“Building the world we want to live in” – Neoliberalism with a human mask?

Von der Leyen’s first State of the Union speech in the European Parliament on 16 September – from a left perspective.

This year was special for two reasons: it was the first State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech given by Ursula von der Leyen (VdL) after she was miraculously elected – with the help of the right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary – as President of the European Commission in autumn 2019. Furthermore, it was the Commission’s first opportunity to present a review of what has happened since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The audience was thus rightfully curious.

VdL is well known for her nice words. Still, some stable moral perceptions do seem to lurk behind all her phrases. At least subconsciously, she suspects that workers should indeed be able to live from their wages, and she has accepted that the old growth model puts too much pressure on Mother Earth. She seems to be genuinely disturbed by cases of blatant racism and anti-LGBT hate groups.

Three promises and a "world we want to live in"

1. Workers might be helped but supporting enterprises is all that counts

One area that needs protection is the labour market. The SURE program should "keep people in jobs, skills in companies and SMEs in business". Two to one – one point for workers and two for business. This is a line of thought VdL follows most of the time: workers, refugees, the environment and other non-market issues are viewed and evaluated insofar as they can support the profit-generating machine of the market.

Surprisingly she mentions the dignity and sacredness of work. These words are used to introduce the idea of a "framework for minimum wages" and her support for collective bargaining. 

2. VdL seems to think the market has its own personality – how else could the market make promises?

She mentions a particularly strange "promise", stating that "the second promise of the social market economy is that of stability". We can’t be sure when VdL last had a conversation with the "social market economy". However, she celebrates triggering the "general escape clause" as this "flexibilised the European funds and state aid rules", "authorising more than 3 trillion euro in support to companies and industry" – no need to mention workers. Rightly so, she underlined the fact that "for the first time […] Europe has put in place its own common tools to complement national fiscal stabilisers."

Glorious austerity will not return – for now

She warns austerity hawks that "this is definitely not the time to withdraw support" and argues for a "delicate balance" between financial support and fiscal sustainability. For left actors, is the glass half-full or half-empty if we read between these lines? I think we can understand this as: "‘Black zero’ rules, but not in the coming months." No debate on structural challenges of the EU economy.

3. The market as the golden calf

"The Single Market is all about opportunity… it is about the opportunity to make the most of the freedoms we cherish as Europeans. It gives our companies the scale they need to prosper and it a safe haven for them in times of trouble." (VdL, SOTEU 2020)

These lines are indeed a wonderfully honest statement of a seriously deformed political project. The single market as the centre "of the freedoms we cherish as Europeans"? She urges, "We must cut red tape." She refers here, only indirectly, to the strategy of "one-in-one-out" and the secret death of the precautionary principle. Following her narrative of the green and digital growth agenda, VdL also announced there will be a new industrial strategy in the first half of 2021, alongside a new competition framework.

"Building the world we want to live in"

In the section of her speech with this title, VdL announces her supposedly revolutionary goal of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 by "proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%." This would "put the EU firmly on track for […] meeting our Paris Agreement obligations." That is indisputably wrong. As GUE/NGL MEP Nikolaj Villumsen said in the debate: "We know from science that a 55% reduction by 2030 is not enough. We need at least a 65% reduction if we are to live up to the Paris Agreement."

Until now, the goal was only 40%. But as the saying goes: "The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself." The Commission aims to change the underlying numbers of what a "reduction of CO2 emissions" means. In a leaked document, the Commission plans to include forests as carbon sinks, thus gaining a 5% reduction with the scratch of a pen. And voilà, one third of the revolution has already been achieved!

Circular economy and the Just Transition Fund are mentioned as helpful tools, after which it is announced that the rules for emission trading, renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy taxation should be reformed next summer. In which direction, we don’t know. "37% of NextGenerationEU will be spent directly on our European Green Deal objectives", which means that nearly two thirds of this (insufficient) stimulus will be spent on stabilising the old fossil-based economy. VdL also announced that 30% of the NextGenerationEU €750 bn budget will be raised through so-called green bonds. For the moment, nobody (the Commission included) actually knows what a "green bond" really is. But, hey, it sounds cool, despite the fact that 70% will still be non-green bonds.

Digitalisation – lots of emotions, no content

Digitalisation should have been one of the climaxes of the speech. Instead, it was a "real Von der Leyen". Even her party colleague Manfred Weber (Leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament) showed disappointment in the Q&A session after the speech. Nothing but hot air.

What is relevant from a left point of view here is that data and the data economy are solely viewed as a technical tool, with no consideration for any social aspect. Digital economy is therefore detached from societies, people and also individual rights. For VdL, "personalized data" describes only "business to consumer" data, nothing else. Consequentially there is no debate on the political and social impact of new monopolies, ‘fake news’, theft of private data etc. Or rather, data = economy, and that’s what we shall focus on, especially on gathering data to support firms in the healthcare (!) sectors.

This framing is equally alarming when it comes to the second area of digital economy: artificial intelligence (AI). The first aim of AI mentioned in VdL’s speech is "precision farming in agriculture". Ask any small farmers’ movement or agricultural NGO and they will tell you that AI’s intrusion upon agriculture is leading directly towards strengthening the monopolisation of the sector and the dispossession of small farmers around the world: first of their data and then of their land.

The world beyond the EU and what the European Commission wants to do (or not do)

Following VdL’s positive perception of the economy as it is today (see above), it is only natural that she whole-heartedly believes in the World Trade Organisation and its ability to "ensure fair competition for all."

China is being declared "a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systematic rival." Europe must "call out human right abuses" in Hong Kong and with the Uyghurs. "But what holds us back?", VdL asks, using this example to argue in favour of qualified majority voting in the Council. She announces a "European Magnitsky Act" targeting human right violators worldwide. So, we should take lessons from the USA to win the struggle for human rights?

Russia… the old enemy. There VdL is on safe ground, her conservative German compass telling her that Russia will stay Russia and that the poisoning of Navalny "is not a one off" and that "no pipeline will change that" – whatever that means.

Turkey has been bad, too! But not too bad and "Cyprus and Greece can always count on Europe’s full solidarity". But what does this solidarity actually mean? No one knows.

Then comes the USA. VdL wants to "cherish the transatlantic alliance", the "unbreakable bond between our people" and argues for "new beginnings with old friends" – as if Trump (the guy in the White House) may have just lost the telephone number of the EU. Not a single word on structural conflicts between the USA and the EU.

The same lack of analytical capabilities is visible in her discussion of Brexit. The Withdrawal Agreement "cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied" – just a few hours after the British Parliament did exactly that! But what do you expect from a politician building strategic negotiations on slogans such as "affection for the British people […] will never fade"?

The Western Balkans (Albania and North Macedonia) are now officially in the process of accession negotiations and their future lies in the EU. As VdL states, "We share the same history, we share the same destiny. The Western Balkans are part of Europe – and not just a stopover on the Silk Road." An interesting confusion of a road trip on Route 66 with the biggest ever infrastructure network on the Asian and European continents.

Countries like the Ukraine can sit back and relax, as VdL assured, "We will also be there for the Eastern Partnership countries". Here the EU wants to help to "create jobs and kickstart their economies", just like in the south. This smells like another round of Free Trade Agreements.

As VdL has visited the African Union twice already, she knows that "Africa will be a key partner" in a "partnership of equals". If that is the case, we can look forward to the first deployment of African troops in Europe…

Work is underway on the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, no details presented. But we did get a little bit more precision in another field: digital taxation. If the fabulous OECD and G20 do not reach an agreement, the Commission "will come forwards with a proposal early next year."

Migration – at last…

Migration is controversial and potentially costly, so it is a topic VdL does not appreciate. As mentioned above, she knows that "saving lives at sea is not optional". In September the Commission will publish its New Pact on Migration. But alas, do not hold your breath! "We will take action to fight smugglers, strengthen external borders, deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways". Looking at this content the pact should rather be called: "Let’s build a wall, too!" 

What is truly depressing is the social construction of "the migrant". This person, as far as VdL is concerned, is the typical neoliberal product. Kind of comparable to the "frontier men" in her beloved USA in the 19th century: young, agile, self-aware, adaptable and strong. She mentions two cases, first Suadd, a "teenage Syrian refugee" who, after three years in Europe, received "a prestigious scholarship from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland." The second case makes reference to "refugee doctors who offered their medical skills the moment the pandemic struck in France." Looking at these CVs, the author of this text is happy not to be a refugee in VdL’s world…

Based on this understanding of humanity, VdL is at least irritated about the burnt down refugee camp in Moria and states that the images are painful. However, she has a plan: Let’s build another camp! And that is what she really announces as a "joint pilot with the Greek authorities".

A rather stable ethical compass

Let’s have a closer look at the brighter parts of her speech. The following lines highlight some aspects of her speech which offer at least some stable ethical bases for cooperation on fundamental human rights issues.

Von der Leyen started her nearly 1.5-hour speech by paying tribute to care workers, doctors and nurses. She admitted that the coronavirus crisis "laid bare […] the limits of a model that values wealth above wellbeing. [The crisis] brought into sharper focus the planetary fragility that we see every day through melting glaciers, burning forests and now through global pandemics." VdL paid tribute (or lip service?) to trade unions, insisting that "the dignity of work must be sacred" and that she is "a strong advocate of collective bargaining" – which comes as a big surprise for the German audience. Nevertheless, she had some fundamental insights into the ongoing climate catastrophe: "Our current levels of consumption of raw materials, energy, water, food, and land use are not sustainable. We need to change how we treat nature, how we produce and consume, live and work, eat and heat, travel and transport." Could she be moving towards the de-growth movement?

Regarding migration, the President of the Commission announced, "We will take a human and humane approach. Saving lives at sea is not optional." Maybe before long we will see a fleet of EU funded ships transporting migrants and refugees safely to Europe? In terms of emotional impact, the end of her speech – when she denounced all kinds of hate crimes and promised to fight for an "anti-racist Union" – was the strongest part. Without mentioning Poland directly, she clarified that "LGBTQI-free zones are humanity free zones. And they have no place in our Union." 

Progressive Neoliberalism as the essence? 

In 2017, Nancy Fraser’s analysis of "progressive neoliberalism" became a slogan to understand the Clintonesque Democratic Party in the USA. She argued that this was a peculiar third option "that mixed together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization". The final part of VdL’s speech looks like it was taken from the same script. She knows her proposals do not cost money and are more or less well accepted (albeit not implemented) in Western Europe at the beginning of the 21st century. So, she starts with a dramatic picture describing the "founding values" of the "Community of Law" and how dear these have to be to our heart. After all, for VdL it’s about money – quelle surprise! It is about "fraud, corruption and conflict of interest" concerning the future flow of finance in the NextGenerationEU budget. Only after this tactical diversion does she mention the real problems: "freedom of the press" and "independence of the judiciary", while adding something about the minor problem of the "sale of golden passports". And by the way: no names are mentioned.

What is the essence of humanity?

The answer is presented here in the speech! "Difference is the essence of humanity". Thousands of years of struggle by philosophers and religious experts, and here it is: the more we differ from each other, the more human we are. Nancy Fraser has a new object to study – progressive neoliberalism is gaining new heights.

What is indeed undoubtedly positive and needs support from our side is the fact that the "Commission is putting forward an action plan" on hate crimes and hate speech. Furthermore, it will also put forward a strategy to strengthen LGBTQI rights.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect much from these initiatives if VdL cannot muster the courage to speak out against those responsible for the crimes: right-wing politicians in Poland. Until then she will talk the talk and others will walk the walk. 

The EU crisis from VdL’s perspective

The EU is in the deepest crisis ever. The strongest image of the past six months in VdL’s mind? "Two young girls playing tennis between the rooftops of Liguria"

This speech was worse than expected. In rhetoric, the end of a speech is called peroration and should be a summary that helps imprint the speech in the memory of the audience. VdL had the chance to speak for one hour about her plans for an incredible, powerful administration in one of the power centres of the globe, and she ended by telling us this:

"But there is one image that stuck in my mind from the last six difficult months. An image that captures the world through the eyes of our children. It is the image of Carola and Vittoria. The two young girls playing tennis between the rooftops of Liguria, Italy."

In short, we cannot expect any solutions from VdL. She delivers on what she was elected for by the heads of some governments. VdL is not even capable of being a politician for her own class. She has no understanding of the dramatic State of the European Union. There have been times in the past when the Commission had its own agenda and could even support smaller countries against bigger ones – those times are gone.