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What Ursula von der Leyen said vs. what she meant

We peel back the rhetorical layers of the Commission president’s carefully calibrated State of the Union speech.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2023

BRUSSELS — Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address on Wednesday hit several strong rhetorical notes, from soaring invocations of historical destiny to a touching anecdote about a Ukrainian mother who fled to Europe with her son.

For the European institutions, which say “strategy” frequently and practice it rarely, this was big-picture stuff. It was likely intended either to cement her legacy or bolster her chances of winning a second term next year (if she decides to stand for reelection).

Perhaps for that reason, she took a softer tone than she has in the past on touchy subjects such as climate ambition and rule of law — earning rebukes from many politicians and nongovernmental organizations, while avoiding provoking her main constituencies.

For those not used to parsing Brussels speeches — or those simply too dazzled by Von der Leyen’s fetching salmon blazer to pay attention — here’s a guide to what she really meant.

What she said: “Our Union today reflects the vision of those who dreamt of a better future after World War II.”

What she meant: The EU may not be perfect, but don’t forget what a remarkable achievement it is that France and Germany have been at peace for a lifetime.


What she said: “In the next 300 days we must finish the job that [Europeans] entrusted us with.”

What she meant: Did you really think I’d announce my bid for a second term today? Dream on.

What she said: “I would like that we cast into law another basic principle: No means no. There can be no true equality without freedom from violence.”

What she meant: If we ignore a plethora of rampant sexism scandals and fail to make nonconsensual sex a criminal offense across the EU before the election, it will be the fault of EU governments.”


What she said: “The European Green Deal was born out of this necessity to protect our planet. But it was also designed as an opportunity to preserve our future prosperity.”

What she meant: Climate ambition ends where the economic disruption begins. We’re here for the win-wins, not the difficult trade-offs.

What she said: “As we enter the next phase of the European Green Deal, one thing will never change: We will keep supporting European industry throughout this transition.”

What she meant: Technological disruption doesn't have to mean our companies will fail. And if the U.S. and China turn to protectionism, so will we.


What she said: “Competition is only true as long as it is fair. Too often, our companies are excluded from foreign markets or are victims of predatory practices … We have not forgotten how China’s unfair trade practices affected our solar industry.”

What she meant: Globalization only works if everyone is taking part. Being a free trader in a world of powerful mercantilists is a way to get your lunch money stolen. But best not mention the U.S. directly — they’ll get the subtext.

What she said: “The Commission is launching an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles coming from China.”

What she meant: Sometimes, I do go against the wishes of German carmakers. Regardless of their fears of retaliation, our automotive market is too important to allow China to distort it.


What she said: “Europe is a continent of forests. From the mighty coniferous forests of the north and east, via the last remnants of virgin oak and beech forest in central Europe to the cork oak forests of southern Europe: all these forests are an irreplaceable source of goods and services.”

What she meant: Not wolves, though. I hate wolves.

What she said: “I am and remain convinced that agriculture and protection of the natural world can go hand in hand. We need both.”

What she meant: The nature restoration law lives on, despite attempts by certain people in my own party to bring it down. We should be able to take steps to protect our ecosystems without undermining our agricultural base.


What she said: “The price for gas in Europe was over €300 per [megawatt-hour] one year ago. It is now around €35. So we need to look at how we can replicate this model of success in other fields like critical raw materials or clean hydrogen.”

What she meant: "Just in time" is out, "just in case" is in. Let’s not wait for another war before shoring up our supply chains.

What she said: “Small companies do not have the capacity to cope with complex administration … This is why — before the end of the year — we will appoint an EU SME envoy, reporting directly to me.

What she meant: The EU has a lot of rules to stop corporations behaving badly but filling in all those compliance forms costs time and money. Let’s tip the scales back a bit toward ease of doing business.


What she said: “I have asked Mario Draghi — one of Europe’s great economic minds — to prepare a report on the future of European competitiveness. Because Europe will do whatever it takes to keep its competitive edge.”

What she meant: I’m wheeling out the big guns on competitiveness. We need to take this really seriously.

What she said: “Europe has become the global pioneer of citizens' rights in the digital world.”

What she meant: It worked! The Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act are forcing the world’s most powerful companies to change their behavior. The Brussels effect is real, baby.


What she said: “Our AI Act is already a blueprint for the whole world … Think about the invaluable contribution of the IPCC for climate, a global panel that provides the latest science to policymakers. I believe we need a similar body for AI.”

What she meant: We need a global governance mechanism for AI, and Europe needs to lead it. Never mind that our industry is years behind the US and China: We were the first to regulate, and that’s what counts.

What she said: “We have signed a partnership with Tunisia that brings mutual benefits beyond migration — from energy and education, to skills and security. And we now want to work on similar agreements with other countries.”

What she meant: Throwing money at North African strongmen to keep migrants at bay may not be pleasant, but it works. Unless anyone has any better ideas, we’re going to keep doing it.


What she said: “Our work on migration is based on the conviction that unity is within our reach. An agreement on the pact has never been so close. Parliament and the Council have a historic opportunity to get it over the line.”

What she meant: Hold your noses and vote for the Migration and Asylum pact, everyone. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

What she said: “On the day when Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, a young Ukrainian mother set off for Prague to bring her child to safety.”

What she meant: This change of tone means I’m about to get real. We’ve grown unaccustomed to war in Europe, but now it’s back on our doorstep. This is the most vivid example of why we need to think about strategy and values, and not just day-to-day politics.


What she said: History is now calling us to work on completing our union … We need to set out a vision for a successful enlargement.

What she meant: All of these policies support our grand strategy. We’re often into the details in Brussels, but let’s not forget the big picture here. Incidentally, the next Commission president should be a big hitter on the world stage — someone like me, perhaps!

What she said: “The rule of law and fundamental rights will always be the foundation of our union — in current and in future member states.”

What she meant: I’m deep into principles and theory here, and definitely not thinking about any member states in particular. That might hurt my reelection prospects — not that I’m actually considering that at this point.

Edith Hancock, Mathieu Pollet, Clothilde Goujard, Louise Guillot, Gregorio Sorgi and Victor Jack contributed reporting.


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