By Laila M. Lange
In this opinion piece, Laila Lange (Groningen/Bilbao, cohort 2021/2023) scrutinises the 2021 State of the Union speech and argues that Von der Leyen self-aggrandises Europe’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is argued that she, thereby, disconnects her description of the state of the Union from reality and harms European credibility.
The seemingly everlasting Covid-19 pandemic has changed and dominated the life of everybody from March 2020 onwards. Despite the high percentage of vaccinations in European countries and one and a half years of experience with the virus, the situation in winter 2021 shows that Covid-19 is far from being conquered. Uncountable infection waves are followed by stricter Covid-19 measures. Not to mention that the regulations differ per member state and that Covid-19, once more, pinpoints the dominance of national power in the European structure. So to say, Covid is a major contributor to and factor of the current state of the European Union.
On September 15, 2021, Ursula von der Leyen – President of the European Commission – held her annual State of the Union Speech addressing the most pressing issues as well as past achievements and future actions of the Commission. Needless to say, in her speech Von der Leyen also mentions the European Covid-19 response. Listening to Von der Leyen speak about Europe’s state concerning the virus, one might get confused: Is the Commission President living in the same Europe as the rest of the European population? Whereas she speaks of being proud of Europe, that “we did a lot of things right” and that the European way “worked”, the European citizen could observe the importance and centrality of the nation state in times of Covid and the vaccination process, the disputes between different countries and the inability of the European Union as a whole to combat the crisis. Listening to the portrayal of the current state of the European Union, it becomes clear that Von der Leyen illustrates a utopian state of the Union rather than a realistic, critical and self-reflexive picture.
Whereas she describes how “we chose to go it [the Covid-19 pandemic] together so that every part of Europe got the same access to a life-saving vaccine”, some countries side-lined the European agreement and signed bilateral agreements with vaccination companies. Therefore, it can be said that the vaccination process was not a European process, but a national one, first and foremost. However, many European countries also focus on a European process in order to avoid the so-called “vaccine nationalism”. Nonetheless, being a citizen of one member state ensured that one had the chance to get vaccinated much earlier than the citizen of another member state. This can be explained by the fact that the capacities to organise vaccine campaigns and campaigns against vaccination hesitancy fall under the competence of the member states and not with the European Union. Nevertheless, considering the dominant role of member states in the vaccination process, the talk of “going through it together” seems highly utopic and far from the reality in Europe. While acknowledging that health competences lie in the hands of the member states, the talk of “going through it together” seems inapplicable considering that the vaccination process depends on the functioning of national health systems, available resources and overall state of the country. In addition to that, the responsibility of reducing vaccination hesitancy falls under the competence of the member states as well, resulting in a patchwork of differing national strategies to increase the populations’ support of Covid-19 vaccinations. Although it could be argued here that health crisis management should become a European competence, Von der Leyen may also be criticised for failing to acknowledge the differences between the member states, which ultimately undermines her own argument in favour of transferring this competence to the EU.
Additionally, she does not at all address that there were times when the vaccine doses were scarce and the Union could not provide the population with vaccinations at all, such as in March 2021. In contrast to the positive portrayal of the current vaccination rate in Europe, namely that “[m]ore than 70 per cent of adults in the EU are fully vaccinated”, a look at Bulgaria conveys a different picture: only around 15% of the population is vaccinated. The vaccination rate looks totally different when looking at Malta, however, where around 83% of the population is vaccinated. This reinforces the fact that despite Von der Leyen’s ambition of high vaccination rates, the rates and vaccine hesitancy ultimately depend on national governments. Not only does the President convey an overwhelmingly positive and united European Covid-19 vaccination process and a high vaccination rate, she also does not mention the difficulties the Union had in initially providing the vaccination doses for the population in spring 2021. The vaccination process in Europe is, hence, rather a utopian state than a realistic illustration of the state.
As the most urgent priority of the Union, Von der Leyen names the speeding up of global vaccinations and highlights the Unions efforts by stating: “We were the only ones to share half of our vaccine production with the rest of the world. (…) We are the only ones to achieve that”. Yet, while European leaders call their actions delivering “to the world”, the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) criticises the Union for giving out booster-vaccinations for parts of the European population while the vast majority of the world population could not even receive the first vaccination. Instead of praising European efforts in global vaccinations, he criticises: “We’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets and leaving other people to drown without a life jacket. That’s the ethical reality.” The EU, moreover, blocked a proposal from the WHO to increase the production of vaccines, does not accept WHO-approved vaccines from lower- and middle income countries, and despite promises, 90 per cent of the promised 250 million vaccine doses have not been donated yet. Dr. Chrisos Christou, president of Médecins Sans Frontières, notices that “[t]he gap between the EU’s beautiful rhetoric about stopping the COVID-19 pandemic and its actions is embarrassingly wide.” Again, Von der Leyen conveys a much more heroic picture of the EU’s action to tackle the pandemic globally, which does not coincide with the Union’s actions. Again, rather utopia than reality.
The disconnection from a realistic state of the Union becomes especially visible when considering the self-aggrandising tone of the speech. For example, calling its investment “an investment in solidarity”, or highlighting the uniqueness of the Union’s actions by stating “We are the only region in the world to achieve that” and “[t]hanks to this joint effort, while the rest of the world talked about it, Europe just did it”. Or generally emphasising that Europe “did a lot of things right” and “can be proud of it”. Von der Leyen adopts a self-aggrandising tone without addressing the serious shortcomings of European Covid-19 management. This matter of language, tone and rhetoric, once again, highlights the delusional and inapplicable representation of the European Union.
Overall, the State of the Union speech 2021 illustrates that the Commission President rather praises the European response to the pandemic instead of realistically portraying the current Covid-19 situation in Europe. This one-sided perspective disconnects the utopian vision of European crisis management from reality.
You might now think “So what?” or “What do I care about the State of the Union speech?”. Even though it might seem like a theoretical problem concerning academics and politicians, this problem affects all European citizens. This speech is served to eurosceptic forces on a silver platter to mobilise the population against Europe by focusing on the unrealistic – and elitist – tone of the Commission. The 2021 State of the Union speech, with all its good intentions, harms European credibility and counteracts European integration.
For her next State of the Union speech in 2022, Von der Leyen should seriously consider what the consequences of such a utopian representation of the European Union might be.