Von der Leyen's plans for Europe: no will, no way?

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has delivered her second annual State of the Union address, preparing the public for a new era of intensified international competition and promoting among other things a European defence union. For some observers the speech shone with optimism. Others lament that ultimately the EU Commission's hands are always tied.

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Rzeczpospolita (PL) /

A great moment for Europe's boss

For Rzeczpospolita von der Leyen's speech was a long-awaited moment of triumph:

“Since January the EU executive - and its leader in particular - have faced fierce criticism contending that they are allowing the EU to fall behind Britain and the US. With time, however, it has become clear that von der Leyen's strategy was the right one. Not only is the vaccination rate now higher than in the US, but the EU has sold or given away an equal amount of vaccine doses to third countries, reaffirming its commitment to an open economy. Unlike the US. No wonder, then, that Wednesday's speech was a great moment for the German Commission President.”

Der Standard (AT) /

A new anchorwoman in crisis-stricken Europe

In Der Standard's view the speech testifies to political strength:

“Von der Leyen is now, and rightly so, the anchorwoman in a Europe mired in crisis - and will be all the more so after Angela Merkel's departure. Governments are becoming increasingly entangled in national egoisms. She supports what is common to all states, not just with programmes, gigantic investments in reconstruction, climate protection and growth. What is really new is the empathy with which she addresses citizens directly. No head of the Commission has ever encouraged the continent's youth so positively, so optimistically, almost affectionately: she believes in this 'well-educated, talented generation' that is genuinely concerned about the future of the world.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Lack of capacity not the problem

Lofty goals cannot conceal Europe's weakness, finds De Volkskrant:

“European leaders like to talk big. What is usually less clear is how they intend to achieve their lofty goals. Von der Leyen's State of the Union address was also disappointing in this respect. ... Von der Leyen herself says that Europe's military and diplomatic weakness is not due to a lack of capacity but to a lack of political will on the part of the member states. A European army cannot be set up in Brussels. If it ever comes to that, it will be the result of geopolitical developments that force this. But then Europe must be ready. That is something von der Leyen is right about.”

Helsingin Sanomat (FI) /

The danger exists, the political will does not

Helsingin Sanomat also sees a lack of political will as the main problem:

“Common defence took up a lot of space in the speech, even though the debate about an EU defense union is not new. Already during Barack Obama's term in office, Europe's leaders realised that the US would increasingly shift its focus to Asia. ... It is clear to all member states that the EU must join forces in the fight against cyber attacks and hybrid threats. The defence industry is also to be strengthened. However, the real question is whether the political will for joint military operations and troops exists.”

L'Opinion (FR) /

Moving forward despite the odds

L'Opinion, on the other hand, is optimistic despite the EU Commission's limited scope for action:

“Giving priority to the fight against global warming with the Green Deal, success with vaccinations and mutualised debt for reconstruction - the balance sheet of the past year is impressive. Certainly, issues like the Compact on Refugees are going nowhere, while others like defence or respect for the rule of law have barely been touched upon. Nevertheless we're gradually witnessing the emergence of a European political space. ... Ursula von der Leyen is still struggling to establish her authority in Brussels, because the real power there resides more with the member states in the EU Council than collectively under the aegis of the Commission. ... Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, as long as it keeps going.”