On 15 September 2021, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her annual State of the EU address (SOTEU) to the European Parliament. To analyse her message, we need first to answer the question “why does she do it?” Why does she give this annual hour-long account of her achievements and intentions to the Parliament?
The Commission President is chosen by the EU leaders in the European Council and is elected by the European Parliament. (Yes, the language masks an ambiguity about who really decides.) The team of 26 other Commissioners is approved in bloc by the European Parliament after lengthy, intensive (sometimes confrontational) public interviews (“hearings”) by parliamentarians.
On 2 July 2019, von der Leyen was “chosen” by the leaders. Some weeks later, she was “elected” by the Parliament with a majority of less than ten votes in a chamber of 751 members. Three of the candidate-Commissioners she later proposed to the Parliament were rejected in hearings and she was forced to propose three alternatives. She was elected on the basis of a political manifesto – her “Political Guidelines”, crafted and balanced to secure a majority to get elected. Once she and her team took office in December, her Political Guidelines (mostly snappy headlines showing political direction, with varying levels of detail) were transformed into the Commission’s Work Programme 2020-24. Here we have a technocratic, detailed programme (bureaucratic length and language, complete with annexes and tables) to implement the Political Guidelines.
The SOTEU is the embodiment of some lofty but vague text in the Lisbon Treaty (2007) about transparency and democracy. In practice, it fine-tunes the balance of power in favour of the Parliament. The President is saying – “Look at how I delivered this year my manifesto promises, and, with your approval, this is what my Commission intends to do next year”. It should not be forgotten that the Parliament has the legal powers to remove the Commission from office. It came close to doing this in 1999, but the Commission resigned hours before the vote to dismiss it.
The Commission’s plans for the coming year are set down in detail in a “Letter of Intent” that accompanies her SOTEU address. The EU’s law-makers (the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers have joint and equal powers) gradually ended the unbridled creativity of the Commission to make whatever proposals it liked, by inviting an annual Letter of Intent that they would approve. Once approved, the contents of the Letter of Intent are built into the Commission’s next annual work programme (in this case, in January 2022).
Perhaps the Council and the Parliament asked for more than they could handle. The “internal dynamics” of each body (Brussels-speak for a diversity of priorities) make it difficult for them to approve all the detail of the Letter. They usually make a general declaration of acknowledgement which is enough for the Commission to proceed. But the point is made – the Commission’s right of initiative has political limits.
The governments of the EU member countries appear to be absent from this annual away day between frenemies. In fact, they don’t need to be there because they are actually the Apex Predators at the top of the food chain. On 20 June 2019, Europe’s leaders in the European Council adopted a Strategic Agenda for 2019-2021. This preceded their selection of von der Leyen as candidate-President and was, therefore, before she framed her Political Guidelines. Von der Leyen’s political legitimacy comes from both the national leaders and the Parliament. Accordingly, before facing the Parliament, she took the leaders’ four headline strategic priorities and repackaged them as her six Political Guidelines.
The leaders’ priorities overarch everything – the Political Guidelines, the Commission Work Programme and, in the law-making Council of Ministers, its successive 18-month programmes and the 6-month agendas of its rotating presidencies. Since President von der Leyen sits down with the national leaders in the European Council (effectively, almost every month), this is the forum where she accounts to them for her actions and presents her next steps. Without the political spectacle of the State of the EU address. But President von der Leyen needs to win applause at both tables.