Experts react: Von der Leyen outlines vision for Europe’s post-COVID future

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she addresses her first State of the European Union speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Brussels, Belgium September 16, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed Members of the European Parliament on September 16, she conceded that the last six months of the coronavirus pandemic have “showed us just how fragile our community of values really is,” but stressed that she believes that now is “the moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality.”

Von der Leyen used her first State of the European Union Address to push European leaders to “make change happen by design—not by disaster or by diktat from others in the world.” She outlined plans to strengthen the EU’s collective response to the coronavirus pandemic; improve worker protections and “set up a framework for minimum wages”; focus on developing Europe’s data protections, artificial intelligence technology, and digital infrastructure; and shoring up the Union’s common approach to solving the migration crisis.

Von der Leyen put special emphasis on the pursuit of the European Green Deal, proposing the Union’s 2030 target for emissions reduction be increased from 40 to 55 percent and announcing that 30 percent of the €750 billion Next Generation EU budget be raised by green bonds. The Commission president also implored member states to “take clear position and quick actions on global affairs,” reporting that she will put forth a proposal for a European Magnitsky Act to streamline the EU’s ability to implement human rights sanctions. She also emphasized Brussels’ support for the people of Belarus against dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka, condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, and maintained that the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement cannot be changed, despite Britain’s wishes.

Atlantic Council experts react to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s speech and its implications for future EU policy:

Richard Morningstar: Washington and Brussels must work together to restore trust.

Daniel Fried: Tough language on Russia suggests harder EU line.

Olivier-Rémy Bel: How to talk about strategic autonomy without mentioning it.

Lee Beck: EU climate innovation will be important for the entire globe.

Irina Markina: Drive for climate neutrality opens avenues for transatlantic cooperation.

Olga Khakova: Europe needs to remember energy security as it embarks on green transformation.

Washington and Brussels must work together to restore trust.

“In her State of the Union address, EU Commission President von der Leyen presented a wide-ranging vision of the future of Europe and how the EU must work to meet current and future challenges both globally and within Europe. She stressed the importance of the transatlantic relationship. She said that in spite of recent disagreements “we will always cherish the transatlantic alliance—based on shared values and history, and an unbreakable bond between our people.” It is imperative that the United States regard the president’s statements as an invitation, whatever happens in November, to work with the EU to restore trust to the relationship. The United States and the EU must work together on the myriad of issues critical to both and to the rest of the world.”

Richard L. Morningstar, founding chairman of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, former US ambassador to the European Union, and former US ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Tough language on Russia suggest harder EU line.

“Von der Leyen’s announcement that the Commission will propose a European Magnitsky Act is a welcome step, and I hope and suspect that it will be a proposal for a “Global Magnitsky” with broad application rather limited to human rights abuses only in Russia. Should the EU adopt its own GloMag, a next good step could be for the United States, UK, Canada, and other democracies with such programs to consult and coordinate their human rights sanctions.

“Von der Leyen’s language in support of the people of Belarus was good, though it would have been even better had she announced the first tranche of EU sanctions against Lukashenka’s officials responsible for recent abuses or been clearer that these are coming.

“Her references “to those advocating closer ties with Russia” were striking and suggested a harder EU line, at least from the Commission, on Russian President Vladimir Putin. She termed the attempted assassination of Navalny “not a one off,” but part of pattern of Kremlin aggression, including its armed attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, bloody military intervention in support of Bashar al Assad in Syria after 2015, the attempted assassination Sergey Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, and election meddling around the world. Then, in language I suspect intended to be heard in the Kremlin, she brought up Nord Stream II: “This pattern (of Kremlin aggression) is not changing—and no pipeline will change that.” That appears to be a smack down of the fraying but still extant argument that commerce and especially energy deals are essential to bridge building with the Kremlin and thus must not be questioned. This is not a definite signal that the EU will seek to block the pipeline but shows how much damage the Navalny attempted assassination has done to the Kremlin’s standing in Europe.

“The Trump administration could, and a Biden administration probably would, use this sign of toughening European thinking about Putin to develop strong common approaches.”

Daniel Fried, Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Poland.

How to talk about strategic autonomy without mentioning it. 

“Ursula von der Leyen’s first State of the Union address comes in challenging times, months into a disruptive pandemic marked by China’s assertiveness and weeks before a high-stakes US election.  

“After years spent debating the meaning of “European strategic autonomy” and “Europe’s sovereignty,” it is striking that those very words are absent from the speech. “Autonomy” does not feature at all, “strategic” appears once (in relation to the strategic stockpiling of medical supplies) and “sovereignty” only three times. 

“And yet von der Leyen’s speech is a good demonstration of what a sovereign, self-confident Europe could look like. She addresses the need for the EU to protect its citizens from a deadly virus and from economic recession. She puts forward a forceful green agenda and lays out ambitious plans for innovation and what she names “Europe’s speech digital decade.” Looking outwards, she calls for a European Magnitsky Act, supports the people of Belarus as well as Greece and Cyprus, reaffirms the EU’s commitment to transatlantic relations, and recalls the importance of working in a multilateral framework. She ends her speech by addressing the issue of European values, conjuring the words of John Hume: “Difference is the essence of humanity.” 

“This raises interesting questions: are “strategic autonomy” and “sovereignty” becoming too loaded to be useful concepts? Or is it simply time for Europeans to lay theological naming debates to rest and show what they intend to do? Is that von der Leyen’s approach here?”

Olivier-Rémy Bel, visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council

EU climate innovation will be important for the entire globe.

“In her speech, President von der Leyen announced that the European Commission is proposing to increase EU emissions reductions goals to 55 percent by 2030. Boosting EU climate ambition is a welcome step, for the sooner we can reduce emissions, the better our chance at fending off the worst effects of climate change.

“President von der Leyen made clear that innovation of policy and technology alike will form the foundation of the EU’s climate leadership and pathway to climate neutrality. EU innovation does not just benefit the EU-27 alone, it’s vital for creating policy blueprints for other countries to follow and enhancing technology availability globally. It is also a platform for transatlantic cooperation. Investment in industrial innovation such as hydrogen, carbon capture, as well as clean steel and cement, will be key to addressing emissions head on from a sector that has remained a global climate blind spot on both sides of the Atlantic. From a policy innovation perspective, a carbon border adjustment mechanism could also become a catalyst for emissions reductions among the EU’s trading partners establishing low-carbon trade corridors.

“One aspect that will be exceptionally important and might as well determine the success of the transition to climate neutrality altogether, and that President von der Leyen alluded to, will be making sure that no region is left behind and social and economic concerns of the transition are addressed, allowing for an equitable transition. Embracing an all-of-the-above energy transition enabling a diversity of technology pathways can contribute to alleviating these tensions, while also future-proofing productive industries.”

Lee Beck is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and the Clean Air Task Force’s Director for CCUS Policy Innovation. 

Drive for climate neutrality opens avenues for transatlantic cooperation.

“European Commission President von der Leyen shared an ambitious vision for Europe’s path to climate neutrality by mid-century and she proposed to increase the 2030 target for greenhouse gas emission reduction to at least 55 percent. Achieving this target allows Europe to meets its Paris Agreement obligations aimed at keeping the global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Implementation of the new target will be a major undertaking requiring a revision of the climate and energy legislation, and review of the European Emissions Trading System and energy taxation. The proposal already comes on the heals of the major clean energy package, a set of eight legislative acts on the energy performance of buildings, renewable energy, energy efficiency, governance, and a new European electricity market design, that were just completed last year. President von der Leyen placed a strong emphasis on utilizing the historic recovery funding, the Next Generation EU, for scaling up the clean hydrogen economy, energy efficiency in the building sector, and clean electric mobility. 37 percent of the stimulus will be dedicated to the European Green Deal objectives and 30 percent of the recovery funds will be raised through the green bonds.

“This opens a gamut of avenues for transatlantic energy cooperation on advancing the renewable energy and advanced energy technology deployment (such as clean hydrogen and CCUS). As ESG metrics grows in importance in the US corporate world, there is an opportunity for jointly working on sustainable finance and mobilizing private capital towards environmentally sustainable investments. 170 CEOs across Europe had written to President von der Leyen asking to increase the EU’s 2030 climate target and help to focus transition efforts from now until 2050. Two days later, a CEO-led Business Roundtable, one of the major business groups in the United States, called for putting a price on carbon as well as preserving competitiveness through “rebates, allowances, and/or border adjustments to mitigate unique risks of carbon leakage in energy-intensive and trade-exposed sectors.” Preventing the worst effects of climate change depends on all countries stepping up their efforts since the EU accounts for only 9 percent of the global emissions. The carbon border adjustment mechanism under discussion in the EU, could become a fruitful ground for dialogue on addressing carbon leakage from other major global emitters.”

Irina Markina, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and serves as senior energy advisor at the European Union Delegation to the United States, based in Washington, DC.

Europe needs to remember energy security as it embarks on green transformation.

“While the speech did not explicitly mention the state of European energy security, it’s fair to deduce that the EU plans to strengthen its energy security through its decarbonization strategy. The deployment of clean energy technologies in the EU will reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels and improve EU’s energy self-sufficiency.

“Nonetheless, it’s crucial that the EU does not lose sight of energy security when implementing unprecedented changes to its energy systems, including the phase out of coal (and in some EU countries the phase out of nuclear generation); the ramp up of renewable energy capacity; and the implementation of the carbon border adjustment mechanism—which was mentioned in the speech. Transatlantic cooperation will be of great value during these transformations, especially in the deployment of new technologies and in the establishment of transparent, standardized, and verifiable metrics for the carbon border tax. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recognized the importance of transatlantic alliance in her remarks, and that the EU is “ready to build a new transatlantic agenda.” Reinvigorated work on energy security can be the catalyst to bring this new agenda to life.”

Olga Khakova, associate director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

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