Von der Leyen wants to make EU more agile

Ursula von der Leyen envisages major challenges ahead for the European Union. What ideas does the German EU commission president have in mind?

Ursula von der Leyen
picture alliance/dpa

Strasbourg (dpa) - In view of the coronavirus pandemic, the Afghanistan crisis and growing international rivalries, EU Commission President Ursula von Leyen wants to make the European Union significantly more resilient and able to act. "We are entering a new era of intensified competition," she said in this year's State of the Union address on Wednesday. Climate and economic leadership is central to Europe's global and security goals, she said. However, the European Defence Union is also needed.

Among other things, von der Leyen specifically announced her intention to boost the production of high-performance chips in Europe so as to eliminate dependence on Asian producers. "While demand has exploded worldwide, Europe's share within the overall value chain has diminished, from product design to manufacturing capacity," she criticised. That is why world-class research and development capacity must now be pooled and EU investment coordinated, she said. This is a question not only of our competitiveness, but also of technological sovereignty. From smartphones and electric scooters to trains or entire smart factories – there can be "no digital product without chips", said von der Leyen.

To prevent unfair competition from third countries, an EU-wide ban on products made with forced labour is to be introduced. "Human rights are not for sale – not for all the money in the world," the 62-year-old said. It is good to do business globally, she said, just as global trade is good and necessary. She believes that this should not happen at the expense of people's dignity and freedom, however – adding that around 25 million people are affected by forced labour.

Learning a lesson from the coronavirus pandemic, 50 billion euros are to be invested in preventive health care throughout the EU over the next six years. No virus should ever turn a local epidemic into a global pandemic again, believes von der Leyen. "There is no better way to invest our money." At the same time, the planned EU health crisis preparedness agency Hera should soon be operational. Management of the coronavirus pandemic in the EU has been a success, she said, and more than 70 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated. The priority now must be to drive forward the vaccination rollout around the world. The EU will donate another 200 million doses of vaccine by mid-2022.

Against the background of the events in Afghanistan, von der Leyen pleaded for the European Defence Union to be expanded. In her speech, she therefore promoted the idea of a joint situation and analysis centre and proposed a VAT exemption on the purchase of defence equipment developed and manufactured in Europe.

According to von der Leyen, fundamental decisions should be taken in the first half of next year at a "European Defence Summit" organised with France's President Emmanuel Macron. As the CDU politician explained, it needs to be decided how to leverage the possibilities offered by the EU Treaty in the field of defence.

With respect to the already discussed establishment of a new EU rapid reaction force, von der Leyen warned that a fundamental question also needs to be addressed. "You can have the most advanced armed forces in the world – but if you are never prepared to use them, what good are they?" she asked. What has held the EU back so far, she said, is not only a lack of capacity but also a lack of political will. "If we develop that political will, we can achieve a lot at EU level," she said.