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Von der Leyen flexes green business muscles before EU polls

Ella Joyner in Strasbourg, France
September 13, 2023

Ursula von der Leyen used the biggest speech in the EU calendar to go to bat for green industry, sounding like a European Commission president with an eye on a second term. Some listeners missed new climate ambitions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her annual speech on the state of the European Union
Von der Leyen was mindful of her center-right critics during her speech in StrasbourgImage: Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo/picture alliance

It is hardly a glamorous occasion, but in EU politics the European Commission president's traditional State of the European Union (SOTEU) address still comes with a sense of excitement when it rolls around each September.

This year, Ursula von der Leyen's words in Strasbourg were closely watched for clues on whether she intends to stand for a second term leading the EU executive ahead of bloc-wide elections and the changeover of the commission's top brass in 2024.

Speaking at the European Parliament on Wednesday, the German conservative avoided directly mentioning the question, but her forward-looking, legacy-affirming speech suggested she may well hope to stay on until 2029.

First of all, some pats on the back

The 64-year-old took a few victory laps for her major achievements and the various crises she has steered the EU through in her first four years in office: Green Deal laws to make the bloc "climate neutral" by 2050, the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and solidarity with Ukraine following Russia's full-scale invasion. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in front of an EU flag
Von der Leyen appeared energetic and seemed intent on keeping her speech future-facingImage: REUTERS

"When I stood in front of you in 2019 with my program for a green, digital and geopolitical Europe, I know that some had doubts," she told the chamber. "And that was before the world turned upside down with a global pandemic and a brutal war on European soil.

"But look at where Europe is today. We have seen the birth of a geopolitical union," she said, touting the bloc's growing foreign policy coordination under her stewardship.

Pivoting to business credentials

Von der Leyen's hourlong speech was notably heavy on the economy, particularly stressing the need to protect and nourish industries that are key to the EU executive branch's vision for a climate-neutral European Union.

"The European Green Deal was our answer to the call of history," she said. "It was also designed as an opportunity to preserve our future prosperity.

"From wind to steel, from batteries to electric vehicles, our ambition is crystal clear: the future of our clean tech industry has to be made in Europe," she said.

People look at a hybrid car at a trade fair in China
The EU will probe Chinese electric vehicle subsidies, von der Leyen announcedImage: HPIC/dpa/picture alliance

The top EU official repeatedly mentioned China and announced an investigation into subsidies of electric vehicles imported from the Asian country.

"Global markets are now flooded with cheaper Chinese electric cars, and their price is kept artificially low by huge state subsidies," she said. 

Keeping her political frenemies happy

Von der Leyen has political reasons to focus on the economy and to frame her green policies as an opportunity for business. Her own European People's Party parliamentary group, led by fellow German Christian Democrat Manfred Weber, rebelled against one of her policies — the nature restoration law. Weber and his backers claimed the proposed law would be disastrous for farmers.

In light of the business-minded center-right's concerns about balancing competitiveness with the climate, it made sense to position herself in Wednesday's speech as a backer of sustainable industry while still underlining her climate politics to please the left.

French climate activists and farmers demonstrate in front of the European Parliament with Greta Thunberg
The nature restoration law, backed by Greta Thunberg, passed narrowly despite the EPP oppositionImage: GREENS/EFA GROUP via REUTERS

But did it work? Weber praised her focus on business. "This week, the European Commission lowered the economic outlook and inflation is hitting all Europeans hard, the poorest even harder. That's the biggest social question today," he said in the debate following the speech.

In 2019, von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, was appointed Commission president in a backroom deal among member states after they refused the candidates who had campaigned in EU elections.

The question, therefore, is not just whether von der Leyen will throw her hat in the ring to lead the EU until 2029, but whether she would campaign as the head of the EPP in coming EU polls set for June next year.

Dropping the ball on the climate, cost of living?

The SOTEU was first held in 2010, inspired by the high-profile annual address made by US presidents — though hardly comparable in terms of public attention or pomp. Nonetheless, it offers the Commission president a chance to make key pitches, tout big wins or unveil new initiatives.

In previous years, von der Leyen always made sure to have a few choice announcements up her sleeve. But with her time in office drawing to a close, she didn't really have any major bones to throw this time round.

German Greens EU parliamentarian Terry Reintke also told DW she was concerned von der Leyen might back off on environmental protection measures, pointing to the absence of new initiatives in the speech. 

"Are we at a stage where there is just implementation of what has already been decided? Or is the Commission also ready to propose something other than organizing conferences?" Reintke asked.

The center-left Socialist group as well as the Left group also lamented the total lack of attention given to the soaring price of housing and basic supplies like food in the EU.

"There is a big silence in this speech," Socialists group vice-chair Pedro Marques, of Portugal, stressed to DW. "The absence of measures, or even a vision of concrete measures for those that are suffering in Europe from this cost of living crisis."

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Economy overtakes Ukraine in attention hierarchy

Perhaps the most notable difference from the last SOTEU was the change in air time given to the war in Ukraine. The absolute headline topic in 2022, von der Leyen had no new major announcements for Kyiv on Wednesday, and the war in Ukraine was only addressed in-depth well over halfway into the speech.

She assured Ukraine and other accession candidate countries that their future was in the EU provided they met all the necessary criteria. The EU could function with 30 or more member states, if it could function with 27, she said., adding that "with every enlargement, those who said it would make us less efficient were proven wrong."

At least one observer, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, was impressed with von der Leyen's performance — perhaps unsurprisingly given that she also hails from the EPP.

"I think it was an excellent address," Metsola told DW. Asked if she would support a second term for von der Leyen, Metsola said, "Absolutely, I think she has been an excellent president."

Alexandra von Nahmen contributed to reporting for this piece.

Edited by: Sean Sinico