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14 September 2022

“For the long haul”: Ursula von der Leyen doubles down on support for Ukraine

In her state of the union speech, the European Commission president guaranteed the EU would fight on against Russia.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s last state of the union speech, in 2021, was dominated by a single topic: the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine rollout. Now that the pandemic has faded from the headlines, this year’s was dominated by a different crisis: the largest-scale war in Europe since 1945.

The Ukraine war and its consequences – from a massive refugee influx to an intensifying energy crisis – were the focus of virtually the entirety of the speech, which was attended by Olena Zelenska, the wife of the Ukrainian president. “It took immense courage to resist [the Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s cruelty, but you found that courage,” von der Leyen told Zelenska. The EU will support Ukraine “for the long haul”, she said, pointing to financial, diplomatic and military support to Kyiv, as well as unprecedented sanctions on Russia.

She also addressed Europeans’ most urgent issue: the skyrocketing cost of energy. Von der Leyen, who was dressed in the blue and gold of both the European and Ukrainian flags, expanded on recent proposals for how the bloc can endure through the coming winter. One of the most significant announcements was a plan to decouple the price of electricity from the price of gas. European electricity prices are currently calculated on the most expensive mode of generation – which at the moment is gas. As a result, consumers are paying much more for electricity generated from sources that have remained relatively cheap, with energy companies collecting the difference as profit.

A windfall tax on excess profits, also announced during the speech, will generate about €140bn (£121bn), to be distributed among member states to aid with state support for energy bills. “Profits must be shared and channeled to those who need it the most,” von der Leyen said. The market “is not functioning anymore”, she added. Other measures she supports include a mandatory cut to electricity demand, part of plans to curb energy consumption across the bloc.

Von der Leyen offered a mea culpa of sorts when she said that the voices of eastern member states – which have long taken a more hawkish line on Russia than their western neighbours – had not been listened to, and thus the bloc had failed to take measures to limit Russia’s leverage over the continent. “We should have listened to the voices inside our union – in Poland, in the Baltics, and all across central and eastern Europe – [which] have been telling us for years that Putin would not stop.”

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The acknowledgement that many eastern member states had been correct was also a recognition that the EU’s centre of gravity is shifting eastwards as a result of the war – as Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, recognised in a recent speech in Prague. The Baltics and Poland have been vindicated in their consistent hawkishness towards Moscow, while the EU has pledged accession to Ukraine, Moldova and, eventually, Georgia, plus countries of the western Balkans. In time, current proposals on expansion – including Ukraine as the fifth most-populous member state – will result in an EU more inclined to be sceptical about Russia.

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In contrast to Scholz, von der Leyen is viewed positively in Ukraine, said Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor at Odesa Mechnikov National University. “Her stewardship on the energy issue was masterful and inspiring. That the EU was capable [of cutting] its dependence on Russian energy so quickly was nothing short of a miracle. Meanwhile, Scholz has made all the right noises, but has not followed up with principled and systemic actions. One German politician is taking resolute action, with palpable results, while another has a much more mixed record.”

The EU is now taking steps that some eastern states have long advocated, such as building new terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and investing more in renewable energy generation. This is taking place at breakneck speed as Europe rushes to compensate for Russia’s attempt to manufacture an energy supply crunch in Europe.

Von der Leyen offered a clear rebuke to those within the bloc who argue that sanctions on Russia should be eased, most prominently Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, but also politicians such as Matteo Salvini in Italy. “The sanctions are here to stay. This is the time for us to show resolve, not appeasement,” she said. Salvini, who has increased his criticism of sanctions on Russia in recent weeks, is expected to play a leading role in the Italian government following elections later this month.

A brief section at the end of the speech again highlighted her administration’s commitment to the rule of law, a reference to an ongoing conflict with Hungary and Poland over what Brussels perceives as those countries’ undermining of democratic institutions. Brussels has relatively few mechanisms for enforcing sanctions against recalcitrant member states, but it has sought to use a “conditionality mechanism” in the disbursing of EU funds from the bloc’s Covid-19 recovery budget. These sums, amounting to billions of euros, have not yet been sent to Poland and Hungary over rule of law concerns.

Finally, von der Leyen suggested revising the EU’s founding treaties to reform decision-making at an EU level, an idea both Germany’s Scholz and France’s president Emmanuel Macron have proposed, but which is bound to generate opposition from other member states. “I believe the moment has arrived for a European Convention” that would decide on revisions to the texts, she said.

“This is about autocracy against democracy,” von der Leyen added, framing her speech as the EU standing up for the principles it was founded on exactly 70 years ago as the European Coal and Steel Community. As the continent faces its most serious threat to those principles since the Second World War, von der Leyen will be hoping that the bloc can stay the course, even through a turbulent winter.

[See also: Why China won’t ditch Vladimir Putin]