In the opening words of her State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rightly pointed out the need for institutions to “[earn] the trust of Europeans to deal with their aspirations and anxieties.” However, what followed did not explain how to achieve that goal. Four years into this Commission’s term, the speech offered almost no policies to address underlying problems, instead asking merely for a bunch of reports on persistent and well-known issues.
Indeed, over the course of an hour, we heard about a range of topics, from climate to competitiveness, from gender equality to enlargement and geopolitics and from migration to labour.
Claiming to put social dialogue at the heart of EU’s future is a laudable goal, in particular if the aim is to ensure that economy works for the people, and not the other way around. We are in a Europe with tens of millions of low-paid and precarious jobs “waiting for people”, hospitals lacking nurses and young people struggling to reach their goals. A summit at Val Duchesse, as historic as it may be, will not replace a permanent and accountable social and policy dialogue. It will not answer the well-known detrimental consequences of the lack of a coordinated approach to deal at the national level with the social consequences of the economic and monetary decisions taken at the EU level.
The issue of EU enlargement was an important part of her speech and was one of the few sections that contained concrete policy announcements, in this case that the Rule of Law reports will be extended to candidate countries. At ECF, we’re pleased to see the Commission applying the same monitoring tool to countries inside and outside the EU – at least in this area. After all, we unfortunately share so many of the same problems. But civic actors in candidate countries will need to manage expectations, as the EU Rule of Law process is narrow in scope and appears to be weak in its recommendations.
People from candidate states would expect these EU processes to help their countries secure strong democratic institutions and processes and enjoy civil liberties and shared benefits from economic development. It is concerning, therefore, that President von der Leyen centred the justification for enlargement as follows: “In a world where size and weight matters (…) it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interests to complete our Union.” We hope that this geopolitical motivation does not stop the Commission from ensuring that enlargement delivers for the people – something not given enough attention in the last round of enlargement, with long-term negative consequences.
Throughout the speech the same pattern was repeated: identifying major issues without offering concrete policies to address them and most often even not mentioning the human elements at stake. For example, President von der Leyen was right to speak about the climate crisis and to urge a “fair and just transition” that leaves “no one behind”. But those lines rang hollow when she went on to emphasise above all the need to support industry and boost “competitiveness”. Similarly, we heard about the economy and the dangers of inflation – but nothing about the cost-of-living crisis and the damage that it continues to cause to so many in our society.
On migration, she made a connection with the labour shortages and spoke of demographic necessity. But proposing to address Europe’s issue with a brain drain of qualified migrants from abroad is not the answer. How does this connect with co-development, sharing benefits of a globalised world? Even worse, she spoke of “striking a new balance” between “protecting borders and protecting people, […] between sovereignty and solidarity, […] between “security and humanity.” Let’s be clear: there is no balance to be struck. People and humanity come first!
Finally, it is deeply worrying that organised civil society was not mentioned in this year’s address. To develop policies that deliver on people’s needs, to defend democracy and yes, to earn the trust of the people, institutions need to develop a strong dialogue with social and civic partners. This is the only way to answer people’s aspirations and anxieties, and to build inclusive societies that leave no one behind.