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The 4 persistent problems dogging the EU

September 14, 2021

Each year, the European Commission takes stock of the state of the EU, and the president delivers a speech to parliament. The main issues this year are the same as in 2020. Bernd Riegert has an overview from Brussels.

Various flags in front of the European Parliament in Strasburg
The EU continues to face challenges — and they are much the same as last year'sImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. von Ditfurth

The findings of a recent Eurobarometer survey, commissioned by the European Union itself, are clear: Citizens in the bloc believe that the main issues it should be addressing are climate change, the COVID pandemic, health care, the economic situation and social inequality. DW explains the issues in more detail. 

Ursula von der Leyen delivers her first State of the European Union address
Last year, Ursula von der Leyen delivered her address to an empty room because of the pandemicImage: Reuters/Y. Herman


There are now enough COVID-19 vaccines in Europe, but — as the fall rapidly approaches — the vaccination rate is still too low. The goal of ensuring that 70% of adults were vaccinated has been achieved, but this is not enough in view of the highly contagious delta variant. Moreover, vaccination rates vary widely among EU member states, from only 20% in Bulgaria to almost 90% in Malta.

The European Commission will have to work on this in the coming months, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told DW. Von der Leyen has already launched a new EU agency, the European Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA), that will aim to better anticipate and control epidemics in future. It will attempt to restrict the current uncoordinated approach in which the 27 member states all apply different standards and measures.

 Children wearing masks in a classroom
Ensuring the safety of children at school is just one of the problems posed by the pandemicImage: INA FASSBENDER/AFP


One direct consequence of the pandemic has been an unprecedented slump in the economy, which Ursula von der Leyen plans to counter with an equally unprecedented reconstruction program. Rolling out the €750 billion ($886 billion) recovery fund, which will be funded by joint debt for the first time, will be the focus of EU economic policy for some years to come.

With a majority of EU citizens claiming to have suffered economic losses as a result of the pandemic, expectations of the EU and this recovery program are high. But it also carries risks, as member states will incur more debt and inflation will rise with higher demand. The debate about how to deal with this sharp increase in debt in all member states has already begun.

Climate change

The Commission wants a large part of the money from the recovery fund to go towards "green" investments. The idea is that the EU's "Green Deal" will turn Europe into the first climate-neutral continent without significant CO2 emissions by 2050. Ursula von der Leyen has been able to push through this ambitious goal. Now, the task is to implement the transition to renewables, electromobility and modern digital jobs with a whole raft of laws and measures. It is still unclear to what extent each member state will have to cut harmful gases and how the targets will be achieved.

Steam from a coal mine next to a wind turbine
One of the most pressing challenges is the transition to renewable energyImage: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild


Divisive forces within the EU are increasing. More and more, the Polish and Hungarian governments are resisting the attempts of the Commission and European Court of Justice to prevent the erosion of the rule of law in their countries.

Not all member states seem to have the same perception of what constitutes European values and fundamental rights. This is particularly evident in the increasingly homophobic policies of Poland, Hungary and certain other newer member states.

The question of EU solidarity with regard to migration also remains unresolved. Across the bloc, societies are deeply divided by how to deal with migrants and asylum-seekers, a rising number of whom are likely to be coming from Afghanistan in future.

The Commission has abandoned all hope of a distribution mechanism and instead is focusing more on sealing external borders and preventing immigration. It remains to be seen what new proposals Ursula von der Leyen can make in this regard, but at least she will be able to refer to the "Conference on the Future of Europe," which is already underway with the participation of normal citizens and is set to present its results in spring 2022.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki
Brussels is locked in an ongoing row over rule of law with Hungary and PolandImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/dpa/picture alliance

From the top again

Comparing the issues this September with those discussed last year in Ursula von der Leyen's first State of the Union speech, it would seem that they are practically identical and the problems are just as huge. But the Commission president will try to present the steps that have now been taken to establish a climate policy, create the recovery fund and promote the digitalization of the economy as pathways to a better future.

Her speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday morning will be followed by an extensive debate, kicking off the political season in both Strasbourg and Brussels after the summer break. However, there will be no real progress on legislation until the election is over in Germany, the bloc's largest member state, and a workable coalition government is in place.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union