Reflecting on the State of the Union

It’s a few weeks since President von der Leyen’s 2021 State of the European Union speech. It’s always an interesting annual point along the road to a more social Europe. The speech is meant to be a carefully calibrated pitch on the value of the EU to the European Parliament and hopefully to Europeans, although there’s still some way to go there as it doesn’t make the headlines that it should.

As civil society perhaps we expect too much of these speeches. While President von der Leyen said and promised some welcome things that address some specific social and equality issues (a year for youth and a programme to help them find work abroad, pandemic preparedness including a new authority to fight future crises, combatting violence against women, and a care strategy), there was little in the narrative on addressing real systemic problems facing our societies. To be relevant to Europeans, the State of the Union should address the trends Europe is seeing and, in a year where COVID has devastated society and social cohesion as we know it, it was a strange choice not to address rising poverty, inequality and exclusion head on. These are the issues that keep people living in Europe down, leaving them feeling insecure and unsafe. There are European solutions to these problems, like the minimum wage directive, and I can guarantee that more Europeans want to know about that than semi-conductor chips.

The unique contribution that civil society has made during COVID was also overlooked. It’s no exaggeration to say that independent civil society is facing a crisis, from access to decision-making and space to engage closing to the financial repercussions of COVID that will mean – like businesses – many of us may have to close our doors unless we get extra support. The EU is meant to be a champion for civil society space globally, so it does send a message when the State of the Union fails to acknowledge our contribution and the challenges we are facing.

It’s clear that we have work to do to get solutions for a Social Europe and civil society into the President’s speaking points next year! Let’s hope that we can join together to meet President von der Leyen to get the message across. After all, if her college of Commissioners can make time for the corporate sector, who according to Integrity Watch EU top the list of high-level meetings, she can make time for Social Platform which represents tens of thousands of European organisations and the real needs of millions of people living and working in Europe.

You can relive our live coverage of the State of the EU here.