Migration, enlargement, women high on EC agenda, but democracy is elephant in the room

In her annual State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed a wide range of critical issues and outlined her vision for the future of the European Union, with just a few months to go before EU elections and uncertainty over whether she will go for a second mandate as chief. 

The speech focused on several predictable areas, including migration, enlargement, reform, energy and security across the bloc, as well as various policy initiatives.

On Migration, Von der Leyen discussed efforts to create a new pact for migration and asylum. Migration “needs to be managed,” balancing protection of borders and protection of people, adding that this can be achieved by working with key partners, finding a compromise “between sovereignty and solidarity, between security and humanity.”

This balance is the “spirit of the new pact on migration and asylum,” she added, referring to the package of legislative files that the EU institutions aim to approve before the end of the legislative mandate in June 2024.

“An agreement on the pact has never been so close,” she said.  If approved, it will give the 27 member states the same rules on reception, welcoming system, crisis management, and different procedures to manage borders and those looking for international protection.

Von der Leyen says there was little prospect of brokering an agreement on migration at the start of her mandate, positioning the policy as a success. She continued that she has sought “practical solutions” to migration and urged lawmakers to finalise the applicable legislation in the coming months.

But not everyone agreed, with the co-president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), Ryszard Legutko, calling EU migration policy a “failure” and using the situation at the borders as well as an increase in the size and reach of smuggling networks as an example.

She also called for a more prominent role for EU agencies, specifically Europol, Eurojust, and Frontex, the EU’s controversial border guard agency. She emphasised the need for enhanced law enforcement cooperation and border security, particularly in the face of global challenges such as human trafficking.

The president also proposed organising an international conference on fighting people smuggling. 

The elephant in the room

But von der Leyen steered clear of talking about democracy, a glaring omission considering backsliding across the bloc, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Greece, Cyprus and Malta, and candidate countries such as Serbia.

This was called out by Renew chief Stephane Séjourné, who criticised the “feet dragging” of some member states in condemning declining democracy and the “unanimity poison” that often blocks EU Council decisions.

“Europe is not yet responding to the desperate appeals of Polish judges, Hungarian judges, the independent press and civil society,” he said in his intervention.

“No European decision should be hostage to an autocrat in Budapest or elsewhere,” Séjourné stressed, adding, “Madam President, we refuse the shift of Europe. We refuse the Orbanisation of our continent.”

No means no

The president did mention the need to enhance the protection of women, in particular, a directive to combat gender-based violence. She said the principle of “no means no” must be enshrined in law, and rape must be included in the directive.

Reacting to the speech, Parliament co-rapporteurs Frances Fitzgerald (EPP, IE) and Evin Incur (S&D, SE) said: “Non-consensual sex, i.e. rape, must be included in any Directive on Violence Against Women. The essential element of that offence is consent, as highlighted by the president”.

No commitment to enlargement

Another anticipated topic of her address was enlargement, but the president fell short of any firm commitments. 

“In a world where some are trying to pick off countries one by one, we cannot afford to leave our fellow Europeans behind,” Von der Leyen said, adding, “In a world where size and weight matters, it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interests to complete our Union.”

However, she did not address the recent statement from Council Chief Charles Michel, who said the next bloc enlargement should occur by 2030.

“The next enlargement should be a catalyst for progress,” she said. 

AI, Labour and subtle canvassing

The president mentioned the progress of the AI Act, the first of its kind in the world, which is in its final stages. She also alluded to challenges related to disinformation, harmful content, and data privacy, highlighting the importance of addressing these issues through various legislative measures.

On labour and the workforce, von der Leyen noted the current shortages in Europe. 

“Labour and skills shortages are reaching record levels,” von der Leyen said, pointing to how hospitals, manufacturing and hospitality businesses struggle to find employees.

“Instead of millions of people looking for jobs, millions of jobs are looking for people,” she said.

She emphasised the need to improve access to the labour market, particularly for young people and women. While she mentioned a proposal to facilitate the recognition of qualifications for third-country nationals, specific details still needed to be provided.

In what has been seen by some as a not-so-subtle bid to present herself for a second mandate ahead of next year’s EU elections, von der Leyen said she and her team of commissioners delivered over 90%  of political guidelines presented in 2019.

However, a March analysis by the European Parliament Research Service found that only 63% of the 597 initiatives were submitted and, in the case of the legislative proposals, the co-legislators have started work. Of those submitted, only half have been adopted, while most of the remaining are progressing through the legislative process.

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7 days ago

I am totally disillusioned with the EU. All it gave us was money and the really important things like a working democracy have gone by the board.

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