Election Campaign or A State of the Union Speech? Key Take-Away’s by Sovereign Strategy on the EU Commission President’s Speech

September 15, 2023 admin

On September 13, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered the final State of the Union speech to the European Parliament ahead of the European parliament elections next summer. The speech was delivered against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine testing European unity, the G20 Leaders Summit Declaration where she and Biden backed an ambitious plan to build an economic corridor linking Europe as well as discussions taking place on proposed EU enlargement in the east and whether the Commission President will run for a second term next year. 

In her hour-long speech, Von der Leyen began by vowing to “finish the job” in the remaining months of the Commission’s mandate, stating that the last four years (since she became President) have been “one of the most ambitious transformations this Union has ever embarked on”. 

Defending her Presidency, Von der Leyen cited the Green New Deal, a geopolitical union standing up to Russia and China as well as setting a path for the digital transformation and the EU Health Union. Von der Leyen argued that 90% of the proposals presented by the Commission since 2019 had been delivered. 

In a mark of her priorities, Ukraine was mentioned 22 times, with industry mentioned 19, green/climate 18, enlargement 9 and China 7 times during her speech. Health, whilst mentioned in passing, was firmly in the rear-view mirror after featuring centrally in previous speeches during the pandemic, as well as the European Beating Cancer Plan (2020) and the European Mental Health Strategy (2022).

New Announcements

In new announcements, the Commission President launched an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles from China, stating that Europe was open to competition and that she would defend European business from any unfair competition. Mario Draghi, former Italian Prime Minister, and European Central bank President has been tasked to produce a report on future EU competitiveness. 

On Artificial Intelligence, the Commission President signalled a wish for the EU to lead on a new global framework for AI, with an ambition to set up a new body similar to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Packages to support Europe’s wind industry, as well as an envoy to help SMEs cut red-tape, was also signalled in the speech, pledging to introduce legislation to reduce EU-reporting legislation by 25% to boost competitiveness. It is unclear whether the package will be a legal proposal or a looser action plan. 

Commenting on the speech, Elmar Brok, Senior Counsel, Sovereign Strategy:

Today the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented to the European Parliament in her State of the Union speech an ambitious programme ahead of the European elections next summer. This was a speech of someone who wants to run again.

Rightly, she names the EU success stories in fighting the pandemic, in setting up the NextGenerationEU investment fund, in achieving progress for the green deal, supporting Ukraine and in strengthening trade policy.

But her plan to link competitiveness and climate change policy, is not clear.  The ambition to fight against bureaucracy is in the programme, albeit only a future one

The Commission President said nothing concrete about creating a more efficient Union in foreign, defence, police, and a few other sectors like taxation with a better decision-making procedure- despite possible enlargement.


Regarding enlargement, Von der Leyen recommitted to supporting Schengen accession for Romania and Bulgaria, which had been vetoed by Austria in December 2022. Looking further afield, she said that “we need to show the same unity of purpose towards Africa as we have shown to Ukraine”, with a new strategic approach being developed by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell that will be worked on at the next EU-Africa Union Summit. Further re-commitments to supporting Ukraine were pledged, including to Ukrainian refugees. 

Green Policies 

In a bid to sure up support amongst her European People’s Party (EPP) colleagues, Von der Leyen stressed support for European farmers, announcing an intention to “launch a strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU”, in a sign that she wishes to run again. 

On green policies, which have received push back from the EPP, the Commission President pledged to “stay the course”- but offered no further ambition on climate ambition, which will disappoint many across Europe. She did, however, cite that the war in Ukraine was a catalyst for Europe’s transition to renewables. 

Treaty Change

Perhaps most crucially in the long-term, the door was opened to possible treaty change, arguing it could be needed as part of the bloc’s internal reforms, adding “and yes, that means including through a European convention and treaty change if and where it is needed.” Enlargement, however, should not wait for treaty change, she argued, expressing a wish for the EU to grow to at least 30 member states. 

The speech contained few new proposals, but notably saw health only mentioned in passing through the EU Health Union, as well as no mention on frozen Russian assets in Europe, which had previously been pledged to leverage for Ukraine reconstruction. Much of the speech was signalling direction on industrial strategy, artificial intelligence, and enlargement, without offering concrete policies, in a bid to set the platform for a re-election campaign as a consensus candidate. 

ByJack Nagy, Account Manager, Sovereign Strategy

Photo Credit: EEAS.europa.eu