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Von der Leyen vows ‘fair’ green deal for EU farms and industry

Ursula von der Leyen's term ends next year, but she has so far not said if she wants a second one
Ursula von der Leyen's term ends next year, but she has so far not said if she wants a second one - Copyright AFP Adem ALTAN
Ursula von der Leyen's term ends next year, but she has so far not said if she wants a second one - Copyright AFP Adem ALTAN
Antoine POLLEZ, Julien GIRAULT

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen promised on Wednesday that Europe’s green energy transition would be “fair and just” for farmers and businesses fearful of new regulations and unfair foreign competition.

Nine months ahead of the European Parliament elections, von der Leyen’s State of the Union address to MEPs was more focused on addressing voters’ economic concerns than on foreign crises like the war in Ukraine. 

Brussels will, she said, launch a probe into what she said were the “huge state subsidies” allowing China to flood the European market with cheap electric cars, opening a new front in the battle to lead the new green economy.

She said the EU would fast-track permits for new wind turbines, vowed that “agriculture and protection of the natural world can go hand in hand” and promised to organise an international conference on ways to fight human traffickers bringing migrants to Europe.   

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been the centrepiece of the previous year’s address, but played a less central role this time, with the focus on what the EU must do to prepare itself to accommodate Kyiv and the countries of the Western Balkans as new members.

Some member states have dragged their feet on EU enlargement in the past, arguing that Brussels must streamline its decision-making rules — under which the 27 existing member states wield a veto in many areas — before taking on any more members.

– ‘Fit for enlargement’ –

But von der Leyen, who is due to report back to member states next month on Ukraine’s progress towards meeting the criteria for membership talks, said that Kyiv had made “great strides” and that reform of EU rules should not be an excuse for delay.

The president of the European Commission told MEPs the EU should reform “but we cannot -– and we should not –- wait for treaty change to move ahead with enlargement. A union fit for enlargement can be achieved faster,” she said.

“The future of Ukraine is in our Union. The future of the Western Balkans is in our Union. The future of Moldova is in our union,” she declared.

Von der Leyen’s commission has begun to lose some of its most senior members, as figures like former vice-president and Green Deal supremo Frans Timmermans seek new jobs ahead of the end of their five year mandate next year.

There is increasing speculation in Brussels that von der Leyen herself will seek to return for a second term, but first will come the June European Parliament elections, which will help define the political balance as a round of horse-trading over top European jobs begins.

Europe’s ongoing transition towards clean-energy technology has been at the heart of the commission’s agenda, but EU leaders are looking nervously over their shoulder at the mounting anger of farmers concerned that new green rules threaten their livelihoods.

In the Netherlands, a brand new populist farmers’ party, the BBB, rocked the political establishment in March by seizing the biggest share of seats in upper house elections. 

In Poland, the country’s reputation as Kyiv’s staunchest ally has been damaged by popular opposition to Ukrainian grain imports.

And in France, memories of the Yellow Vest protest — a nationwide movement that sprang out of rural opposition to higher diesel prices — remain fresh.

– Fire and flood –

In the European Parliament, von der Leyen’s own conservative EPP group has begun trying to water down nature protection laws opposed by farmers, and the president herself marked her return from the summer break with a surprise vow to review the wolf’s protected status.  

“I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to our farmers, to thank them for providing us with food day after day,” von der Leyen said. 

“It is not always an easy task, as the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, climate change bringing droughts, forest fires and flooding, and new obligations are all having a growing impact on farmers’ work and incomes. We must bear that in mind.”     

European industry, meanwhile, is faced with the challenge of the United States and China pouring subsidies into their own battery, solar and electrical vehicle sectors.  

“It is a crucial industry for the clean economy, with a huge potential for Europe,” von der Leyen said.

“But global markets are now flooded with cheaper Chinese electric cars, and their price is kept artificially low by huge state subsidies,” she said, promising “an anti-subsidy investigation” that could theoretically lead to restrictions on imports.  

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AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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