Speech by President von der Leyen at the State of the Union conference of the European University Institute

Source: EU Consilium

Thank you so much President Dehousse,

Distinguished guests,

Dear friends,

It is an honour for me to open this 10th anniversary edition of the State of the Union conference. Indeed, every year, around Europe Day, Florence becomes the centre of our Union. And there could be no better place than Florence to celebrate this year’s Europe Day.

Florence is the city of Renaissance. The place where it all started: a new beginning of arts and science, after the great plague of the late Middle Ages. And from Florence, the spirit of the Renaissance spread to the rest of Europe, too.

La storia d’Europa è una storia di Rinascimenti. Europe is a story of new beginnings. After every crisis came a European Renaissance. And this is what Europe needs in our day and age. This is our responsibility: to end the pandemic and to shape a new beginning for Europe. Europe is able to overcome crises and to deliver for the future of its citizens. And this is what I would like to talk about today on the basis of two exemplary topics. The pandemic and climate change.

Yes, we all heard the nagging questions, especially in the first months of this pandemic: Are nation states not better equipped to fight this crisis? Is our Union of 27 not too slow to react? Are our processes not too cumbersome, and our stakeholders too diverse? Today, I am here to say: Europe has proven these claims wrong. Europe has demonstrated that a union of democracies can deliver in times of crisis. For its own citizens. And for the rest of the world.

Under huge pressure, we Europeans stood by our values. And on top of this, we demonstrated that, even in times of a global pandemic, we are able to tackle forcefully other great challenges of our time.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let us have a closer look at it: The European Union was not designed to deal with health issues or fight a pandemic. I remember very vividly the early days of the pandemic. And I remember the call for Europe coming from Italy. The people of Italy demanded that Europe stepped in. They demanded European solidarity and coordination. And they were right. Italy was right. Europe had to step in. And that is what we did.

Some Member States had introduced export bans on medical equipment. Some Member States had closed their borders. We, Europe, restored the free movement of goods in our Single Market. We made sure that the bans were lifted and medical equipment could get to where it was needed. And, most importantly, we decided to procure vaccines together in our Union.

This was the right decision, even if there were doubts, especially at the beginning of this year. I do not even want to imagine what it would have meant if some large Member States had secured their vaccines, while the rest, all the small and medium-sized Member States, went empty-handed. Just think of the consequences for our Internal Market, for our European unity. Indeed, I am convinced that economically, it would have made no sense whatsoever with such a deeply integrated Single Market. And politically, it would have torn our Union apart.

Today, the enormous gains delivered by our unity are obvious for everybody. It is clear that our European vaccination campaign is a success. Because what counts is neither the blaring headlines in certain countries abroad, nor the social media stunts of so-called vaccine diplomacy. What counts is the steadily increasing, daily delivery of vaccines to our people – and to the world. Let me give you some figures.

So far, about 200 million doses of vaccines have been distributed inside the European Union – 200 million. These are enough vaccines to vaccinate more than half of Europe’s adult population at least once. Neither China nor Russia come even close.

Right now, as I speak, we are vaccinating 30 Europeans every second. This means that, since the beginning of this speech, more than 12,000 Europeans have received a jab. By now, we are almost used to hearing such figures every day. But Europe has never seen anything like this: a mass vaccination campaign on a continental scale.

And this is happening because an entire continent has mobilised. From small hospitals to massive vaccination centres, the campaign is on in all corners of our Union. Today, we are vaccinating more than three million Europeans per day. And the progress in Europe is gaining speed by the day.

So I am confident that we will be able to reach our goal, to deliver enough doses to have 70% of European adults vaccinated already in July. The U.S. has a similar goal. And this shows how much our vaccination campaigns are aligned by now.

Some might say: countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been faster at the beginning. But I say: Europe achieved this success while remaining open to the world. While others keep their vaccine production for themselves, Europe is the main exporter of vaccines worldwide. So far, more than 200 million doses of vaccines produced in Europe have been shipped to the rest of the world. Europe exports as much vaccines as it delivers to its own citizens. And to be clear, Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale.

The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner. That is why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective. In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.

Exports from Europe go to more than 90 countries, COVAX included. Shipments go to our close allies like Canada and the UK. Our dear British friends have received a total of 28 million doses from the continent so far. Even 72 million doses have been shipped to Japan. And also many millions to our friends in Singapore, in Mexico or Columbia – just to name a few. Europe is nowadays the pharmacy of the world. Openness and fairness are Europe’s trademark in the world. And we do take pride in this.

All of this was not self-evident, especially at the start of this crisis. You remember some have chosen to isolate. Others have tried to use a difficult situation to leverage geopolitical gains. I have never believed in this approach. If the virus keeps spreading in India or in Africa, in Brazil or in Russia, it is a serious risk for all of us. It is the breeding-ground for escape variants. And we know that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

And of course, this is also true when planning ahead for the future. Because we already must prepare now for the next stage of this pandemic. We have seen that to fight a pandemic successfully preparedness and speed are key. We need booster jabs to reinforce and prolong immunity. We will need to vaccinate children and teenagers at a certain point in time. And we might have to adapt and re-produce vaccines if an escape variant occurs – and this is for Europe and for the world. And for all this, we need increased production capacities – right here, in Europe.

This is why I am happy to tell you that we are close to signing a new contract with BioNTech-Pfizer. It will deliver 1.8 billion doses of vaccines between year end and 2023. And other contracts will follow. This shows clearly that our investments are paying off, that from early on, we invested in a promising but completely new technology – the mRNA – and in the ingenuity of scientists like Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci.

Today, mRNA vaccines are the backbone of our vaccination campaign and a centrepiece of Europe’s preparedness strategy. This is our common insurance policy against the next wave of COVID-19. And I want us to be ahead of the curve.

And the whole world needs to be ahead of the curve, too. This is also why I have proposed holding a G20 Global Health Summit. I will co-host it with Prime Minister Draghi in Rome later this month. Because we must now move from the ad-hoc solutions of this year towards a sustainable system. A system, that works for the whole world. Because we all know that viruses know no borders.

In Rome, we want to discuss international cooperation in health emergencies, including NGOs, foundations and civil society. These are new alliances for better solutions. Yes, I know, preparedness comes at a cost. But the cost of preparedness is tiny compared to the cost of inaction. The world needs a new beginning on health policy. And our health renaissance begins in Rome.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This crisis exposed our fragility. The fragility of our health. The fragility of our livelihoods. But today, we emerge from this fragility with a new found purpose. We are reshaping our continent for decades ahead. Because while fighting this pandemic, our Union has started to do something it has never done before on this scale.

With the strong backing of 27 Member States, the European Commission is raising capital on the international markets. This empowers our Union to invest billions in a badly needed joint recovery and in our common priorities: investments and reforms. The plan is called NextGenerationEU. It is worth EUR 750 billion. It is the largest recovery package in Europe since the Marshall Plan. And it can trigger a European Renaissance.

The priorities of NextGenerationEU are set in stone: The resilience of our Single Market, digitalisation and the European Green Deal. Because climate change is the crisis that will stay with us once the pandemic is defeated. I do not have to tell you about desertification and droughts. Extreme weather situations and floods. The loss of biodiversity and dying forests. Yes, we have a daunting task ahead of us. Climate change is happening. Science is clear. People in Europe are already suffering because of climate change.

And again, we have the choice. We either pay the costs of inaction or we act. And I prefer the latter. It will not be easy. It will take all our ingenuity, endurance, investment and courage. But we have the mandate and the responsibility to succeed – and together. I am convinced we can do this.

With our European Green Deal, we are determined to become the first climate neutral continent in 2050. I have just experienced, at the international climate conference on Earth Day, how powerful our message is. With its climate ambition, Europe is clearly leading the way. It is great to see that others are joining us: South Africa, South Korea, Japan, China – just to name a few major economies. All are embarking on their way to a net-zero future. And it is particularly encouraging to have the United States with President Biden back into the Paris Agreement.

Yes, the commitments, they are out there. But these commitments now have to be backed up by real action and measurable targets. Only what can be measured is done. And here again, Europe leads the way. We just agreed to engrave our commitments in Europe’s first ever Climate Law. In addition, we will present a long series of legislative proposals before the summer in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. We call this huge package ‘Fit for 55′. It spans an arc from an enhanced Emissions Trading System to renewables, like clean hydrogen and clear rules for green finance, for example.

It is flanked by NextGenerationEU, our huge recovery investment. One-third of NextGenerationEU is earmarked for the European Green Deal. So we have the strategy, we have the laws, and we have the resources. And we have the sense of urgency, both domestically and, increasingly, globally. We invite our American friends to join us in these next concrete steps to net-zero emissions. Let us create a powerful transatlantic alliance for climate neutrality by 2050.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A few kilometres from Florence, there is a small village called Barbiana. On a hill in Barbiana, there is a small countryside school. Back in the 1960s, a young teacher, Don Lorenzo Milani, wrote two simple words, in English, on a wall in that school: ‘I care’. He told his students that those were the two most important words they needed to learn: ‘I care’. ‘I care’ means I take responsibility.

And this year, millions of Europeans said ‘I care’ with their actions. They volunteered. They helped a neighbour in need. Or simply, they wore a mask to protect people around them. In this year of pandemic – and beyond – this must be Europe’s motto, too: I care, we care. This is the most important lesson that I hope we can learn from this crisis. It is a lesson about Europe. We care for the weakest among us. We care for our neighbours. We care for our planet. And we care for future generations.

That is why we will be officially launching the Conference on the Future of Europe, on Sunday, on Europe Day. The years ahead will once again be a defining period for our European Union, the next European Renaissance. And the outcome of the Conference will only be as good as the ideas and visions of people like you.

So I count on your contributions!

Viva l’Europa.

And thank you for your attention.

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