When Ursula von der Leyen steps behind the lectern in the Strasbourg hemicycle on Wednesday to deliver her annual State of the Union address, Europe will look vastly different than it did a year ago.
Back then the European Union had a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate than the UK or US, and the economy was rebounding from its pandemic-induced stupor. Uncertainty seemed to be abating and the Commission president duly informed parliamentarians that her institution would work to dispel it even further by proposing legislation in five key areas.
These included ramping up COVID-19 vaccine donations worldwide and strengthening the bloc’s response to future health crises, ensuring respect for the rule of law in the Union, boosting efforts to tackle climate change, developing a common EU defence strategy following botched evacuations from Afghanistan, and rolling out a more coordinated approach to migration.
Just five months after her keynote address, Russia launched a full-scale, illegal and unprovoked war against its neighbour, blanketing Europe in uncertainty once more and leaving member states to deal with a triple whammy of crises: energy, cost of living and refugees.
What has the Commission delivered in the last year?
“The Commission can have its plans, but of course, it needs to be responding to the reality. And the reality was very dynamic those past 12 months,” Pawel Zerka, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, told Euronews.
“So I don’t know whether we can assess the Commission by merely looking at whether they have accomplished the plans that they set for themselves 12 months ago,” he added.
But experts say the EU’s executive did manage to carry out many of its promises from the last address.
“I think COVID-19 is going to be regarded as one of the major success stories of the European Union over the years to come,” Camino Mortera-Rodriguez, head of the Brussels Office of the Centre for European Reform (CER), another think tank, told Euronews.
The Commission has ordered more doses of the vaccines to face new waves of COVID-19, and its Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) is now up and running. It has also approved the recovery plans from 26 member states under its flagship NextGenerationEU programme that aims to make the bloc greener, more digital and resilient through an envelope of €806.9 billion.
On rule of law, it rolled out and triggered a new mechanism that opens the door to financial punishments against member states that are deemed to go against core EU values including judiciary and media independence and the rights of women and minorities. The Commission has also struck a compromise with Poland for its recovery funds over rule of law concerns while negotiations are ongoing with Hungary.
On defence and foreign policy, the EU agreed on a Strategic Compass — a document long in the making — in March that sets out a common vision of who the bloc’s allies and adversaries are and that plans for a 5,000-strong common Rapid Deployment Force.
The dramatic events in Ukraine have meanwhile prompted the Commission to propose establishing a joint weapon procurement platform to address member states’ most urgent military needs as they donate their stockpiles to Kyiv. The plan is to bolster home-grown research and development in this highly-strategic sector while ensuring member states do not purchase the same equipment unless absolutely necessary.
Has the Commission dropped the ball on some issues?
The Commission’s report card on climate change is a bit more nuanced. “The war has been a challenge for Europe’s ambitious climate agenda,” Zerka argued.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has accelerated the energy crisis as Moscow has progressively reduced gas supplies over the past few months to retaliate against EU sanctions.
Faced with the prospect of possible electricity shortages over the crucial winter months and with households and businesses fearing that energy bills will push them into poverty, some member states have restarted coal-powered plants.
“Brussels has not lost direction just because of that but I don’t know whether the EU will manage to keep its ambitions in such a difficult context when Europeans can no longer count on natural gas from Russia,” Zerka flagged.
Another file that has fallen by the way-side is migration.
Southern member states are dealing with the bulk of illegal arrivals and plans for more European solidarity and mandatory quotas are slow-going with eastern countries bitterly opposed. As Poland and Hungary have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, it’s likely that asking them to contribute more at this time would have been tricky.
Plans to reform EU fiscal rules to enable member states to have more leeway when dealing with crises have also been derailed. It was an issue hotly debated during the COVID-19 crisis despite going against strict EU rules on deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios.
Mortera-Rodriguez says it’s understandable that the Commission didn’t manage to carry it out.
“Nobody expected to have inflation as high as we have at the moment. So the tools to deal with that are not fiscal expansion for obvious reasons. So in that respect, the Commission dropped the ball, but I think they had to,” she said.
So what about Ukraine?
The EU responded to Russia’s war in Ukraine with a series of sanctions packages aimed at the Russia’s economy and ability to source key technological products from abroad.
In parallel, it has unveiled packages of support for Ukraine’s crumbling economy and provided humanitarian assistance. It has also given political support for the candidate status offered to Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova.
All this was spear-headed by the EU’s executive.
“The Commission and Ursula von der Leyen herself have been one of the main winners of this war so far,” Mortera-Rodriguez said.
Candidate status, is one example. “It was sort of not expected that Ursula von der Leyen was going to hand out this questionnaire (during her April visit to Kyiv) and by doing that, she’s sort of forced the Council to take a decision on candidacy status, which is something that they wouldn’t have done necessarily”.
What to expect from this year’s speech
Ukraine, energy and cost of living will likely feature heavily in the Commission chief’s address, experts agreed.
The topics of EU enlargement and the European Political Community — a parallel entity allowing for third countries to have closer ties with the bloc with or without an accession track — should also be included.
This could lead von der Leyen to renew her support for treaty change, Mortera-Rodriguez said.
Finally, geopolitics should be the other big topic. Von der Leyen has championed a more powerful EU on the world stage and the events of the past few months have only reinforced that.
But while most of the attention is on the bloc’s relationship with Russia, both experts expect China to also get a mention.
“I think this is the next challenge that Europe is going to have is how to decouple from China. And that is going to be a massive preoccupation,” the CER expert added.
“We have been reliant on China to produce cheap stuff for us for a long time. But now I think that’s after what happened with Russia and the way that China has been behaving as well” over multiple issues including Taiwan, “that’s going to be the next big thing.”
“I think that this year, with real challenges on the table, there will be real stuff and substance into the State of the Union address,” Zerka said.