In key speech, von der Leyen also calls ties with China strategic and challenging
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her first State of the Union address on Wednesday, laying out ambitious goals spanning Europe’s economic recovery and the pursuit of a Green Deal to advances in the digital economy and stronger global leadership.
Von der Leyen, who took office in December, called on the European Union’s 446 million citizens to pull though together against the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic－and the uncertainty that goes with it－is not over. And the recovery is still in its early stage,” she told the European Parliament in Brussels.
In its Summer 2020 Economic Forecast, the European Commission said the euro-area economy will contract by 8.7 percent in 2020 and grow by 6.1 percent in 2021, while the EU economy is to shrink by 8.3 percent in 2020 before expanding by 5.8 percent in 2021－both sets of figures are weaker than the spring forecast.
Von der Leyen touted the EU’s pandemic response without mentioning the chaos at the beginning when member states failed to come to the help of Italy, which suffered heavily from COVID-19 in March and April.
The EU has also been burdened by the different border control policies implemented in response to the outbreak by the member states and those of the Schengen visa-free zone.
“We must tear down the barriers of the single market,” she said, adding that the linchpin is a fully functioning Schengen area of free movement.
In her speech, von der Leyen highlighted the Green Deal, an environmental initiative under which the EU’s target for reductions in emissions would be increased to at least 55 percent, from the previous goal of 40 percent.
She admitted that the new target “is too much for some, and not enough for others”, but added that “the 2030 target is ambitious, achievable, and beneficial for Europe”.
The 61-year-old medical doctor and conservative politician also vowed to kick-start an innovation wave－dubbed Next Generation EU－as a key part of the EU’s recovery plan.
“We must make this Europe’s Digital Decade,” said von der Leyen, adding that “Europe must now lead the way on digital, or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us”.
She also voiced her ambition for the EU’s role in the world, saying “Europe is determined to use this transition to build the world we want to live in”.
“The pandemic has simultaneously shown both the fragility of the global system and the importance of cooperation to tackle collective challenges,” she said.
Without naming the United States, she said some around the world had chosen to retreat into isolation in the face of the crisis. She said the EU’s leadership is “not about Europe First”.
She said that the EU might not always agree with recent decisions by the White House, but the EU is ready to build a new transatlantic agenda to strengthen the bilateral partnership regardless of the result of the coming US presidential election.
Transatlantic relations deteriorated dramatically after US President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal struck with world powers, among other international treaties. The country is also withdrawing from the World Health Organization.
She described the EU-China relationship as “one of the most strategically important and one of the most challenging”, reiterating the words by the last commission that “China is a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival”.
She also called on member states to step up to the challenge on migration. Recent fires at the Moria refugee camp on Greek island of Lesbos have dominated the headlines in Europe.
Manfred Weber, group leader of the European People’s Party, said one big priority is the coronavirus-induced jobs crisis.
“We need to create the jobs for next generations, 40 percent Italian youth are employed. This is unacceptable! At least a third of the#RecoveryFund must be invested in a Pact for European Jobs,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Sven Schulze, a German member of the European Parliament, said he supported von der Leyen on important topics like digitization, artificial intelligence, health and social policy.
“But I am sceptical about her ideas on#climate policy in the#EU,” Schulze tweeted on Wednesday.