Teona Lavrelashvili, European Party Monitor Project Manager in Brussels

On September 15, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen delivered a much awaited State of the Union speech at the European Parliament’s official home of Strasbourg. This annual speech is considered as one of the biggest political momento veritas for the Union. Despite the pandemic related measures, the house was quite animated and the President put her best emotions – sometimes even with poetic references, to make her speech vivid.

This year’s address, delivered after exactly one month that Taliban took over Afghanistan, has been in a particular spotlight. In her one-hour long discourse, the Commission President outlined six key priorities for the year ahead, yet with too little attention on foreign affairs and EU enlargement.

Unsurprisingly, the President’s key line was the EU’s response to the COVID pandemic. It is true that after initial obstacles, the use and destination of the vaccines produced inside the bloc was monitored more effectively and that the EU’s vaccination rate increased significantly, reaching the bloc’s goal of fully vaccinating 70 percent of adults (Romania and Bulgaria have the lowest vaccination rates). On the issue of climate change, she welcomed the adoption over the past few months of a legally binding obligation for EU member states to reduce net greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030 as compared to 1990 levels. She further promised an increase in climate finance by EUR 4 billion by 2027. The President showed a bold attitude on EU defense capabilities and put forward a few initiatives such as waiving VAT when buying defense equipment developed and produced in Europe and the creation of a European Cyber Defense Policy. Insisting that more should be done, she announced two new measures:  a forthcoming declaration from the EU and NATO, and a summit focused on European defense with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who has been pioneering a concept of a “strategic autonomy” for the bloc. On migration, she did not shy away from recognizing the existing divisions among the member states that is skillfully exploited by opponents. She seemed still convinced that the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is the best tool to manage migration. However, progress on the proposed Pact is very slow. Besides, the Union’s response to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan demonstrated that the EU is far from having a single approach on the issue of migration.

The Commission President warned that breaches of the rule of law cannot be tolerated. Although she did not spell out the concrete countries, we all know who are the Union’s enfants terribles. She promisingly announced, however, that the annual rule of law reports will come “with specific recommendations” to member states from 2022. Von der Leyen declared 2022 as the year of the youth and revealed a new mobility youth program called ALMA which will allow youngsters without education or training to find temporary work in other EU member states. Finally, on EU-China relations, noting that ‘it doesn’t make any sense for Europe if we build a perfect road between a copper mine that is Chinese-owned and a harbor that is Chinese-owned,’ she called for a smarter approach on investments and announced a new connectivity strategy to be presented soon.

Foreign policy was not the EU Commission Chief’s buzzword, certainly. The word enlargement was not mentioned even once. The Western Balkan (WB) countries, which are desperately looking for progress on their EU membership, were referred under the mantra of Global Partnerships. Optimistically, the President announced the visit to the WB to signal her commitment to the accession process but the WB leaders know well that it is not her visit that will solve the enlargement conundrum. What really matters is achieving a consensus by EU member states. However, trends do not seem encouraging. After solving the decades-long name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, Bulgaria is now vetoing accession talks with North Macedonia due to history and language issues. the political and possibly also constitutional crisis that hit Bulgaria following the April 2021 elections make it even rather unlikely to find a meaningful solution anytime soon. Although Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having started their accession talks, the pace on opening the chapters remains slow due to concerns related to the rule of law and the lack of progress on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue

Even less attention was paid to EaP countries which were mentioned in the framework of a wider neighborhood without specifying any milestone. The Commission President made no single reference to the Trio initiative – the state level format that was recently formalized by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to advance these countries’ EU aspirations with joint efforts. While some might argue that with a bit more diplomacy and lobbying the Commission Chief could have been bolder vis-à-vis the Trio countries, it should be admitted that no conceptual underpinnings or practical action plans on the Trio initiative have so far been presented in Brussels. Thus, understandably a considerable part of EU stakeholders remains unaware of such a format, something that sadly may decrease the value of this strategic idea if diplomatic efforts do not step up in Europe’s political capital. In any case, the EU as well, if it has the ambition to be a global player, should show more leadership in order to envision the European future of its immediate neighborhood. Alas, this speech was a missed opportunity.