Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 10-11 December 2020

CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP"CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP"

Dear President,

Honourable Members,

I would like to begin by paying tribute to Valéry Giscard D’Estaing. With his passing, we have lost a President, a patriot and a founding father of Europe. He was born in Koblenz, fought in the liberation of Paris and built peace and friendship – embodying Europe throughout his life. He was the artist, the architect, the craftsman of our European democracy. And it is here, in this hemicycle, that he reminded us in 2002 that Europe must always offer the world and its citizens ‘three fundamental contributions: reason, humanism and freedom’.

Honourable Members,

These three words – reason, humanism and freedom – are at the heart of so many of the historic decisions we have taken in this year quite unlike any other. With tomorrow’s vote on NextGenerationEU, you are writing history. It is worth, just for a moment, to pause and look at the big picture here. I say that because NextGenerationEU can lead to the most ambitious overhaul of the European economy in decades.

It will drive our green and jobs recovery. It will be investing in everything from renewables to renovations, to restoring our nature. It will speed up our Digital Decade by financing faster internet, safer infrastructure and newer technologies. It will make our economies more resilient, driving forward reforms. And, crucially, it will provide massive and quick investment where it is needed and to those who need it. And it will give citizens, workers and business real support and real hope after the pain of the pandemic and the lockdowns. Well, this is Europe getting back to its feet and moving forward together. And I want to thank this House for working with us to making this a reality.

Honourable Members,

I also count on your support to finalise negotiations on sectoral programmes and the Recovery and Resilience Facility as soon as possible. And I know, you will be just as ambitious and determined as you were when you were securing crucial extra funding for research, for health and external action. When you ensured a clear roadmap for the introduction of New Own Resources, when you enshrined ambition on climate and biodiversity spending, and when you protected the general conditionality framework. And it is against this background that I am pleased that the European Council has finally endorsed the general conditionality mechanism, which you agreed with them.

The conditionality mechanism has not been reopened – and this was a red line for me and I know exactly this was also a red line for you. It is path breaking that for the first time the Union has equipped itself with a mechanism to protect the budget against breaches of the principle of the rule of law. Not just individual breaches that have already occurred but also, and more importantly, systemic or recurrent shortcomings that could in a direct way threaten the budget and the EU’s financial interests in the future. And Council conclusions ultimately do not change anything about the conditionality mechanism, neither in the law nor in its application. Let me address some of the understandable concerns that these conclusions have raised in this House.

In essence, as I understand it, there is a fear that the application of the regulation will be delayed and that justice delayed might be justice denied. This will not happen. The regulation will apply from 1 January 2021 onwards. And any breach that occurs from that day onwards will be covered. And I can assure you, the Commission will always act in full autonomy, full respect of the law and full objectivity. And we will start the necessary work of monitoring immediately. When concerns arise, discussions with Member States will also commence without undue delay.

We will adopt guidelines on the regulation, as we were planning in any event, and these guidelines of course do not change the law. They just set out how we will make our role in implementing it operational. And it is only natural that if there is a court case on the underlying law, we take the European Court of Justice judgment into account in finalising the guidelines. Crucially, any case occurring after 1 January 2021 will be addressed. No case will be lost. And finally, I am sure that the Parliament will stand with the Commission in defending the regulation if it comes to a court case and ask for an expedited procedure.

Honourable Members,

I started by talking about how Europe is moving forward: with reason, humanity and freedom. And nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to the future of our planet. The decision by Leaders to back the Commission’s proposal for our 2030 emission reduction target of at least 55% was based on science and on reason; and it was based on protecting humanity; and on ensuring freedom for future generations. And with this argument and this agreement we set ourselves a path towards climate neutrality by 2050 and are showing true leadership.

And the good news is that we are far from alone. Just last week we saw 70 world Leaders stand up at the UN Climate Ambition Summit and another 60 of Europe’s biggest companies stand behind the 2030 target. And building on this momentum, I am counting on the support of this House to rapidly conclude negotiations on the European Climate Law. This will be the first ever law that will bind the continent to becoming climate neutral. But let me be clear, setting the target is the easy part in this difficult endeavour. Delivering on it must start now and it will take a major collective and systemic effort, but it is worth it.

Honourable Members,

Our Union has taken bigger steps forward this year, than it probably did in the decade before that. And we did that in spite, and in some cases even because, of a fierce global pandemic. But any recovery starts with overcoming this virus. And nobody should think that we are out of the woods yet – not when more than 3,000 Europeans are dying of COVID-19 every single day or when infections and hospitalisations are still going up in some Member States.

But there is finally some good news: We have agency and we have hope. And this is the message I passed to the Leaders at the European Council. The Commission has negotiated the broadest portfolio of vaccine candidates. And finally, within a week, the first vaccine will be authorised, so that vaccinations can start immediately. And more will follow in the new year. And in total, we have bought more than enough doses for everyone in Europe and we will be able to support our neighbours and our partners around the world through COVAX, so that no one is left behind.

But to get to the end of the pandemic, we will need up to 70% of the population vaccinated. This is a huge task, a big task. So let us start as soon as possible with the vaccination, together, as 27, with a start on the same day. As we have gone in unity through this pandemic, let us start the eradication of this horrible virus together and united.

Honourable Members,

Allow me to end with a brief update on the unfinished business of this year, and this is our future partnership with the United Kingdom. As I speak, our teams are working to try to reach an agreement, working day and night, sometimes against all odds. And I want to pay tribute to all of them and I want to thank in particular our Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, for his dedication and resilience.

And as things stand, I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not, but I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow but it is there and it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying. The good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues, but this is now a case of us being so close and yet so far away from each other. Because two issues still remain outstanding, you know them: the level playing field and fisheries.

Now, first on the level playing field. Our aim is simply to ensure fair competition on our own market, very simple. And this is why we need to establish robust mechanisms. The architecture we are working on rests on two pillars: state aid and standards. On state aid, we have made progress, based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement, and the possibility to autonomously remedy the situation where needed. On standards, we have agreed a strong mechanism of non- regression – that is a big step forward – and this is to ensure that our common high labour, social and environmental standards will not be undercut. And of course, difficulties still remain on the question of how to really future-proof fair competition. But I am also glad to report that issues linked to governance, by now, are largely being resolved.

On fisheries, the discussion is still very difficult. We do not question the UK’s sovereignty over its own waters, but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and fisherwomen. And in all honesty, it sometimes feels like we will not be able to resolve this question. But we must continue to try and find a solution. And this is the only responsible and right course of action.

Honourable Members,

The next days are going to be decisive. And I know I have said this before and I know deadlines have been missed time and again. The clock puts us all in a very difficult situation, not least this Parliament and its right to exercise democratic scrutiny and ratification. That is why I want to sincerely thank you for your support and your understanding. And I know that if we do get there, I can count on you to ensure a good outcome. As in the past, we must all walk these last miles in the same shoes.

Thank you so much and long live Europe.