SOTEU 2023: Commission President maps out Europe’s future journey

15 September 2023

Every year, during the September Plenary Session, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, presents her State of the European Union speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. During her annual speech, the President assesses the achievements of the past year(s) and presents the Commission’s strategic priorities for the year ahead. 

This year, President von der Leyen highlighted the upcoming European election where millions of first-time voters, including those born in 2008, will shape the future of Europe by addressing issues like border conflicts, climate change, artificial intelligence, housing, and employment. Revisiting the past year, von der Leyen acknowledged the challenges faced, such as the global pandemic and geopolitical tensions, but went on to commend the progress made in areas like the European Green Deal, digital transition, NextGenerationEU, Health Union, and gender equality. Von der Leyenunderscored the importance of trust and the commitment to finishing the transformative work entrusted to the Union.

Von der Leyen reiterated the EU’s unwavering commitment to combating climate change, emphasising the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

The President underlined the EU’s focus on economic recovery, with substantial investments in key sectors like digitalisation and sustainability. These investments are intended to stimulate job creation, foster innovation, and drive the European economy forward.

President von der Leyen also turned her attention to the critical role of digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in modern society. She noted that the EU had surpassed its 20% investment target in digital projects, with member states utilising these funds to digitise healthcare, justice systems, and transportation networks. However, she also acknowledged the challenges posed by the digital world, including disinformation, privacy breaches, and the erosion of trust and fundamental rights. To address these challenges, the EU has become a global pioneer in safeguarding citizens’ rights in the digital realm. Initiatives like the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) aim to create a safer digital space while holding tech giants accountable. President von der Leyen hailed these efforts as historic achievements.

Regarding AI, she acknowledged its potential to revolutionise healthcare, increase productivity, and tackle climate change. However, she cautioned against underestimating the real threats posed by AI, as it becomes more accessible and powerful. She called for Europe to lead the way in establishing a global framework for AI based on three pillars: guardrails, governance, and guiding innovation. The AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive pro-innovation AI law, is a central component of this effort.

The President also discussed the EU’s role in addressing global challenges, particularly in regions like the Sahel, which faces instability due to military coups and terrorism. She emphasised the importance of cooperating with legitimate governments and regional organisations and announced plans for a new strategic approach to be discussed at the next EU-African Union Summit.

Von der Leyen acknowledged Russia’s full-scale war against the UN Charter’s founding principles, which has raised concerns among countries in Central Asia to the Indo-Pacific. She noted attempts to return to bloc thinking and isolate countries in between. In response, she advocated for Europe to work with emerging economies, reform the international system, and lead efforts to make the rules-based order fairer and more equitable.

The President also highlighted the Global Gateway initiative, designed to create transparent, sustainable, and economically attractive connections with partners worldwide. Projects like the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor demonstrate Europe’s commitment to fostering global connectivity and prosperity.

Von der Leyen stressed the importance of managing migration effectively and working patiently with key partners. She referred to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum as a balanced approach that prioritises border protection, sovereignty, solidarity, and humanity. In a similar vein, the fight against human smugglers, who exploit desperate people seeking refuge, was another key focus. The President called for stronger legislation, law enforcement, and the involvement of agencies like Europol, Eurojust, and Frontex in tackling this global issue. She announced plans for an International Conference on fighting people smuggling.

In her closing remarks, President von der Leyen reiterated the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression and emphasised that Europe would stand with Ukraine for as long as necessary. She announced the extension of temporary protection to Ukrainians in the EU, additional financial support, and a commitment to further eastern enlargement of the EU. The President concluded her address by calling on Europe to answer the call of history, envisioning a continent united in freedom, peace, and shared values, ready to build a brighter future for its people and the world.