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SOTEU: Little new policy but plenty of politics ahead of von der Leyen’s key speech

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The text of Ursula von der Leyen’s last State of the Union speech before next June’s European elections is one of the best-kept secrets in Brussels. However, little of the policy content will come as a big surprise: Migration control and the implementation of the Green Deal will likely be at its heart.

In policy terms, the speech she delivers in Strasbourg on Wednesday (13 September) will – for some – be much ado about not much.

In Germany, the biggest EU economy, where von der Leyen comes from, her speech is not high on the agenda for the three governing parties – SPD (S&D), the liberal FDP, and the Greens.

Christian Pietry, SPD spokesperson for European Affairs, said: “I do not expect any initiatives that are actually new, after all, the end of her term is in sight”.

Yet the politics of Wednesday’s speech, and what follows, will go a long way towards shaping the campaign ahead of next June, and the composition of the next EU executive.

The main political parties are all already on pre-election manoeuvres.

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), of which von der Leyen is a member, is anxious to claim the political ground around migration control in a bid to head off right-wing nationalist parties such as Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Spain’s VOX.

Von der Leyen hopes her EUR785 million agreement with Tunisia, which involves budget support and investment in return for greater control over migrant departures from the North African state, will become a model for similar deals with North African countries and, in turn, be held up as evidence to voters that the EPP is solving Europe’s dilemma over migration.

We can expect a clearer timeline for the progress of such talks and for the conclusion of a handful of legislative files aimed at overhauling the bloc’s immigration and asylum rules.

MEPs will debate the Tunisia pact on Tuesday (12 September), on the eve of her address, and that will offer some pointers for how it will be received.

For its part, the Socialist and Democrat group has urged the Commission to focus on finalising the legislation for a Green Deal transition, including the laws on nature restoration and air quality.

The Green Deal, led by Frans Timmermans, the Dutch centre-left politician who has just swapped the Commission Vice-Presidency to lead the left-green alliance ahead of November’s Dutch national elections, is arguably the flagship of the von der Leyen Commission. It is also the policy ground where the Socialists want to outflank Green parties ahead of next June.

Last week, Iratxe Garcia Perez and Pedro Marques, S&D’s president and vice-president, said the Commission also needed to strengthen the social pillar to help citizens cope with the rising cost of living; put in place a permanent fiscal capacity for the EU; adopt a Pact on Migration based on solidarity, and take a definitive step towards enlargement.

The Greens are also eager not to be seen as lagging behind.

“There is still plenty to do because the EU is facing huge challenges. The terrible fires and floods in southern Europe are a dramatic reminder of the consequences of the climate crisis,” Anton Hofreiter, the Green party lawmaker who chairs the Bundestag’s Committee on European Affairs, told EURACTIV.

“The best prevention is fast and concrete climate protection measures. That is why Fit-for-55 must be led to success, also in spite of resistance from the EPP,” he added.

From regulation to implementation?

However, others hope that Wednesday’s speech will take heed of industry warnings about the burden of the EU’s Net Zero law and shift tack from new laws to implementing what has been agreed.

On the French side, President Emmanuel Macron has expressed his wish to see EU policies – especially environmental ones – put into practice, rather than continue to add new regulations. Macron’s previous remarks on the need for a regulatory “pause” have meanwhile acquired significant support from other leaders.

“Climate protection is better achieved through technical innovation than through standards that restrict the economy,” Michael Georg Link, spokesperson for European Affairs of the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag, told EURACTIV.

Von der Leyen’s stance following EPP leader Manfred Weber’s recent move to shift the European centre-right towards a more industry-friendly position on climate policies is also hotly awaited by the two other German coalition parties – the Greens and the Social Democrats.

Jens Geier, who leads the SPD group in the European Parliament, said in a statement that “one of the most crucial questions will be whether she [von der Leyen] remains committed to her former pilot project, the European Green Deal.”

Overall, it would be a surprise if MEPs gave von der Leyen too rough a ride on Wednesday, except for the extreme left and right, who might take issue with some of von der Leyen’s policies.

“Looking back at our mandate so far, there is a lot to be proud of. Europe stood united in the face of unprecedented challenges, from the COVID pandemic to Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the centrist Renew Europe group told EURACTIV.

They have called for an initiative to cut red tape for small businesses, something which the next Commission should embrace with a dedicated portfolio.

In a nod to this, we can expect some references to plans by Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton aimed at loosening the bureaucratic burden on small- and medium-sized companies.

Nuclear power and how its financing is treated in terms of state aid rules, in the regulations for revitalising the industry, is also of vital importance for Paris, officials say.

France is also waiting for clear lines to be drawn “on fundamental issues” ranging from the reform of EU budgetary rules to the energy market, immigration and the financing of the ecological transition.

These issues, though technical, will become very political in the context of the 2024 European elections, a French diplomatic source told EURACTIV.

Elephant in the room

The elephant in the room, which few expect von der Leyen to comment on, is whether she will seek a second term next June. Last week, von der Leyen refused to be drawn on whether she wanted to stay in charge of the EU executive or, as some have speculated, would covet the soon-to-be-vacant NATO secretary general job.

As we enter the home straight before the European elections, Paris is waiting to hear whether or not Ursula von der Leyen wishes to run for another term at the head of the European Commission, a French diplomatic source told EURACTIV. So is every politico in Brussels.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald]

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