EU dispatch: European Commission president stresses support for Ukraine, energy challenges in 2022 ‘State of the Union’
© European Commission
EU dispatch: European Commission president stresses support for Ukraine, energy challenges in 2022 ‘State of the Union’

Law students from the European Union are reporting for JURIST on law-related events in and affecting the European Union and its member states. Here Luisa Gambs, a German law student at the University of Augsburg, reports on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recent State of the Union address to the European Parliament.  This year Luisa is doing her LL.M. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. 

Last Wednesday, September 14th, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Brussels. The dominating topic of the address was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences for the EU. Not for the first time, von der Leyen gave her speech mainly in English, with parts in French and German.

President von der Leyen started her speech by greeting the members of the European Parliament along with Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska, who attended the speech as a guest of honor. Von der Leyen praised both the courageous action of the First Lady and of the Ukrainian people in defending democracy against autocracy. But she also praised the inner strength of the European Union which “as a whole has risen to the occasion” and supported Ukraine. She loudly praised the EU’s unified stance on the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. Von der Leyen also mentioned the strong EU sanctions on Russia which have a damaging effect on the Russian economy and armed forces and used the opportunity “to make it very clear, the sanctions are here to stay”.

She talked about how close the EU and Ukraine had grown since the invasion: how Ukraine is now connected to the EU electricity net, how important customs duties had been suspended, and she stressed the EU’s promise that “we will bring Ukraine into our European free roaming area”, making it a member of the Single Market. In the long-term there are plans for Ukraine joining the European Union in total.

The consequences of the Russian invasion in conjunction with the consequences of the climate crisis for the European Countries were also addressed: the president promised to end dependency on Russian energy, proposed “a cap on the revenues of companies that produce electricity at a low cost” to end the high influence of gas prices on electricity bills, and committed to invest in renewable energy – not only wind and solar energy but also hydrogen power.

Von der Leyen further acknowledged that a shortage of skilled workers poses a danger for European businesses. She promised to invest in education and further training, and said that member states would acknowledge each other’s degrees faster and easier.

She also promised to reduce European dependency on China for rare earth metals, especially lithium, by cooperating closer especially with Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and India, and by adopting the European Critical Raw Materials Act.

Von der Leyen further promised to “the people of the Western Balkans, of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia” a future within the Union, calling them a “part of our family”.

Von der Leyen ended her speech with promises of a legislature to reduce corruption within the Union and a call for a European Convention.

One of the most criticized aspects of the address is that while acknowledging errors in the past of cooperating with Putin, the Union now turns towards Azerbaijan as a natural gas supplier, even though the country currently invades Armenia much the same as Russia does with Ukraine, and is even worse on the democracy index than the Russian regime. While the people of all member states suffer the repercussions of high energy bills, not all are in favor of partnering with such regimes. At the same time, the alternative of buying fracking gas from North America is widely controversial due to its environmental impact.

Another difficult point is von der Leyen’s plan to get 140 billion Euros by capping the profits of energy companies. The general idea is widely supported by a European population dreading the incredibly high energy bills to come, but von der Leyen did not specify how that will be done in a way that is fair and – most importantly – in accordance with the companies’ rights. Some individual countries like Italy have already taken actions like that, but have been forced to backtrack due to lawsuits by the companies.

Still, emphasis on the EU’s unity in response to global crises is something people like to hear, and the promise of reducing corruption is also welcome, but the population remains skeptical. Governments of all kinds have promised to support Green Energy, to end dependencies on autocratic regimes and to fulfill transparency requests for years with only slow progress following. The topic most important to many European citizens right now is not the promise of more solar energy in a few years but the fear of being unable to heat their homes in winter and suffering a “great depression” due to high energy prices. Ursula von der Leyen’s speech did not do a lot to fight those fears.