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The State of the Union – the two sides of a speech

The qualitative leap which was introduced in the European project in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis has brought higher levels of solidarity and cohesion. But there is still a long way to go. The speech of the president of the European Commission has outlined a few further steps, but many more need to be done. Moreover, it was shy about a key issue: for the new phase of its project, Europe needs to make a democratic transformation of the way its democracy works at various levels.

This time, Ursula von der Leyen could present her annual State of the Union address, building on the feeling of some relief that many feel to see the pandemic more under control. Last year, we still did not know whether there would be a vaccine and an effective European co-operation and whether the European recovery plan could take off. The Portuguese Presidency has made it possible to clarify these issues in the right direction.

A European health prevention authority has been announced, but a European Health Union that guarantees universal access to quality health care is something much wider. The commitment to strengthen European’s support for global vaccination against Covid-19 is also a positive announcement, but a broader commitment to a multilateral framework is missing.

The preparation of a European strategy to develop personal care also makes a lot of sense, not only to respond to the pandemic but also to create a new pillar of a welfare state for the 21st century, able to address demographic ageing and the question of reconciliation of family and professional life – without which there can be no real equality between women and men. But there are other pillars of this welfare state that are yet to be reinvented to respond to the new social inequalities and new forms of poverty.

Yes, the climate transition must be supported by a specific Social Fund that compensates for job losses. But recovery plans as a whole have to be designed to create new jobs in new activities, especially to avoid sacrificing a new young generation. It is essential that this job creation can take place in all regions and not just in the most dynamic parts of Europe. The Alma programme to enable young people to access jobs in other countries, as Erasmus has done for education, is to be welcomed, but mobility in Europe must be voluntary and not a mere answer to the lack of education and employment opportunities in certain regions.

Yes, the digital transition is well pointed out as decisive, but a strategy has yet to be defined for a European pathway that is different from the American and the Chinese ones. The starting point should be the use of European big data in the field of health and education and incentives to innovative industries to develop algorithms, services and products that are in line with a European, sustainable,and inclusive way of life. But the formulation of a genuine innovation policy for the digital society remains stalled by the canons of a past paradigm, that of competition in the European internal market. Meanwhile, major public procurement operations that are currently underway in education, telework and health could benefit more non-European companies.

The so-called recovery and resilience plans should be understood as plans to rebuild European economies on new bases. This is a long and huge undertaking that requires a long-term financial boost, counting on a European budgetary capacity and public debt issuance and on national budgets with updated common rules. The famous three per cent deficit and 60 per cent debt rules that were defined in the 1990s have little to do with the present and future reality.

In the face of the clumsy American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the President’s speech acknowledges the evidence. Today’s world is multipolar, systemic competition is growing, and Europe must strengthen its strategic autonomy with its own initiatives: humanitarian interventions, defence capacity, enlargement to the Western Balkans and the launch of an alternative initiative to the new Chinese Silk Road – the Belt and Road Initiative – and as US president Joe Biden did at the last G7 summit: the European Global Gateway. However, she has failed to enhance the EU’s commitment to the multilateral framework, whilst UN Secretary General António Guterres has just presented an ambitious plan for his second term, called ‘Our Common Agenda’.

However, the President was shy about the main issue. For the new phase of its project, Europe needs to make a democratic transformation of the way its democracy works at various levels. Firstly, in the light of current authoritarian drifts, to ensure that the fundamentals of the rule of law are respected throughout its territory. But also to unlock European decisions that have dragged on for years: minimum wage, minimum corporate tax, humanitarian external action, defence and the right of asylum are some of the striking examples. On these topics, does anyone doubt which way the majority opinion of Europeans would decide?

I end with a personal tribute to a very good and dear friend, European hero who has just left us and who has done marvelous things to promote democracy at all levels, local, national, European, and international: Jorge Sampaio, the former President of the Republic of Portugal. I believe he was an inspiration for all of us.

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