The extraordinary measures used to help protect the EU economy from the shock of the coronavirus pandemic should continue indefinitely — perhaps until the development of a vaccine, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday.
“We are still amidst this pandemic and the economic crisis, and therefore I said it is important that we do not withdraw the support now, because we’ve learned in the last economic crisis that a premature withdrawal of support has a very negative impact on the economy,” von der Leyen said, adding: “We should not put timelines to restoring again the sustainability of our finances.”
Von der Leyen reiterated her intention to maintain the various emergency measures, which include a “general escape clause” from deficit rules and exemptions from restrictions on state aid to private companies, during remarks to reporters a day after delivering her first State of the European Union Speech.
Rather than setting any timeline for lifting the emergency measures, von der Leyen said the EU should set objectives for its economic recovery.
“I think we should not put timelines to restoring again the sustainability of our finances but more conditions we want to meet,” she said, “mainly derived from the development of the spread of the virus, or the overcoming of the virus, so it is also linked for example to finding a vaccine and going back to an economy that does not need, for example, hygiene measures any more.”
She said that the implementation of national recovery plans under the €1.8 trillion budget-and-recovery package called NextGenerationEU would also be a factor in deciding how long to maintain the various support measures.
In at least two different follow-up conversations with journalists following her big speech, von der Leyen expanded on some of her key points, and addressed some ambiguities, for example on a reference to the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
She reiterated some messages, such as her demand that Britain “restore trust” to negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal.
And she also addressed some topics that she did not mention or dwell on in her speech, including plans for a “Conference on the Future of Europe” — a series of discussions that some officials have suggested could lead to revisions of the EU treaties.
Von der Leyen said the process would start soon, but declined to say if she expected it would lead to treaty changes.
“The Conference on the Future of Europe we are almost ready to start,” she said. “It has been thoroughly designed already. And it is very important because one point is the political direction, the leadership that the Commission is showing on important topics … priorities like the European Green Deal or digitalization. But of course the question how do we want to live together and what is our vision of Europe in the future, to discuss that with a broad European public, the discussion is way broader.”
Von der Leyen said the process was delayed by the pandemic. “It was difficult to get the conference started because of COVID, but it is absolutely necessary and we are eager to get it started,” she said.
But there has also been a battle underway in the European Parliament over who would potentially lead the exercise in EU self-examination, and some debate over whether changes to the bloc’s foundational documents should be up for consideration.
Von der Leyen on Thursday said she did not want “to prejudge on any kind of results,” adding: “This is an open conference on the future. Let’s start the conference and let the conference really shape the way we move forward with the discussion.”
On migration, von der Leyen said it was clear the EU’s current procedures on managing asylum cases were not working, and must be replaced. She said the Commission would put forward a plan next week that aims to streamline all aspects of the process, increase the EU’s role and also more equitably spread the burden currently carried most by frontline coastal countries.
“The system that we do have in place right now does not work anymore,” she said.
“We will come forward with a pact, migration pact that will first of all be more a comprehensive European approach, it will rebalance solidarity and responsibility and it will put emphasis on a fair burden-sharing in the whole chain of migration,” von der Leyen said. “From asylum and integration to returns to border management, it’s all one comprehensive approach. And this is in the interest of all the member states that we find a European approach that is effective and humane at the same time.”
Von der Leyen also reiterated her call for EU national leaders to end the requirement of unanimity in foreign policy decisions so that Brussels can respond faster to political developments, specifically in response to alleged human rights violations and on sanctions policy.
“This would increase the credibility of the statement of the European Union,” she said. “It’s not giving up the sovereignty on foreign affairs. They will have full sovereignty but it will take away the option to take hostage of a decision out of different interests or to stall or delay or water down clear European positions.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.
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