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E.U. vision unveiled in von der Leyen's address

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's inaugurual State of the E.U. speech emphasized pandemic recovery and climate change.

BRUSSELS (AN) — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered an inaugurual State of the European Union speech on Wednesday that emphasized her vision for health and economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and for battling climate change.

In a speech to a socially distanced European Parliament, von der Leyen said Europeans must protect lives and restore livelihoods despite a resurgence of COVID-19 on the continent. Europe has 2.67 million cases — less than half the U.S. infections — but almost as many deaths. Nearly 185,000 Europeans have died from the coronavirus, or 10,000 less than in the United States.

Von der Leyen called for strengthening the EU4Health program, European Medicines Agency and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. She also vowed to build a new agency for biomedical advanced research and development that can better deal with cross-border threats.

The E.U.'s most powerful senior official sought to reassure citizens the pandemic will end sooner and things will eventually recover if European nations work to pull together and to overcome the social inequalities that the virus exposed — while sustaining their unique social market economy.

"A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be. It laid bare the strains on our health systems and the limits of a model that values wealth above well-being," she said in her landmark speech.

"It brought into sharper focus the planetary fragility that we see every day through melting glaciers, burning forests and now through global pandemics. It changed the very way we behave and communicate — keeping our arms at length, our faces behind masks," said von der Leyen. "But people want to move out of this corona world, out of this fragility, out of uncertainty."

Von der Leyen said the commission aims to reduce Europe's carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030, an increase from the earlier 40% target. That would put the E.U. on track for climate neutrality by 2050, and for meeting its obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Almost 200 nations adopted a rulebook for the treaty that sets out how nations must report carbon emissions and pay for climate action. The goal is to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.

Green stimulus, digital skills, immigration

In July, the E.U. wrapped up acrimonious negotiations at a four-day summit to send a €1.8 trillion seven-year budget plan to European Parliament that includes a €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund for the hardest-hit nations. It was a big gamble — and win — for von der Leyen.

Some 30% of the €750 billion will be raised through green bonds, she said, with 37% of the proceeds going to a three-decade blueprint to sustainably overhaul Europe’s trade, industry and politics. The European Green Deal aims to improve people’s well-being through natural habitat protections and climate neutrality — net zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

The 2021-2027 E.U. budget plan, equivalent to US$2.1 trillion, would provide €1.1 trillion for hundreds of E.U. programs. The commission, as the E.U.’s executive branch, proposed leveraging its €148 billion annual budget to issue collective bonds and use the proceeds for the stimulus.

If parliament approves, the plan would mark the first time that the E.U. is given the collective power to raise and disperse money on its own, marking a significant step towards integration.

Also included was €500 million, or US$572 million, for green stimulus spending on low-carbon projects in sectors such as agriculture, electricity production and transportation. The E.U. set a target of earmarking 30% of the stimulus for investments that go to fight climate change.

Von der Leyen called for a new ‘European Bauhaus' that would serve as a platform for architects, engineers and designers to co-create a new architectural style for a climate neutral continent.

On the digital front, she said, Europe must lead the way on connectivity, skills and public services. She announced the E.U. will invest a fifth of its budget on digital advancements, and promised the commission would propose a new "humane approach" towards immigration policies in Europe.

"We will ensure a closer link between asylum and return. We have to make a clear distinction between those who have the right to stay and those who do not," said von der Leyen.

"We will take action to fight smugglers, strengthen external borders, deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways," she added. "And we will make sure that people who have the right to stay are integrated and made to feel welcome."