European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during a debate on “The State of the European Union” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
September 15, 2021
By Yves Herman and Gabriela Baczynska
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) -The pace of vaccination against COVID-19 must be quickened to avert “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”, the European Union’s chief executive said on Wednesday, also urging countries around the globe to step up the fight against climate change.
Ursula von der Leyen’s second ‘state of the union’ address since she took over as European Commission president comes after two years that have tested the resilience of the bloc with the coronavirus pandemic, a sharp economic downturn, strains over Brexit and the rule of law in eastern member states.
In a broad-brush speech setting out the bloc’s priorities for the year ahead, von der Leyen also listed ambitious goals, including technological independence for the EU, but warned “the next year will be another test of character.”
At the end of August, 70% of the adult population in the 27-nation EU had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This marked a milestone after a slow start, but also masked big differences among EU countries.
Announcing a new donation of another 200 million vaccine doses by the middle of next year for third countries – on top of a previous commitment for 250 million jabs – von der Leyen said she was also worried by variation of vaccination rates among the EU’s member states.
“Let’s do everything possible (so) that this does not turn into a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.
‘FURTHER AND FASTER’ ON CLIMATE
The former German defence minister has put tackling climate change at the top of her agenda, with bold steps for the EU to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, along with a digital transformation of its economy.
Von der Leyen said the EU would double its international funding to protect nature and halt the decline of the world’s biodiversity, adding: “My message today is that Europe is ready to do more.”
“This is a generation with a conscience, they are pushing us to go further and faster to tackle the climate crisis,” she said.
She said the EU would increase its financial support to help poorer countries fight climate change and adapt to its impacts, announcing plans for an additional 4 billion euros until 2027.
With a global chip shortage causing a major delay in manufacturing activity and forced several automakers to cut down on production, von der Leyen said the bloc must create a state- of-the-art European chip ecosystem including production.
“Digital is the make-or-break issue,” she said.
Nineteen EU member states would have their economy back at pre-pandemic level this year, with the others following next year, she said.
Von der Leyen, wore a mask emblazoned with the EU flag’s circle of 12 gold stars, greeting lawmakers at the assembly ahead of her speech with fist bumps.
Critics say she has fallen short of promises to make the commission more “geopolitical” as the EU struggles to assert its influence in foreign affairs.
(Reporting by Jan Strupcewzki, Marine Strauss, Gabriela Baczynska, Phil Blenkinsop, Yves Herman, Foo Yun Chee, Writing by Ingrid Melander, Editing by John Chalmers)