World Insights: European Commission president sets out EU's priorities for next year

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BRUSSELS, Sept. 16 (Xinhua) -- The global health crisis, climate change and economic recovery are the most pressing issues facing Europe today, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her second State of the Union speech on Wednesday, in which she addressed the European Union (EU)'s most immediate challenges.

Von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU member states stood together to face the "biggest global health crisis for a century, the deepest global economic crisis for decades and the gravest planetary crisis of all time."

Following a slow start, "Europe is among the world leaders" in vaccination rates, and is now sharing half of its vaccine production with the rest of the world, she said.

Europe's aim is to continue the vaccination campaign across its member states, where over 70 percent of adults are already fully vaccinated, she added.

However, she said that "our first -- and most urgent -- priority is to speed up global vaccination." On behalf of the European Commission, she pledged to donate an extra 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries in Africa.

On the economy, von der Leyen said, "Last time it took eight years for the eurozone GDP (gross domestic product) to get back to pre-crisis levels. This time we expect 19 countries to be at pre-pandemic levels this year, with the rest following next."

"But this is only the beginning. And the lessons from the financial crisis should serve as a cautionary tale. At that time, Europe declared victory too soon and we paid the price for that. And we will not repeat the same mistake," said von der Leyen.

She said that the NextGenerationEU -- the Union's 800-billion-euro (944.5 billion U.S. dollars) temporary recovery instrument -- will invest in both "short-term recovery and long-term prosperity."

Looking ahead, she said that "digital is the make-or-break issue" as she announced a new European Chips Act that will bring together Europe's world-class research, design and testing capacities and coordinate EU and national investments in semiconductor production.

On climate change, she said there was a wide expectation for the EU to "go further and faster to tackle the climate crisis," recalling this year's floods in Belgium and Germany and wildfires on the Greek islands and in the hills of France.

"If we don't believe our own eyes, we only have to follow the science," she said. "Climate change is man-made. But since it is man-made, we can do something about it."

She said that with the Green Deal, the EU was the first major economy to present comprehensive legislation in this area and pledged to support developing countries by doubling funding for biodiversity.

She said the Commission will propose an additional 4 billion euros (4.73 billion dollars) for climate finance until 2027.

She also talked about issues of defense and security with the rapid fall of the U.S.-backed Afghan government still fresh in people's minds.

She called for a European cyber defense policy and a new European Cyber Resilience Act, and announced a summit on European defense would be held under the French Presidency of the EU Council.

Her speech was followed by short addresses by leaders of political parties in the European Parliament. Manfred Weber, leader of the European People's Party, the European Parliament's biggest group, pleaded for an EU-U.S. trade emergency program for transport, mobility and digital sectors and a plan to reduce bureaucracy.

Weber said that European defense should be strengthened with a rapid reaction force, and Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, be turned into a "European FBI."

Iratxe Garcia from the Socialists and Democrats group, said not enough had been done to ensure the wellbeing of citizens, noting that the global health crisis had exacerbated inequalities and hit the most vulnerable harder.

EU citizens do not need "flowery speeches," and they just "want to be left alone," said Joerg Meuthen of the Identity and Democracy group. He criticized the Commission's plans of "massive expenses," warned of growing bureaucracy and deplored the transition towards green energy, pleading for more nuclear energy.

Martin Schirdewan of The Left group said that von der Leyen had not delivered any answers to today's problems. He demanded that patent protection for vaccines be removed and deplored that the 10 richest billionaires in Europe have further increased their fortunes during the pandemic, while one in five children in the EU is growing up in or at risk of poverty. Enditem

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