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State of the Union starts countdown to 2024 EU elections

Ursula von der Leyen’s address offered hope to aspiring EU member states while she talked tough on China

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen fired the starting gun for the 2024 European elections on Wednesday with this term’s final State of the Union address.

Her speech, seen as a landmark in the political calendar that sets out the European Union’s policy priorities for the year ahead, was less far-reaching than those of previous years as it reviewed her record in managing the crises of Covid-19, Brexit, the invasion of Ukraine and gas switch-off, while sketching out aims for the remaining 300 days.

She remained silent on the big question of whether she intends to seek a second term as Commission president, something she is seen as strongly placed to do though it would require careful political manoeuvring, not least with her own political group the European People’s Party.

Here are the highlights.


Marking a war crime

A memorable moment was when von der Leyen told the story of Victoria Amelina, a young Ukrainian writer who was considered one of the country’s most promising voices in literature before she was killed by a Russian missile strike on a pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk this summer.

She had previously brought her young son to safety in the Czech Republic, and von der Leyen recalled how Amelina had cried as she crossed the border, telling her son that they were “home” because “this is Europe”.

Héctor Abad Faciolince, a Colombian writer who was a friend of Amelina and survived the same missile attack, was seated in the Strasbourg plenary chamber as von der Leyen made her speech. He stood up and held up a photograph of the young writer as her story was told.

Von der Leyen stressed that the four million Ukrainian refugees who sought shelter in the EU are as welcome as ever and that support to Ukraine “will endure”.

She concluded by offering hope to Ukraine and other countries that aspire to EU membership. “The future of Ukraine is in our Union. The future of the Western Balkans is in our Union. The future of Moldova is in our Union,” she said.

She acknowledged that enlargement would require internal reform to the EU, announcing that the Commission would begin reviewing policies to consider how the budget, parliament and Commission itself might need to be transformed. In sum, the invasion of Ukraine has brought the idea of enlarging the EU back from the dead.

Tough on China

The most far-reaching revelation in the speech was the announcement of an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles coming from China.

Von der Leyen accused Beijing of “flooding” international markets with cheap electric cars, their price “kept artificially low by huge state subsidies”.

She said similar “unfair trade practices” by China had in the past killed off Europe’s solar panel industry, bankrupting businesses and forcing young talents to emigrate elsewhere.

“We must defend ourselves against unfair practices,” she insisted, repeating the words that have become a mantra of her policy towards China: “de-risk, not decouple”. In other words, the EU should trade with China while reducing any dangerous dependencies – a policy in sympathy with but falling short of the United States’ more hawkish approach.

Gender equality

Ever since she emerged on to the political stage in Germany as a mother of seven who promoted childcare and greater assistance for working families, von der Leyen has been viewed as representing the more progressive side of her centre-right political group.

Those values were on show again as she called out a lack of childcare in Europe for preventing mothers from being able to work, spoke about gender equality as personally important to her, and spurred a spontaneous round of applause from MEPs when she told the chamber: “No means no.”

“There can be no true equality without freedom from violence,” she said.

Europe should be a continent “where you can be who you are, love who you want, and aim as high as you want”, she said at a later point.

The speech began and ended with mentions of young people. von der Leyen noted the youngest first-time voters who will cast ballots in the European elections next year will have been born in 2008.

“As they stand in that polling booth, they will think about what matters to them,” she said. “The war that rages at our borders, or the impact of destructive climate change, about how artificial intelligence will influence their lives. Or of their chances of getting a house or a job in the years ahead.”

Applause for farmers

Von der Leyen switched into German for a key section of the speech in which she sought to diffuse some of the toxicity of a row between advocates of environmental action and the agriculture industry.

Ecosystems, she said, are “essential for the survival of all people in Europe” and must be protected. However, food security must also be secured.

This was an attempt to smooth over the bitter political row that broke out over her proposed Nature Restoration Law, a bid to protect biodiversity that only narrowly survived in parliament after her frenemy, the leader of her own European People’s Party Manfred Weber, led an effort to kill it.

Many in the EPP are deeply concerned that that appearing “too green” will lose them votes to hard-right and rural parties in the coming election.

Von der Leyen made a point of thanking farmers for their work in providing food, spurring applause in the chamber, and insisted there was no need for division over green policies – that food security and environmental protections go hand in hand.


On the most sensitive topic for many member states, migration, von der Leyen said that skilled migrants were needed in Europe but that migration needed to be “managed ... effectively and compassionately” and borders controlled.

She spoke of striking deals with overseas countries, a new agreement within the EU on migration co-operation, and tackling criminal human trafficking enterprises that send people in “unfit” boats across the sea – something she described as a “global plague”.