leyen wants to tackle from 2021. Chancellor Merkel is entering the last months of her political life. We do not know who will succeed him. In the coming months, Emmanuel Macron, one of the driving forces of the EU, will not be too much to support Ursula von der Leyen in the face of resistance that she will not fail to meet on her way. If the objectives that she has set out can be easily shared by all 27, everything gets complicated as soon as you go into the details … But she enjoys an exceptional circumstance: for the first time, facing a deep crisis , the Europeans have decided on a large joint loan of 750 billion euros. There is no shortage of investment projects. We have to make sure that the funds go where they are needed. Rigorous, concerted and intelligent control is more than ever essential without falling into bureaucratic loopholes. On the method, Ursula von der Leyen did not expand. This is perhaps one of the regrettable absences from the discourse on the State of the Union, with demography, a major challenge for Europe.