On September 16, 2020, the President of the European Commission delivered the State of the Union address, the leitmotiv of which was to move the European Union from fragility to viability. While much of what she said was right, von der Leyen’s remedies might be nothing but wishful thinking – or too ideology-saturated – to offer an efficient solution to the problems.
Author: Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse
The Commission president gave her emotion-imbued speech in the European Parliament (EP). The institution is specific as it is more and more taking extreme political stances while being subject to the fervent election competition. At the same time, it is overwhelmingly influenced by both left-wing and liberal milieux, whose members made their political ideas the sole weapon to protect Europe from falling apart. That is why Eurosceptic, nationalist, and populist movements come under fire there, with this criticism being visible even among the Christian Democrats who represented a top political grouping in the Parliament. Such was the case of some member parties of the European People’s Party. Here, the European Parliament seems to hold a scarcer interest in the strategy and pragmatic actions while being far more involved in waving ideological disputes and political marketing.
European Health Union
The European Commission believes that centralizing power into Brussels’s hands is the remedy for the problems that are grappling the bloc. As the pandemic turned out as a huge challenge for Europe, Ursula von der Leyen suggested a number of EU-wide measures, collectively named the European Health Union. The top EU official was aware of its being incompatible with how competencies are divided under EU treaties; hence she suggested that the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe change the whole situation, thus handing more powers to the Commission at the expense of EU member states. Von der Leyen’s statement might once again stir a Europe-wide debate over whether the bloc shall serve a subsidiary (auxiliary) role in the health crisis, and thus back its member states, or whether to make Brussels take a firm grip on power by forcing national governments to adopt anti-crisis measures. In November, Commissioner Stella Kyriakides proposed, among other things, that the Commission should monitor national pandemic prevention plans, as well as the possibility for EU agencies to propose recommendations to Member States with regard to healthcare. All this exceeds the Commission’s subsidiary role, and, in fact, interferes with the competences of the member states. Furthermore, the bold health policy agenda of the European Commission might see some financial curbs under the future multi-annual budget adopted at the July summit.
The President of the European Commission urged to deepen the four freedoms and strengthen the Schengen area. Just to recall here that German officials were among those voicing concern over closing the bloc’s internal borders as the pandemic gained momentum across the continent. In turn, concern for the four treaty freedoms in the internal market was expressed by politicians from Central Europe, including Poland. Von der Leyen also announced steps to finish eurozone reforms. There are some strains between EU member states on all the issues above, which might make the Commission’s declarations tough to push through.
Another step to remedy the EU situation was to be a visionary climate policy – packed with both emotions and ideas on sustainability. Von der Leyen proposed to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%, down from 40%. But even these grandiose goals received criticism, some Green MEPs calling to raise the bar much higher and demanding a 65% cut in greenhouse gas emissions. In October 2020, the European Parliament called the bloc’s member states to adopt a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This exhibits a firm ideological approach that some members of the European Parliament adopted on climate protection that yet did not include how much this eventually might cost. What might stop this vision is resistance – both internal and external. On the one hand, at the European Council summit in July 2020, European officials decided to cut financial aid for the regional energy transition, which means a reduction in EU financial assistance to European regions that bear the greatest costs of the climate transition. On the other, though, the prospect of introducing an EU carbon border tax levied on goods from outside the EU’s territory might spark hostile reactions from the bloc’s biggest trading partners.
Another facet of the EU’s economic recovery is its wide digital scheme embracing both the bloc’s data collection systems and research on artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies. The Commission intended to hand the collected data on consumers and citizens in Europe to multinationals and researchers, adding that “80% of industrial data is still collected and never used.” Is the European Union able to ensure the protection of both personal and sensitive data, also that of a person’s medical history? This is the more so that the Commission set the goal of developing an EU-wide digital identity framework for anyone living on the continent. The President of the European Commission sees the digital as a solution to better control online content, also to eliminate what is known as hate speech, something that raised serious concerns about the excessive control of democracy by European officials. This might also be used to curb critical voices on new European policies put forward by the Commission. Thus, an economic development project may also bring about vital political goals that may seek to restrict the democratic debate on public affairs on the pretense of introducing new digital solutions.
What is another mission of the Commission – shared by both German and French diplomats – was to offer more possibilities of the qualified majority voting in any issues of foreign policy. The pretext for reviving the discussion was rather symbolic sanctions on the Belarusian regime, initially vetoed by Greece, and then Cyprus. Although the majority voting in the Council may enhance the EU’s actions abroad, it comes first and foremost in line with the interests of the bloc’s biggest countries. Nonetheless, this is why smaller countries might find it challenging to accept, especially if they grasp some strategic situations differently – as Warsaw and Berlin tend to do, for instance.
The top reason for the EU’s wariness over the Belarusian crisis, and then social unrest following the rigged presidential vote, was yet not the stance adopted by Greece and Cyprus. Western European elites were fearful of a Russian response to a more determined position of the West. It was not merely since the leading EU states – notably France and Germany – hoped to cement geopolitical and economic ties with Moscow, and they certainly did not want to jeopardize their economic interests in relations with Russia. Equally important was the fear that the crisis might exacerbate to the point it did in Ukraine a few years ago when Western support for people gathered at the Euromaidan and escalating political events then led to Russia’s armed intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Thus, in the early days of the Belarusian crisis, both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron were in talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, perhaps to prevent military intervention in Belarus, also in the desire to make Russia exert influence on Alexander Lukashenko to stop repression and start a dialogue with Belarusian society. What is not without significance for Western European leaders was their fear that the unrest could – at least to some extended – be stirred up by Vladimir Putin to permanently cut the Belarusian regime off from the West, also to force Lukashenko to become closer to Russia. Fears mounted that a fragile relationship between the European Union and Belarus might further weaken while paving Putin’s way for establishing a common Union State of Belarus and Russia.
Also, von der Leyen called on EU member states to adopt a more consistent foreign policy on Russia, pointing out that the Kremlin will not change its behaviors over plans to build energy pipelines running between the EU and Russia – as the Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, intervention in the Syrian civil war, and the series of nerve agent attacks show. In this way, the Commission president watered-down arguments raised by some German politicians who claimed the expansion of economic relations serves to improve democratic standards and the promotion of European values. It seems, however, that Germany is not likely to revise its policy in this respect.
The President of the European Commission branded China “an economic competitor and a systemic rival” of the European Union. She also expected China to live up to its climate commitments, an issue being of top importance for equaling the competitiveness of the European Union production and that of the Middle Kingdom. This comes the more so that the European Union was imposing more and more ambitious climate targets. Furthermore, von der Leyen called China out over Hong Kong and its treatment of minority Uighurs. As it once again turned out, EU member states are pushing some uncomfortable global issues onto representatives of EU bodies while seeking to secure the best possible ties with Beijing. For instance, Charles Michel recently said that with Washington’s growing rivalry with Beijing, the European Union was deeply connected with the United States. “We share ideals, values, and a mutual affection that have been strengthened through the trials of history,” he added. Nonetheless, the past few months showed EU states being at odds with the United States in 2020 over a number of issues, which gives an insight into how declarations from European officials might differ from their actual political deeds.
Recent months brought new strains between the European Union and some countries from outside the bloc – the United Kingdom, the United States, China, and Turkey. Sanctions against Russia were still in force while the European Union was considering new measures over the nerve agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Sergey Lavrov even said that relations between Russia and the European Union were rapidly deteriorating. In her State of the Union address, the President of the European Commission noted the EU’s crumbling ties with the outside, notably its closest partners. Yet, her declarations to redefine transatlantic relations may face implementation difficulties, even with the new Democratic administration in the US. The same was true of her assurances to regulate those with the United Kingdom that worsened sharply in the fall of 2020.
The EU Commission chief backed a human approach to the migration policy while very strongly condemning racism in the European Union. Subordinating the EU’s migration policy to combatting racism sought to settle hash all those being against admitting migrants into EU countries or questioning permanent relocation schemes. But will making the migration policy an ideological matter, by subordinating it to universal human rights, increase the problem-solving efficiency, notably for those issues resulting from excessive migration and assimilation difficulties? It is worth adding that a large group of immigrants did not share the left-wing interpretation of European values – like those on the rights of sexual minorities, as state secularism, and the separation of religion and public affairs. French scholars – who keep a watchful eye on some disturbing changes in social fabric influenced by non-European migration – argue that it is impossible to admit too many people having a totally different cultural background without imperiling own culture. French President Emmanuel Macron was helpless while fighting against radical Islam, a movement that rejected the values of a secular republic when even seeking to change France’s systemic order and political values. Thus, Macron took a legislative initiative to curb the influence of radical Islam in France, focusing on limiting foreign influence in the country.
In late September, the Commission put forward a new set of measures to respond to the migration crisis. Its advantage was the strengthening of the EU external border protection allowing for non-asylum returns more effectively. However, many pointed out that the Commission gave up its idea of establishing immigrant-processing centers outside the EU. At the same time, EU officials planned a set of measures to hand in powers to EU institutions, a move related to implementing the integrated border procedure – such as granting asylum or deciding to return migrants to their countries. The Commission has increasingly interfered with member states’ competences in the field of migration policy, including the launch of legal immigration schemes to the EU and talent pool partnerships outside the bloc. The Commission insisted on compulsory solidarity between EU member states that have the choice between relocating asylum seekers and shouldering responsibility for illegal migrants returning to their home countries. In a crisis, however, the Commission was due to enforce solidarity schemes far more rigorously.
The EU Council is likely to see tough negotiations while discussing these measures. Sending illegal migrants back to their countries was both extremely challenging and requires lengthy legal procedures, as evidenced by the fact that only 20% of deportations proved effective. This means that mostly the task could end up with forced relocation of migrants across the bloc. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe found this difficult to accept – a fresh opening in the Commission’s migration policy was thus more of a negotiation and marketing trick rather than a new approach to the migration crisis. Furthermore, declarations on a stronger sealing of the EU’s external borders are contradictory to a humanitarian attitude toward immigrants and bigger accessibility of Greek and Italian ports to migrants found in the waters of the Mediterranean. “People who have the right to stay are integrated and made to feel welcome,” the President stressedin her address. The Commission also proposed to establish a European Border and Coast Guard to ensure management of the external borders, controlling whether the fundamental rights of immigrants were respected.
An additional challenge for the European Commission was the series of terrorist attacks in France and Austria in the fall of 2020. Following these attacks, Emmanuel Macron proposed another change in the migration policy of the EU, including an increase in control over the external borders of the Schengen area. By doing so, the French president made reference to the idea of protecting the EU’s borders, formulated from 2015 by the Visegrad countries. At the same time as the Commission called for the respect of humanitarian rights of illegal immigrants, Macron urged to tighten the borders of the Schengen area. The chairman of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, also argued with the new migration policy proposed by the Commission. He noted that people with no right for asylum and who cannot be returned home may have to be send to facilities outside Europe, an idea that echoes positions held by Visegrad countries and was completely omitted in the Commission’s proposal of its new migration policy. All this puts von der Leyen’s declarations from the State of the Union address a big question mark.
In her speech, Ursula von der Leyen placed an emphasis on ideological issues intertwined with European values. There, she decried LGBTQI-free zones while being in favor of financial sanctions imposed on anyone violating EU values. She also announced that the Commission would interfere in EU countries’ national competences, namely by promoting to recognize the rights of same-sex families across the EU – irrespectively of what local constitutions say in this respect. Thus, she suggested how the Commission might interpret the EU-wide rule of law. The question was not whether the national government respected its own constitution, but whether it obeyed the political values preferred by the Commission and the left-liberal elite of the European Parliament. In November 2020, the European Commission issued a strategy on supporting sexual minorities. As part of it, and in contravention of the division of powers between the member states and the EU in the European treaties, it promoted the recognition of marriages of same-sex couples as well as their children in all EU countries. Commissioner Helena Dalli announced financial sanctions against countries rejecting this European strategy as it would constitute, in her opinion, a violation of the rule of law.
Some scholars earlier argued that the Commission had no right to investigate the rule of law on fundamental rights and the quality of democracy in EU member states – as this restricts the sovereignty of national democracies. The Commission had no appropriate treaty basis to perform such tasks – as once reminded the Legal Service of the EU Council. Thus, the Commission is no longer an impartial arbiter in disputes between the bloc’s countries while becoming a party to the conflict defending some political ideas and visions of European integration.
However, will placing such a firm focus on ideological spats within the EU make the bloc more powerful or – just the opposite – will it make it even more fragile and unstable? As Chantal Delsol noted, subordinating EU public policies to ideology-imbued consideration makes it difficult to look for a pragmatic solution, and thus dooms Europe to further trouble. “We live in a fictional world: all commonsense reasoning that does not conform to a mandatory ideology is eliminated and is considered to be reactionary, outdated and dangerous, thus views that must be destroyed.”
An ideological feud over European values was supposed to defend the EU against falling apart, but instead, it stirred up political emotions first in the European Parliament, and then in the European Commission. EU institutions violated the autonomy of some countries while also encroaching into the competences of national democracies. The result was the eroded authority of the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as mounting Eurosceptic moods among right-wing voters. Excessive meddling by the EU institution into the state autonomy sparked disputes between member states that lost the sense of mutual trust and solidarity and saw fissures appearing between Central Europe and the northwestern part of the European Union. A surprising feature was no tolerance for political opponents, especially those from the bloc’s new member states. As one commentator put it, “the EU has been successful in creating a single market, a single currency and a passport-free travel zone. But it did not eradicate a false sense of moral superiority. That belief is a northern specialty.”
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 Remarks by Commissioner Stella Kyriakides at the press conference on Building a European Health Union, November 11, 2020, Brussels.
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 State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary, op. cit.
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See Benedyczak, J., Dyner, A. M., Belarus-Russia: Towards Gradual Integration, The Polish Institute of International Affairs, Bulletin no. 200 (1630), September 29, 2020.
Wirtschaftsminister Altmaier: “Ich bin nicht der Oberlehrer der Welt“, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, July 11, 2020, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/konjunktur/wirtschaftsminister-peter-altmaier-zu-china-corona -und-maskenpflicht-16855438.html [September 29, 2020].
See Michalski, A., Europeanization of National Foreign Policy: The Case of Denmark’s and Sweden’s Relations with China, Journal of Common Market Studies, 2013, 51(5), pp. 884–900.
 See D.M. Herszenhorn, In global power contest, Charles Michel says EU takes US over China, “Politico” September 25, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/in-global-power-contest-charles-michel-says-eu-takes-us-over-china/ [September 29, 2020].
Rosja kontra Unia Europejska. Jasny sygnał ze wschodu. “Relacje wyraźnie ulegają degradacji”, “Niezależna”, October 9, 2020, https://niezalezna.pl/356755-rosja-kontra-unia-europejska-jasny-sygnal-ze-wschodu-relacje-wyraznie-ulegaja-degradacji [October 29, 2020].
Delsol, Ch., La haine du monde, Warsaw 2017, p. 268.
 Momtaz, R., Macron vows to fight radical Islam with crackdown on foreign influence, “Politico”, October 2, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-france-islam-separatism/ [October 29, 2020].
A fresh start on migration: Building confidence and striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity, European Commission, Brussels, September 23, 2020.
Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic ‘oppose EU’s new migration pact, Euronews, September 24, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/09/24/hungary-poland-and-czech-republic-oppose-eu-s-new-migration-pact [September 29, 2020].
State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary, op. cit.
Barigazzi, J., 5 things to know about Brussels’ new migration plan, “Politico”, September 23, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/5-things-to-know-about-brussels-new-migration-plan/ [September 29, 2020].
 Union of Equality: LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020–2025, European Commission, COM(2020) 698 final, Brussels, November 12, 2020, pp. 16–17.
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G. Palombella, Beyond Legality – Before Democracy: Rule of Law Caveats in the EU Two-Level System, [In:] Reinforcing Rule of Law Oversight in the European Union, eds. C. Closa, D. Kochenov, Cambridge University Press Cambridge 2016; D. Kochenov, EU Enlargement and the Failure of Conditionality. Pre-Accession Conditional in the Fields of Democracy and the Rule of Law, Kluwer Law International, The Hague 2008.
Opinion of the Legal Service, Council of the EU, 10296/14, May 27 2014.
 Delsol, Ch., La haine du monde, op. cit., p. 268.
State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary, September 16, 2020, European Commission, Brussels.