Five things from EU chief’s first State of the Union speech

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Image caption,
Ursula von der Leyen replaced Jean-Claude Juncker in the EU's top job in December

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has delivered her first State of the Union address, outlining her vision for the future of the European Union (EU).

The Commission drafts EU laws, enforces EU rules and has the power to impose fines on member states if necessary.

Here are five key areas Mrs von der Leyen touched on in her wide-ranging speech.

1) Climate change

The EU chief spoke at length about the environment, and announced an ambitious plan to cut the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions.

She said the target was to reduce emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 - up from an earlier goal of 40%.

"There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet," Mrs von der Leyen said.

"While much of the world's activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter," she added. "The 2030 target is ambitious, achievable, and beneficial."

EU leaders will meet to agree on the target next month, but resistance is expected from some eastern European countries that largely rely on coal for their energy. Most states back such a target, however.

Mrs von der Leyen also said 30% of the €750bn (£677bn; $859bn) post-coronavirus recovery package agreed by EU leaders last month would be devoted to climate-friendly projects.

"I will insist that recovery plans don't just bring us out of the crisis but also help us propel Europe forward in the world of tomorrow," she said.

2) Coronavirus

Unsurprisingly, the EU's response to the coronavirus pandemic featured prominently in the address.

"A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be," Mrs von der Leyen said. "The pandemic and the uncertainty that goes with it are not over and the recovery is still in its early stages."

But Mrs von der Leyen praised the EU's multi-million euro recovery package, which was agreed after four nights of talks, as a "chance to make change happen by design, and not by disaster".

"We turned fear and division between member states into confidence in our union," she said. "We showed what is possible when we trust each other."

Media caption,
European Council President Charles Michel said the recovery package was a "pivotal moment"

The former German defence minister also announced that a global health summit would take place next year in Italy, and that the EU would build a new agency for biomedical research and development.

3) Brexit

While the UK's departure from the EU only received a brief mention in the speech, it prompted the loudest applause from the European Parliament members in the audience.

"[Trade] talks have not progressed as we would have wished... and that leaves us very little time," Mrs von der Leyen said.

"[The withdrawal agreement] cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This a matter of law, trust and good faith," she added.

Media caption,
Leyen: UK and EU "jointly agreed" on withdrawal agreement

The EU chief was referring to a contentious bill published by the UK government that seeks to overrule parts of the Brexit deal with the EU.

The UK government has said the bill is a "vital safety net" needed in the event that a trade agreement is not reached. But the government has also said it breaks international law, and the EU wants the legislation scrapped.

"The Withdrawal Agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it. Line by line, word by word," Mrs Von der Leyen said.

4) Technology

The Commission's president called for more investment in technology so the EU could keep pace with the US and China.

"We want to lead the way, the European way, to the Digital Age: based on our values, our strength, our global ambitions," she said.

Mrs Von der Leyen said that 20% of the €750bn coronavirus recovery package would be invested in digital projects, with a further €8bn spent on the next generation of supercomputers.

She called for a "twin green and digital transition" at a time when "the global competitive landscape is fundamentally changing".

5) Migration

Five years on from the 2015 migrant crisis, Mrs von der Leyen said it had caused "many deep divisions" within the EU and "some of those scars [are] still healing today".

"If we are all ready to make compromises we can find a solution," she told the audience. "Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part."

She spoke after a fire destroyed a migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving thousands of migrants and refugees homeless and bringing the issue to the fore once again.

Media caption,
The BBC's Jean Mackenzie spoke to people at the Moria camp months before it was destroyed and reflects on her experiences there

"The images of the Moria camp are a painful reminder of the need for Europe to come together," Mrs von der Leyen said.

"Next week, the Commission will put forward its New Pact on Migration," she added. "We will take a human and humane approach. Saving lives at sea is not optional."

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