Set-piece speeches are the political equivalent of eating a packet of biscuits in one sitting: it feels good at the time, but you feel hungry and bloated an hour later. Ursula von der Leyen’s Wednesday State of the Union speech was a case in point.
It was not bad, as such, but this was a speech that promised much – and delivered relatively little.
With Europe facing significant energy and cost of living crises, not to mention the more existential threats posed by a war on its eastern border, this was a missed opportunity for those searching for a display of ambitious and decisive EU leadership to help them through the challenging year ahead.
Critics will point to what the Commission president did not mention: digital policy, European defence, and food security, the latter two being particularly glaring omissions considering their importance in the wake of the Ukraine war.
But the lack of ambition or detail on the commitments she did make is just as concerning.
Von der Leyen referred to “a watershed moment in global politics”, mentioning the need to increase the pace of enlargement for the Western Balkans and eastern partnership countries, and giving her support for a European Political Community, the idea of Emmanuel Macron. But there was no mention of the next steps toward these aims.
Defence policy or how to improve the functioning of EU foreign policy, both vital to von der Leyen’s promise of ‘a geopolitical Commission’, were not mentioned.
Similarly, while she supported a European Convention that would reform the treaties, von der Leyen offered no idea or detail on what that might entail beyond a vague call for “solidarity between generations” as a principle to be enshrined.
Again, that is all very well and good, but if that is the extent of her ambitions on EU reform, then we may as well not bother. Perhaps von der Leyen calculates that the dozen or so national governments that oppose treaty change need to be won over gently.
Similarly, the follow-up to the 49 recommendations made by the much-talked-about but now largely forgotten Conference on the Future of Europe was boiled down to an initiative on mental health.
Worthy enough, and important considering that Europe faces its own mental health pandemic following COVID-19, but health policy is almost exclusively a national competence. It is hard to see what the Commission could usefully propose to do.
Journalists and think-tankers pore over leaders’ speeches, but in the real world, few people outside Washington DC remember a US president’s State of the Union. The same is true in Brussels.
In normal times, that should not matter. But Ursula von der Leyen’s flatness and lack of ambition shown as millions of Europeans prepare to struggle to pay for their food and heating should concern people outside the Brussels bubble.
This was a missed opportunity.
Repubished with permission from Exit’s media partner EURACTIV.