The European Commission’s State of the Union speech from a Scottish perspective

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On 15 September 2021 the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her second State of the Union address to the European Parliament.  The address received less parliamentary or press attention in the UK as the focus has shifted away from matters in Brussels and Strasbourg following EU exit. However, for the Scottish Parliament, the address is worth taking note of.

This blog sets out why an interest in the EU’s policy direction and legislative proposals will continue to be important for the Scottish Parliament and summarises some of the key elements of the State of the Union.

Why does the EU’s policy direction matter?

The UK’s departure from the EU means that there is no longer a requirement to continue to comply with EU law. However, the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 (section 1(1)) confers a power on Scottish Ministers to allow them to make regulations with the effect of keeping Scots law aligned with EU law in devolved areas. This is referred to as the “keeping pace” power.  Scottish Ministers have indicated that, where appropriate, they would like to see Scots Law continue to align with EU law,

Whilst decisions about which particular EU legislation Scotland might align with will be at the discretion of Scottish Ministers, it is important that the Scottish Parliament continues to maintain awareness of EU policy and legislative developments.  This will allow Parliamentarians to effectively scrutinise Scottish Ministers’ use of the keeping pace power and help MSPs identify policy areas and occasions where decisions are taken not to align with EU law and scrutinise the reasons for this. 

Whilst Scottish ministers may wish to seek continued alignment with EU law, other factors such as the effect of the UK Internal Market Act 2020 or intergovernmental agreements on the operation of common frameworks may prevent them from seeking alignment with EU law in some policy areas. 

A continued focus on the Brussels policy environment will help MSPs and Committees in scrutinising the Scottish Government’s stated ambition to keep pace with EU law.

The State of the Union

Ursula von der Leyen’s second State of the Union address focussed on continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – citing both health and economic recovery – and on the EU’s place in the world, with an emphasis on EU foreign and security policy.

The speech made no mention of Brexit or the United Kingdom, signifying the Commission President is moving the EU on from this issue and focussing on “strengthening the soul of the Union”.

The speech was light on specific policy proposals – these are likely to follow in the Commission’s Work Programme which will be published before the end of the year.  Instead it focussed on several overarching themes:

  • COVID response – based on a health and economic response.
    • Continued emphasis on promoting the vaccination programme across the EU whilst supporting other regions of the world to ensure COVID doesn’t become a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.  
    • Focus on economic recovery.
  • A renewed emphasis on EU foreign and security policy through the development of a European Defence Union to facilitate closer links between Member State defence forces and more collective decision making. The State of the Union also set out the following initiatives:
    • a commitment to develop an EU-NATO Joint Declaration before the end of 2021
    • leading the fight against cyber-attacks
    • developing the EU’s role as a “unique security provider” where NATO and/or the United Nations is not present.
  • Further strengthening of the EU single market in particular focussing on the digital single market.
  • Implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights to ensure decent jobs, fairer working conditions, better healthcare and a better balance in people’s lives.

Policy initiatives

In terms of specific proposals, the State of the Union included three high profile policy initiatives.  First, the Commission will propose the development of a new programme called “ALMA” which will help young Europeans find temporary work experience in another Member State.  This scheme will be based on the Erasmus scheme which facilitates study in another Member State for students. 

The Commission will also propose a ban on products in the Single Market that have been made by forced labour.  In addition, by the end of 2021, the Commission will propose a law to combat violence against women.


Finally, a key component of the speech, with resonance for Scotland, is the EU’s proposed approach to COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November.  The Commission President highlighted the European Green Deal and the EU’s target of at least a 55% emission reduction by 2030, which is now an EU legal obligation. In addition, she focussed on the development of a new Social Climate Fund to tackle the energy poverty that 34 million Europeans already suffer from, to ensure “a fair green transition”.

On COP26 the Commission President said:

“The COP26 in Glasgow will be a moment of truth for the global community.

Major economies – from the US to Japan – have set ambitions for climate neutrality in 2050 or shortly after. These need now to be backed up by concrete plans in time for Glasgow. Because current commitments for 2030 will not keep global warming to 1.5°C within reach.

Every country has a responsibility!”

The Commission President focussed on the role of China suggesting that President XI needs to set out how China will achieve its climate change goals and reduce emissions as quickly as possible. 

The Commission President added that while every country has a responsibility, “major economies do have a special duty to the least developed and most vulnerable countries”.  She highlighted the EU contribution of $25 billion per year in climate finance to support mitigation and adaptation measures in the most vulnerable countries but suggested “others still leave a gaping hole towards reaching the global target” and that Closing that gap will increase the chance of success at Glasgow. To aid the push for success, the Commission President proposed an additional €4 billion for climate finance until 2027. She added that the EU expects the United States and our partners to step up too saying “It is time to deliver”.


Whilst more details about specific legislative initiatives are likely to follow in the Commission’s Work Programme, which will be published before the end of 2021, the State of the Union speech provides an overview of the European Commission’s intended policy direction over the coming year.

Given the Scottish Government’s commitment to align with EU law where possible, the State of the Union is a helpful indicator of policy direction during 2022.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research