The President of the EU executive outlines the future of the EU in the State of the Union address

Ursula von der Leyen reinforces EU support for Ukraine: "It's a war against our energy, economy, values and future"

photo_camera AFP/FREDERICK FLORIN - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during a debate on "The State of the European Union"

The European Union is building a dam of containment to face an uncertain winter. The horizon, marked by the war in Ukraine and the incipient energy crisis, is forcing the Commission to weave a common front to circumvent the multiple threats on the horizon. It will not be easy. EU President Ursula von der Leyen is well aware of this. But the intentions, outlined by the German leader, are clear: the EU must be strong from within and put member states in the best possible position to deal with the delicate situation. Ukraine must also be supported. 

Von der Leyen appeared at the European Parliament in Strasbourg early Wednesday morning on a date marked in red on the calendar. It was the Speech of the Union (known as SOTEU), a parliamentary event copied from American politics that serves to establish priorities for the coming year. The President of the European Commission, in office since 2019, explained to European legislators the lines of action of the EU executive, with an eye on Ukraine, energy policy and the economic crisis. 

"I want to make it clear, the sanctions are here to stay," Von der Leyen said in her speech. She insisted that "now is the time for us to show determination, not appeasement", referring to the six-pronged sanctions packages pushed by Brussels against Russia aimed at curbing its war machine in Ukraine. "Russian industry is destroyed," she said, although she did not make any further announcements in this regard. These announcements, moreover, were not expected either. For the time being, there will be no new sanctions.

Parlamento Europeo

The first female head of the Commission, whose political profile has been shaped by crises - first the COVID-19 pandemic and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine - reiterated the importance of defending Ukraine. "It is a struggle between autocracy and democracy. And I stand here with the conviction that with courage and solidarity, Putin will fail and Europe will prevail," said a confident von der Leyen that democratic institutions can regain confidence: "That is Europe at its best. A Union of determination and solidarity". 

"The European Union has responded to the war in defence of European values and democracy, which is why the President's emphasis on enlargement policy also stands out. This means that in the next decade the EU will grow, and the Balkans together with Ukraine and its surroundings will colour the future map of the Union", Miguel Pastor, a law graduate, student of the Master's degree at the Diplomatic School and analyst specialising in EU policy, told Atalayar. 

Wearing a blue blouse and a yellow jacket, a symbolic outfit that she had already worn weeks ago as a sign of support for Ukraine, the former German Defence Minister addressed the European Parliament in the presence of the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, who was the guest of honour at the session. The first announcements were precisely in that direction, reinforcing the EU's support for Ukraine, which Von der Leyen sees as a potential member state.

Von der Leyen Zelenska

The German leader announced that she would visit Kiev again to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky, and listed a list of initiatives aimed at strengthening her country. Among the announcements was the creation of a 100 million euro fund for the reconstruction of its schools, which were demolished during the Russian invasion, as well as Ukraine's integration into the European single market. Moscow's invasion has served to shift the balance: Kiev is closer than ever to Brussels. 

But Von der Leyen also owned up to the mistakes made by the EU. "We should have listened to those who know him and for years told us that he was not going to stop", she acknowledged, alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin, responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, whose figure is increasingly questioned internally after the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive, which has managed to liberate hundreds of localities in the Kharkov region and force the withdrawal of Russian troops from the north of the country.

Volodimir Zelenski Von der Leyen

"Von der Leyen's self-criticism regarding gas reserves and the energy crisis was also surprising," Pastor adds. "The president said: 'We have reached 84%, so we have exceeded our target. But unfortunately that will not be enough". And in this sense, she has announced a battery of measures, many of them along the lines of what is being proposed in Spain, to tackle the energy crisis that will leave us with a cold winter for many households". 

The doctor by profession and mother of seven children also dedicated a few words to European families: "Making ends meet is becoming a source of anxiety". Runaway inflation, which affects all eurozone countries, combined with the supply crisis forced by Russia's energy disconnection and the Kremlin's gas cuts, has pushed up prices for basic food and energy baskets that are hard for households to afford.

Nord Stream

The Commission, Von der Leyen said, is determined to act. "In these times it is wrong to receive record revenues and windfall profits by profiting from war and at the expense of our consumers. In these times, profits must be shared and channelled to those who need it most," she outlined before announcing a package of measures to limit the revenues of low-cost electricity generators. The EU executive will force large energy companies to share the profits they make from higher prices. 

"It has been a cross-cutting speech in political terms, and direct in terms of the feelings and concerns of Europeans," Pastor said. "The six priorities that the 'von der Leyen Commission' set itself when it arrived in 2019 are still on its political agenda, despite the pandemic crises, the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis". The Christian Democrat leader, who has been present in all of Merkel's cabinets during her 16 years in government and who has been promoted to the post precisely by the former chancellor and French president Emmanuel Macron, seems to have found an optimal position to set her own profile and build her legacy. 

For Pastor, Von der Leyen is "the president of the crises, crises that she has been able to tackle without precedent, and in which she has undoubtedly placed the values of the Union and the solidarity that has characterised the construction of Europe at the heart of the response". Now, the weakness of the Franco-German axis forces her to strengthen contacts in other European capitals to push forward her agenda.

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