European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the debate on the ‘state of the European Union’ at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 13 September 2023. The session runs from 11 till 14 September. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND


State of Disunion: Parliament dissension follows von der Leyen’s call for unity

Her Strasbourg speech touted achievements under her Presidency and exhorted the assembly to pull together, though it was quickly overshadowed by political groups opening fire from different angles.


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s much-hyped State of the European Union address on September 13 was met with dissension in the fractured European Parliament.

Her Strasbourg speech touted achievements under her Presidency and exhorted the assembly to pull together, though it was quickly overshadowed by political groups opening fire from different angles.

Von der Leyen asked Euro MPs to “answer the call of history”. While she kept MEPs’ attention during the first half of her speech, energy levels then began to drop.

While von der Leyen lauded the EU’s achievements in AI regulation, her colleague Commissioner Ylva Johansson could be seen knitting.

As the time came for political groups to speak, the mood turned as each began attacking the EC, von der Leyen herself and other groups in Parliament.

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), to which the EC President  belongs, was the least critical. Its president Manfred Weber agreed that the EU should “stay the course” on the Green Deal and that “food security must [also] remain in harmony with nature”. The EC President had also taken a moment to “express my appreciation to our farmers” for providing food security for Europe.

Weber did stand by the EPP’s decision to resist the EU’s controversial Nature Restoration Law.

That provoked the centre-left S&D Group, whose members find themselves increasingly at odds with the EPP, their traditional allies.

Taking to the podium immediately after Weber, S&D Group leader Iratxe Garcia slammed Weber’s alliance with the right-wing ECR and ID groups, claiming he had “made a mistake in the eyes of history”. She added it was time to “break the silence” against “climate-change deniers”.

While Garcia welcomed some points in von der Leyen’s address, she warned her that the S&D would be “scrutinising you closely”.

The Liberal Renew Group and the Greens likewise took their own pot-shots at the EC President and the EC itself, with both attacking the Brussels bureaucracy for not doing enough to fight what they saw as “creeping authoritarianism” in countries such as Poland and Hungary.

“We refuse the ‘Orbanisation’ of our continent” declared Renew Europe leader Stéphane Séjourné, referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. She added that the policies of both his government and Poland’s were “against our European DNA”.

The ECR Group took an opposite view, saying that the EC was not only doing too much in penalising those countries but that it was effectively persecuting them. Polish MEP and Conservative ECR group co-chair, Ryszard Antoni Legutko, accused the EC of being “a partisan machine” that was “trying to topple governments you don’t like”.

After asking the audience if the EU was in better shape than 20 years ago, Legutko said the answer was “an emphatic no” and paraphrased a Hamlet quote in saying, “there is something rotten in the state of the Union”.

The ID and ECR benches were empty during von der Leyen’s speech.

In refuting von der Leyen’s claims that the Brussels machine had achieved record improvements in the quality of life for EU citizens, Legutko was unexpectedly joined by the Left Group.

Left Group co-chair Martin Schirdewan railed against von der Leyen’s claims that the EU’s anti-unemployment projects were so successful that “millions of jobs were looking for people”.

He said that some 95 million EU citizens were threatened with poverty as most workers had seen their real wages hit and food prices had risen 34 per cent.

He also accused the EC President of electioneering by “promising Europeans everything under the sun” while at the same time the “house of Europe has been turned into some ramshackle ruin”.

“Once again this is the moment for Europe to answer the call of history. Long live Europe,” von der Leyen concluded.