It's an event that gets Brussels types buzzing, but for those outside the world of EU politics, it normally wouldn't even register. This year might be different, though, as the annual state-of-the-EU speech, given by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, covered a number of crucial and pressing issues: Russia, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, and the long winter ahead. Here are six takeaways on what it all means.
No New Russia Sanctions For Now
In the face of spiraling inflation, high energy prices, and rising discontent among voters, the commission president sent a strong message to those who might have toyed with the idea that it was time to scale down the EU sanctions on Russia: "I want to make it very clear, the sanctions are here to stay. This is the time for us to show resolve, not appeasement."
Yet what was also clear was that there was no mention of new measures against the Kremlin. After the seven EU sanctions packages agreed after much wrangling among EU member states since the war broke out in February, there doesn't seem to be much more desire and unity left in the Brussels tank ahead of what many expect to be a long and politically fraught winter. Proposed sanctions on the remaining Russian oil and gas inflows to the bloc, as well as targeting Russia's nuclear industry, might just have to wait -- if they even come at all.
Free EU Roaming For Ukrainians?
Ukraine featured left, right, and center in the speech. The Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, was the guest of honor in Strasbourg and von der Leyen, dressed in Ukrainian blue and yellow, announced that she was dashing to Kyiv later on September 14 to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
There were no major policy announcements regarding Ukraine, which has been fighting an all-out war against Russia for more than six months. The EU and its member states have already provided 19 billion euros ($18.9 billion) in financial assistance to Kyiv, Ukraine's electricity grid was connected to the EU's back in March, and the country has already received EU candidate status.
In the speech, von der Leyen promised support to fix damaged Ukrainian schools to the tune of 100 million euros and pledged that the European Commission will work with Ukraine to ensure seamless access to the EU single market -- a move that is already under way but that will take time.
Perhaps the most interesting promise from von der Leyen's speech was the offer to bring Ukraine into the European free-roaming area permanently. EU and Ukrainian telecom companies ensured at the start of the war that Ukrainian mobile-phone users could roam freely or at reduced cost in the bloc. To fix this on a permanent basis would be "like digital visa liberalization," according to some EU officials I have spoken to.
Enlargement Is Back On the Agenda
There was a time when European Commission presidents avoided talking about the future enlargement of the club for fear of upsetting some EU member states, notably in the western part, that preferred to talk about reforms with existing members. Not anymore. "The path toward strong democracies and the path toward our union are one and the same. So I want the people of the Western Balkans, of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to know: You are part of our family, your future is in our union, and our union is not complete without you," von der Leyen said to roaring acclaim from the European Parliament, the EU institution most wedded to the idea of an enlarged EU.
Of course, some countries are still skeptical and the path is still long. (Von der Leyen didn't mention any time frames for good reason.) Take the Western Balkans. This was the only sentence in her hourlong speech in which that region was mentioned. Countries in the Western Balkans began their journey toward EU membership more than a decade ago and here they were lumped together with Ukraine and Moldova, who were given official candidate status only this year. While that might smart, there is a new, renewed interest in EU enlargement that likely wouldn't have happened without the war in Ukraine.
We're Sorry, Central And Eastern Europe
Many in Central and Eastern Europe have for years warned their Western European counterparts about the grave dangers of Putin's Russia, only to be dismissed as hysterics and Russophobes. Perhaps the most striking sentence in the entire speech was von der Leyen's admission that those countries had been right all along.
The European Commission president and former German defense minister didn't mince her words: "One lesson from this war is we should have listened to those who know Putin. To Anna Politkovskaya and all the Russian journalists who exposed the crimes and paid the ultimate price. To our friends in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and to the opposition in Belarus. We should have listened to the voices inside our union -- in Poland, in the Baltics, and all across Central and Eastern Europe. They have been telling us for years that Putin would not stop. And they acted accordingly."
It may have been a case of "too little, too late," but it was perhaps one of the most startling admissions of failure from a Western politician since the war broke out.
Will There Be A Cap On Russian Gas?
Possibly the biggest talking point in recent weeks has been whether the EU will impose a cap on Russian natural gas (or for that matter all gas) coming into the EU. EU member states remain divided on the issue.
While von der Leyen rattled off measures to lower the energy prices for consumers in coming months, from mandatory usage targets to reduced energy consumption, to imposing windfall taxes on electricity producers not using natural gas to generating power such as nuclear and renewables, she was far coyer on Russian gas: "We have to ensure our security of supply and, at the same time, ensure our global competitiveness. So, we will develop with the member states a set of measures that take into account the specific nature of our relationship with suppliers -- ranging from unreliable suppliers such as Russia to reliable friends such as Norway." This debate is going to continue well into the fall.
Sanctions With More Teeth
Rather than just targeting states, the EU can target with sanctions any human rights abuser in the world -- and they don't have to be tied to one particular state. The EU first used these individual human rights sanctions back in 2021, when it imposed asset freezes and visa bans on a number of people from China, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, South Sudan, and Russia.
One of the main criticisms of the EU sanctions framework, however, was that corruption wasn't a punishable violation. That's unlike the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which has allowed Washington to target oligarchs, businessmen, and officials in countries that it believed were involved in large-scale corruption
Now, the European Commission will propose to the European Parliament that its sanctions are beefed up in a similar way to the Magnitsky Act. The question remains, however: will it fly? Changing the sanctions legislation will require unanimity and it is doubtful whether that exists among the 27 EU member states at the moment. Hungary would almost certainly cry foul, having previously expressed reservations about the sanctions regime and some of its listings.