Ursula von der Leyen calls for ‘more dialogue and less polarisation’ in climate debate

European Commission president seeks to bridge gap with farmers over pace of regulatory change in State of the Union address

In her final State of the Union speech of her current term as president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen emphatically thanked farmers and made an appeal for “less polarisation” in a bid to quell a right-wing backlash over her climate change policies.

The commission chief set out a pro-business vision of how the EU economy could be transformed to meet international climate change commitments, praising the strength of the clean steel and hydrogen industries, while promising to fast-track permission for wind energy projects and to protect the electric car industry from anti-competitive practices by China.

The climate agenda was also an “economic one”, Dr von der Leyen said. “Modernisation and decarbonisation can go hand in hand.”

The commission chief drew a round of applause in the chamber of the European Parliament by taking a moment to express her thanks to farmers and her “gratitude that day by day they are always providing food for us”.


She acknowledged complaints by the agricultural sector that the pace of new regulations had been too fast.

“It’s not an easy task, because the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, climate change bringing droughts, forest fires and flooding, but also new obligations are all having a growing impact on farmers’ work and farmers’ incomes,” she said.

“Many are already working hard towards a more sustainable form of agriculture. We need to work together with the farmers... we need more dialogue and less polarisation.

“I am and remain convinced that agriculture and protection of our natural world can go hand in hand. We need both.”

A suite of reforms collectively known as the European Green Deal have been a centrepiece of Dr von der Leyen’s term in office since 2019, ranging from the protection of nature to plans to insulate buildings with the aim of meeting the EU’s targets to cut carbon emissions and avoid the most damaging consequences of climate change.

However, the plans have come under pressure from Dr von der Leyen’s own centre-right European People’s Party as the 2024 EU elections approach, with several politicians calling for a freeze on all further green legislation as they fear losing votes to anti-green and rural movements.

Dr von der Leyen sought to reconcile with her critics while vowing to “stay the course”, saying the record summer heat, wildfires and devastating floods that hit southern Europe illustrated why the climate transition was necessary. “This is the reality of a boiling planet,” she said.

Considered a set piece of the political calendar that sets out policy priorities for the coming year, the State of the Union address also touched on the need to combat trafficking of vulnerable migrants to Europe, expressed support for Ukraine, and offered hope to Ukraine and Moldova in their bids to join the EU in the future.

The former German defence minister did not disclose whether she plans to seek a second term as commission president, a role that is determined by the outcome of the EU elections and the preferences of the governments of the 27 member states.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times