Speeches about the state of the Union—of any Union—are usually marked by the difficulty of the challenges to be faced and the optimistic assessment of the certainty that they will be overcome. These elements were very much present in Wednesday’s speech by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen before the European Parliament, although it was a notable effort and not to be discounted. There was a more decisive and political emphasis on the common dimension than in the past, thanks to the intrinsically “borderless” nature of the major issues on the agenda: first of all, that of the health of the planet and its inhabitants.
The new context created by the outbreak of the pandemic and the heavy-handed and fragmented response that was a common trait in European countries in the first phase of the epidemic cannot be set aside, and inevitably looms over any future formulation of European policies. So much so that the nationalist right wing has tried hard from the outset to minimize the scope of this context and to attack government healthcare policies from every side. It has had some success in the form of street protests, especially in Germany, but with a general loss of support.
On the other hand, the set of impressive financial instruments put in place (and made available to all) to face the continental economic crisis (which this time has much less of a disparate impact on the profligate and the virtuous) has helped to break down a number of taboos, and has highlighted the more ideological than pragmatic features of the neoliberal catechism adopted for decades by European leaders. Accordingly, this “state of the Union” was presented overall in a rather different light from the past, even the recent past, confronted with the need for a course correction. This does not mean, of course, that the concrete management of these resources won’t give rise to division and bitter conflicts.
On the theme of migration, beyond reaffirming the continental dimension of the phenomenon and the obligation to find common responses marked by solidarity, prudence was still a must: governments were invited to a spirit of “compromise,” and as regards migrant reception, the topic of repatriation was always mentioned. However, a step forward—far from irrelevant—can be seen in the promise made by the EC President to end the Dublin agreements, a goal that is not without obstacles and which would not, in any case, put an end to the repatriation policies of the individual states.
Nonetheless, with this promise, a long-term but decisive issue has been placed at the center of attention: namely, the fact that the rapid change in situations and the global context is making the immutability of the treaties more and more ill-fitting. The beginning of a reorientation towards this perspective of reform is one of the most important effects of the pandemic-induced crisis, one which Angela Merkel had already mentioned a few months ago, and which can be seen once more between the lines of Ursula von der Leyen’s speech. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the ground on which the fight for the future of the Union will be playing out for the long term.
While the issues of the economic relaunch, the ecological reconversion, digitization and healthcare had already been on the agenda for some time, the first woman president of the European Commission was able to infuse her speech with a more empathic tone, less marked by the efficiency-obsessed coldness of the past, more open to the acceptance of social demands (a common minimum wage) and more focused on areas where there is suffering. Among other things, it insisted on two sore points: the homophobic and discriminatory policies practiced by some Eastern European governments and the rising wave of racism and xenophobia. It did so not only as a necessary call back to core values, but also expressing a willingness to implement active policies to combat these phenomena.
However, one cannot hide the fact that, as far as respect for civil rights and democratic freedoms is concerned, the Union remains largely hostage to national sovereignty, while the existing instruments of pressure are only rarely and begrudgingly used. This is an attitude that, for once, the President’s words seem to be aimed at changing.