New EU President Pushes Vision for a Greener, Stronger Europe

The first woman to lead the European Commission set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, rather than the previous target of 40%.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, center, arrives for a plenary session ahead of her first State of the Union speech at the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday. (AP Photo, Francisco Seco)

(CN) — In her first State of the Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday laid out a vision of Europe as a world leader in tackling climate change and upholding an international order built around the rule of law, free trade and human rights.

Coming amid multiple crises inside and outside the European Union’s borders, von der Leyen’s speech tried to offer an optimistic view of the bloc’s future and offered a roadmap reflecting the set of priorities emerging among European political circles, such as catching up with the United States and China on digital technology, safeguarding a progressive free-trade world order, curbing global warming through a “European Green Deal” and making the EU a stronger force on the world stage.

Von der Leyen made a further reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 a policy centerpiece while also denouncing human rights abuses by Belarus, China and Russia and scolding the United Kingdom for seeking to break an agreement it reached with the EU over Brexit and the future of Northern Ireland.

In a rebuff to U.S. President Donald Trump, she also said Europe will never take a “Europe First” approach and that it was time to rebuild the transatlantic alliance. However, in a nod to Trump’s allegations that international agencies are skewed against the United States, she said the EU needs to take the lead in seeking to reform international bodies, in particular the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. She did not offer specifics about how those institutions need to be changed.

Her speech – delivered in three languages she speaks, English, German and French – was given inside a largely empty European Parliament building in Brussels with those in attendance wearing masks. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the European Parliament, one of the world’s largest elected bodies with 705 members, is restricting the number of parliamentarians who can sit in the chamber at the same time.

Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister once touted as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor, is the first female president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. The commission drafts legislation, issues and enforces regulations and oversees the distribution of EU funds.

“There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet,” she said in announcing a goal of reducing carbon emissions by at least 55% instead of a previous target of 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

She said cutting emissions by that much would put the EU “firmly on track” to meet Europe’s commitments under the Paris climate agreement to reduce heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Her announcement was welcomed by environmentalists, but many said even more drastic actions are necessary to rein in global warming.

“While much of the world’s activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter,” she said. “We see it all around us: from homes evacuated due to glacier collapse on the Mont Blanc, to fires burning through Oregon, to crops destroyed in Romania by the most severe drought in decades.”

The environment and global warming have climbed up the political agenda in Europe and Green parties are seeing a surge of support in Germany, Belgium and Austria.

Von der Leyen has made her carbon reduction plan, the European Green Deal, central to her administration. The plan centers on closing down coal-powered facilities and increasingly getting energy from renewable sources and hydrogen. The EU is also looking at new taxes on carbon.

She also spent a good deal of her speech on another key area for her administration: the need to boost Europe’s digital capacity. She said the EU needs to expand access to fast internet in rural Europe, speed up 5G technology and boost artificial intelligence. She added the commission plans to invest in building a European cloud-computing system and spend $9.4 billion on new supercomputers.

“We must make this Europe’s digital decade,” she said. “Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us.”

Privacy issues are taking center stage too in Europe and the EU is in a major battle with American tech giants over control of data, a core source of new wealth for businesses. To the end of protecting Europeans’ data, she said the commission will propose setting up a system whereby EU citizens can obtain “a secure European e-identity” that allows them to control how their personal data is used whenever they “do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle.”

She added: “We want to lead the way, the European way, to the Digital Age: based on our values, our strength, our global ambitions.”

On foreign affairs, von der Leyen said Europe can lead too by not retreating “into isolation.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her first State of the Union speech Wednesday. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

“The pandemic has simultaneously shown both the fragility of the global system and the importance of cooperation to tackle collective challenges,” she said.

“In the face of the crisis, some around the world choose to retreat into isolation,” she said, a subtle jab at Trump. “Our leadership is not about self-serving propaganda. It is not about Europe First. It is about being the first to seriously answer the call when it matters.”

For example, she said the EU has led the charge to ensure vaccines against the novel coronavirus are distributed fairly around the world under a WHO initiative. China, the U.S. and Russia have not joined the initiative. She said the EU has contributed about $475 million to the effort.

“Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk,” she said, echoing a phrase used by the WHO. “Vaccine cooperation saves them.”

She added that the EU believes “in the strength and value of cooperating in international bodies” and that they serve as the best mechanisms for dealing with crises such as the civil wars in Libya and Syria.

Still, she said international institutions are in need of reforms.

“The truth is also that the need to revitalize and reform the multilateral system has never been so urgent,” she said. “Our global system has grown into a creeping paralysis. Major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interests.”

In another subtle jab at Trump, she added: “Yes, we want change. But change by design – not by destruction.” Under Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from the WHO and brought the WTO to the brink of collapse.

On China, she said the EU’s relationship with the Asian superpower is “one of the most strategically important and one of the most challenging we have.”

“From the outset I have said China is a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival,” she said.

She urged China to keep its word about curbing global warming and chided Beijing over its brutal actions in Hong Kong and for abusing the human rights of Uighurs, a population of Muslims in northwestern China. Human rights groups accuse China of sending Uighurs to re-education camps and committing mass human rights violations in its campaign against Uighur terrorism.

To make the EU more assertive on sanctions and taking action in foreign affairs, she drew applause in the chamber when she called for scrapping the need for unanimous agreement among the EU’s 27 members before it can take decisions. The EU is often slow in reacting to world events because of disagreements among its members, which often have divided allegiances. For example, some members like France and Italy favor closer relations to Russia while others like Poland and Baltic states are opposed to that. Similarly, China has emerged as a source of division among EU members with some happy to cooperate with Beijing and others taking the opposite position.

The trouble with unanimous consent emerged in recent days after EU sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko were reportedly held up by objections from the tiny island member state of Cyprus. Before agreeing to sanctions against Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protests, Cyprus wants to get the EU to slap sanctions on Turkey for seeking to drill for natural gas in Mediterranean waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

“Be it in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk: Europe must take a clear and swift position,” she said.

Von der Leyen said the EU supports the protests in Belarus and demands new elections be held. On Aug. 9, Lukashenko was declared the winner of an allegedly rigged presidential race, sparking weeks of protests. On Sunday, Minsk saw more than 100,000 people take to the streets in protest.

“The people of Belarus must be free to decide their own future for themselves,” she said. “They are not pieces on someone else’s chess board.”

That was a reference to Russia, which is supporting Lukashenko. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Lukashenko and provided Belarus with about $1.8 billion in aid.

She said the EU must take a tough line on Russia, which she accused of being behind the poisoning of critics, most recently the opposition figure Alexei Navalny with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.

“To those that advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one off,” she said.

Von der Leyen also chided the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for seeking to pass legislation in the House of Commons that overrides parts of a withdrawal agreement the U.K. and the EU ratified that ensures Northern Ireland remains aligned to European rules and regulations in order to keep the border with Ireland free of border controls. This provision was key in Johnson’s ability to get a deeply divided House of Commons to approve the U.K.’s exit from the EU. Johnson’s attempt to break the agreement – in the legislation’s language, “disapply” it – has caused a furor in London and European capitals.

“That agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it. Line by line, word by word,” she said. “The EU and the U.K. jointly agreed it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland.”

As such, she said, “it cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied. This a matter of law, trust and good faith …. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”

Von der Leyen also spoke out against racist, anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment in Europe. She said the commission plans to adopt a plan on combating racism in Europe and to unveil a new plan on how to handle the contentious issue of immigrants and asylum seekers entering the EU.

Without naming Poland, she also lashed out at so-called “LGBT-free zones.” Numerous Polish towns and cities have passed resolutions declaring their opposition to the promotion of LGBT rights. The resolutions carry no binding legal powers, but they are seen by critics as discriminatory.

“I want to be crystal clear – LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones,” she said. “And they have no place in our union.”

She said the commission will “soon put forward a strategy to strengthen LGBTQI rights.”

Her speech was praised by the majority of parliamentarian groups on the left and right, but those on the far right attacked her vision for Europe.

Nicolas Bay, a leader of the far-right Identity and Democracy group in the parliament, accused von der Leyen of moving the EU in the wrong direction by taking on massive levels of debt after passing a $880 billion coronavirus recovery plan, impeding growth with “draconian” environmental restrictions, taking a soft approach on China and opening Europe up to immigrants.

“You’re refusing to say ‘Europe First,’” he said. “But the danger is you will end up with Europe dead.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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