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Speakers corner 14 September 2023

State of the Union speech: Four years of ambitious climate action – what next?

On the 13th of September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her fourth and last State of the Union Speech of the mandate. This year, the heavily scrutinised tradition of the Brussels back-to-school season was less about making new announcements and promises and more of an occasion to reflect on the last four years. While health policies and defence matters were on everyone’s minds in the previous years, the Green Deal and its trade implications played a big role in yesterday’s speech.

Switching seamlessly between French, English and German for an hour, von der Leyen praised the Commission’s climate action, as well as the mitigation of the energy crisis last winter. “The price for gas in Europe was over 300 euros per megawatt hour one year ago. It is now around 35,” she pointed out, before adding that this “model of success should be replicated in other fields like critical raw materials (CRMs) or clean hydrogen.” Keeping the EU at the forefront of the clean tech and renewables race against extremely competitive players such as the US and China emerged as a key objective during the address.

Von der Leyen underlined the multiplication of clean steel factories on European soil, which grew from none to 38 in a few years, with clean hydrogen now attracting “more investment in the EU than in China and the US combined”. Beyond those successes, the EC President asserted the importance of reinforcing dialogue both with industry and like-minded partners. She announced the creation of Clean Transition Dialogues with industry, starting with a new European Wind Power package to further solve issues of funding and permitting of renewable projects.

On critical raw materials, she voiced her opposition to China’s decision to implement export restrictions on two key metals – gallium and germanium - and highlighted the upcoming first meeting of the Critical Raw Materials Club, aiming to diversify and secure supplies of CRMs, to be held later this year. Going further, von der Leyen denounced market distortions caused by China’s heavily subsidised electric vehicle industry and announced the launch of an anti-subsidy investigation on the matter.

Overall, she demonstrated that, on the Green Deal agenda, the EU “stayed the course”. However, research and innovation (R&I) was not given the spotlight despite the role it ought to have in helping achieve the EU’s climate and energy objectives. Critics similarly pointed out the absence of upcoming milestones in her speech. COP28 and the awaited new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, for instance, which will both happen during the last 300 days of the mandate, could have allowed von der Leyen to make a stronger case to defend the continuity of the EU’s action and its legacy on the green agenda, which is anticipated to face significant challenges under the next European Parliament and College of Commissioners.