Interviews

Commentary | Significance of President Ursula von der Leyen’s Speech

Civil.ge asked Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe, about the implications of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s 2022 State of the Union Speech both for the Eastern Partnership region and the world at large.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, von der Leyen has been uncompromising in her support for Ukraine, but also for the region.

She pushed hard for Ukraine to be granted candidate status and she supported Moldavia’s candidate status too. Georgia, for the moment, has to wait. During her speech, she was also very tough on Russia and about the need for the EU to remain united. Linked to this was the need for the EU to have an energy policy that was diverse, not dependent on Russia, and one that pushed forward the EU’s  ‘Green Transition’ to clean energy.

Support for Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans

In a bid to reassure the EU’s eastern neighbors and those in the Western Balkans about the EU’s commitment to these regions, von der Leyen said in her speech:  “I want the people of the Western Balkans, of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to know: you are part of our family, you are the future of our union, and our union is not complete without you.”

What is not clear is what happens to the EU’s Eastern Partnership. And it is, among many member states, there is very little political support to enlarge the EU – even though Ukraine and Moldova joining the bloc is a long way off.

European Political Community

Interestingly von der Leyen suggested establishing a European Political Community (EPC). This idea was first proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron during the French presidency. The details remain vague, but what’s behind it is that certain countries will have a special relationship with the EU that will not include membership.

The EPC’s first meeting will take place on October 6 in Prague. The Czech Republic holds the EU’s six-monthly-based rotating presidency.

It will gather all 27 EU member states plus 17 European countries – Turkey, the UK, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Moldova, Georgia.

It will be interesting to see what kind of recommendations will come out of this meeting. One thing is for sure: EU enlargement cannot continue without a change of the EU Treaty. The bigger the union, the more difficult it has become to give the bloc’s foreign and security policy coherence and a strategic direction.

Von der Leyen tried to tackle these issues in a different way. She said it was inevitable that the EU needed radical and profound internal reform. This would entail a change to the EU treaties, something several member states oppose.  They want to protect the current status quo instead of changing how the EU functions, particularly with regard to voting rights and the role of the veto. “As we are serious about a larger union, we also have to be serious about reform,” von der Leyen told MEPs.

Tackling Corruption, Defending Human Rights

She also emphasized how the bloc has to become more robust in supporting human rights both inside and outside the Union. And she was very firm about tackling corruption, linking it to the EU’s human rights sanctions regime. Linked to corruption was democratic sliding inside the EU, she stated. Without naming Poland or Hungary, she said there were “vices that corrode” the EU from within.

“If we want to be credible when we ask candidate countries to strengthen their democracies, we must also eradicate corruption at home,” she said.  Disbursing the EU’s budget payments will be linked to judicial independence and the rule of law.

 Judy Dempsey has worked for the International Herald Tribune as its Germany and East European Correspondent as well as the diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times in Brussels, covering NATO and European Union Enlargement.

Prior to these postings, she worked as Jerusalem bureau chief, Berlin correspondent, and Eastern European correspondent in London for the Financial Times. During the 1980s, Dempsey reported on Central and Eastern Europe for the Financial Times, the Irish Times, and the Economist. 

She is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, where she studied history and political science. 

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