The EU “will never backtrack” on the EU-UK bilateral withdrawal agreement, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen assured listeners during her State of the Union speech on 16 September. The comment came a week after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed legislation aimed at overriding the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.

The agreement “took three years to negotiate, and we worked relentlessly on it,” she stressed to a socially-distanced EU Parliament Plenary in Brussels. “It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This is a matter of law, trust and good faith.”

In support of her contention, she quoted Margaret Thatcher, who once said “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade.”

Sanctions and multilateralism
During the debate, the “geopolitical Commission’s” head spoke about global issues, though no mention of EU defence was made. She urged the bloc to take “quicker actions and express clearer positions” on global affairs, implicitly referring to China, Russia, Belarus and Turkey. A good move in this sense, she said, should imply shifting from a slow and not-always-efficient unanimity voting system to a qualified majority system, at least for matters concerning human rights and sanctions.

She said the Commission is working on a new sanction regime which may target human rights abusers in other parts of the world – the so-called ‘Magnitsky Act’ from the name of a Russian tax-accountant investigating corruption who died in a Moscow prison in 2009. Such a system, she said, would be needed to complete the EU's toolbox, as the bloc has recently struggled to impose various sanctions.

Von der Leyen also warned that EU states flirting with Moscow. Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, Georgia, Ukraine and election issues all show that “[Moscow’s] pattern is not changing [and] no pipeline - Streamline 2 - will change that.”

On the other hand, she stressed the need to build a new transatlantic agenda with the US. Despite frictions, the EU and US should work “together on reforming the international system [they] built together” for the common good. Similarly, she insisted on the importance of multilateralism, recently ‘mistreated’ as “major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interest,” and then called on the EU to play a leading role to reform the WTO and WHO – and “revitalise” the multilateral system.

Eastern Mediterranean
As tensions in the region continue to grow, the President warned that the distance between the EU and Turkey “appears to be growing”. She recognised Ankara’s “troubled neighbourhood” and that the country hosts a million refugees. However, she added, Turkey is not justified to “intimidate its neighbours,” as it did repeatedly in the Eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus and Greece in disputes over territorial waters. At which juncture, she assured Cyprus and Greece could always count on Europe's complete solidarity in protecting their sovereign rights.

New Migration Pact
Von Der Leyen also spoke about migration and announced the EU’s intention to abolish the current controversial Dublin Regulation, by replacing it with a New Pact on Migration, to be proposed next week. The new system “will have common structures on asylum and return and will have a new strong solidarity mechanism” and will need to be discussed, she said.

[All in all, a compelling address, given the boundaries of ‘normal’ EU behaviour. And no Trumpeting! Editor]

NATO & EU Affairs Correspondent Caterina Tani, reporting from Brussels

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivering her State of the Union speech at the European Parliament. (Photo: EU Commission)

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