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Europe has swapped one existential crisis for another since Ursula von der Leyen last took the stage to deliver her annual State of the Union address.
The coronavirus pandemic that dominated the first half of her mandate has faded. Now, Russia is waging war on the EU’s doorstep.
More than six months on, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is set to dominate von der Leyen’s speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday — a fixture on the EU calendar that sets out her legislative and political priorities for the year ahead each fall.
Attending as the guest of honor will be Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, a reminder of how the war now permeates every part of policymaking in Brussels. The conflict has upended geopolitical alliances and destabilized European economies, sending energy costs soaring, fueling runaway inflation, and pushing EU governments to sanction Moscow and arm Ukraine.
But if Ukrainians hope that Wednesday’s speech will herald more concrete help for their war effort, they can think again. The Commission president is not expected to announce any new pledges of military support, or new sanctions against Russia — despite Kyiv crying out for both.
That is despite the fact that von der Leyen will be speaking at a critical moment on the battlefield, with Ukraine’s eastern counteroffensive making rapid gains in recent days. Ukraine’s sudden military progress has also revived criticism that European countries like Germany and France should be doing more to help defeat Russian forces.
Von der Leyen is expected to instead highlight other EU initiatives, like improving Ukraine’s access to the single market — a key talking point at a meeting of EU and Ukrainian officials earlier this month in Brussels.
With European citizens braced for spikes in energy prices as winter approaches, von der Leyen will shed more light on her plans announced last week to tackle the bloc’s energy crisis. But she is not expected to detail a price cap on gas, which many EU governments are calling for to ease the pain of high costs for consumers and businesses. Instead, she’s likely to opt for less-radical plans to curb the impact of soaring energy prices.
These are set to include mandatory electricity rationing and clawbacks of excess profits from electricity producers that generate power from sources other than gas. The approach reflects the division among member states over more aggressive measures like the outright price cap on gas from Russia, which von der Leyen proposed last week.
The annual State of the Union address is a tradition borrowed from the U.S., where the president addresses a joint session of Congress at the start of each year. As always, the location matters.
Given that von der Leyen will be addressing lawmakers in the European Parliament, some mention is expected of the Conference of the Future of Europe — a year-long initiative that wrapped up in May and aimed to make the EU more relevant to citizens. The initiative’s recommendations are still sitting in the inbox of Commission officials and EU leaders.
The speech, which begins at 9 a.m., will be followed by a debate in the Parliament chamber, providing the first chance for lawmakers to respond to von der Leyen’s remarks. Whether her priorities register with the citizens of Europe further afield is another matter.