State of the European Union 2020: Digital IDs, green investment, a European Bauhaus and a dig at Nord Stream 2

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to drive a sustainable and transformational recovery that will give Europe a global platform to lead economically, environmentally and geopolitically, and has warned member states against getting too close to Russia.

Delivering her first State of the Union address to the European Parliament since taking over as Commission president in 2019, she called for lessons to be learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic, and for Europe “to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality”.

She also pledged to strengthen pan-Union cooperation and pointed to increased trust in Europe’s institutions.

“In the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common,” she said. “As individuals, we have all sacrificed a piece of our personal liberty for the safety of others. And as a Union, we all shared a part of our sovereignty for the common good. We turned fear and division between member states into confidence in our Union. We showed what is possible when we trust each other and trust our European institutions.”

Mrs von der Leyen added that Europe must build a stronger European health union, “with a future-proof and properly funded EU4Health programme, a reinforced European Medicines Agency and a strengthened European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control”.

She also called for a debate on new competences for the EU in the field of health, as part of the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe.

“Our first priority is to pull each other through this. To be there for those that need it. And thanks to our unique social market economy, Europe can do just that. It is above all a human economy that protects us against the great risks of life – illness, ill-fortune, unemployment or poverty. It offers stability and helps us better absorb shocks. It creates opportunity and prosperity by promoting innovation, growth and fair competition. Never before has that enduring promise of protection, stability and opportunity been more important than it is today,” she added.

President von der Leyen also stressed the importance of reinforcing Europe’s social market economy and of protecting workers and businesses from external shocks. She promised to put forward a legal framework for setting minimum wages, emphasising that “minimum wages work – and it is time work paid”.

The president pledged action to boost the single market, reinforce the Economic and Social Union, get the Schengen area working in full again, update the EU’s industry strategy and adapt its competition framework.

“Our economies need continued policy support and a delicate balance will need to be struck between providing financial support and ensuring fiscal sustainability,” she said. “In the longer-term there is no greater way to stability and competitiveness than through a stronger Economic and Monetary Union.”

Turning to the European Green Deal, von der Leyen revealed that the European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emissions reduction from 40 per cent to 55 per cent. This will put the EU on track for climate neutrality by 2050 and for meeting its Paris Agreement obligations. The Carbon Border Adjustment mechanism will help ensure others will follow Europe’s lead, she said.

“Our current levels of consumption of raw materials, energy, water, food and land use are not sustainable. We need to change how we treat nature, how we produce and consume, live and work, eat and heat, travel and transport. So we will tackle everything from hazardous chemicals to deforestation to pollution. This is a plan for a true recovery. It is an investment plan for Europe.”

She said that by next summer the Commission will revise all of the EU’s climate and energy legislation to make it “fit for [the target of] 55 per cent”.

The president further announced that 30 per cent of the 750 billion euros Next Generation EU budget will be raised through green bonds, and that 37 per cent of funding will be invested in European Green Deal objectives, including “lighthouse” European projects – hydrogen, green building and one million electric charging points.

She called for a new “European Bauhaus” as a co-creation platform for architects, engineers and designers, to launch the architectural style of our times.

“Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic – to match style with sustainability,” she said.

Von der Leyen also stressed that “Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others”. She called for a common plan for digital Europe with clearly defined goals for 2030, such as for connectivity, skills and digital public services. She further announced that the EU will invest 20 per cent of Next Generation EU’s budget on digital. But, she pointed out, “we need to follow clear principles: the right to privacy and connectivity, freedom of speech, free flow of data and cybersecurity”.

“That is why the Commission will soon propose a secure European e-identity,” she said, “one that we trust and that any citizen can use anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle. A technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used.”

It was also confirmed in the speech that the European Commission will before the end of September adopt its first annual Rule of Law report covering all member states. Mrs von der Leyen pledged to ensure that EU funds are spent with the rule of law guaranteed.

“Breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated. I will continue to defend it and the integrity of our European institutions. Be it about the primacy of European law, the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary or the sale of golden passports. European values are not for sale.”

On the current situation in Belarus, von der Leyen said that its must be free to decide their own future for themselves. “They are not pieces on someone else’s chess board,” she declared, warning against the normalisation of ties with Russia.

“To those that advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one off. We have seen the pattern in Georgia and Ukraine, Syria and Salisbury – and in election meddling around the world,” she said, before adding, in a barely disguised attack on Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline currently under construction between Russia and Germany, “this pattern is not changing – and no pipeline will change that.”

Von der Leyen also gave some comfort to the countries of the Western Balkans, who have been critical of the EU’s lack of support in recent months, saying that she will “soon” present an economic recovery package for the region, focusing on a number of cross-border investment initiatives.

“The future of the whole [Western Balkans] lies in the EU. We share the same history, we share the same destiny,” she said.

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