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UPDATE 2-"Europe's moment": EU chief calls for unity to confront crises

Wed, 16th Sep 2020 09:49

* Tougher 2030 climate target, billions in green bonds

* 20% of EU's recovery fund to be spent on digital
transformation

* Von der Leyen says chances for a Brexit deal are fading

* EU must stand up "courageously" on international diplomacy
(Updates following end of speech, adding context)

By Philip Blenkinsop and Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS, Sept 16 (Reuters) - The European Union's chief
executive laid out ambitious goals on Wednesday to ensure that
the bloc is more resilient and united to confront futures crises
after the coronavirus pandemic, which has plunged Europe into
its deepest recession in history.

In her annual State of the Union address, European
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the
flagship goals she set out on taking office last December:
urgent action to combat climate change and a digital revolution.

"This is the moment for Europe," von der Leyen told the
European Parliament in a wide-ranging speech that ran for around
80 minutes. "The moment for Europe to lead the way from this
fragility to a new vitality."

Von der Leyen, who wants Europe to become the world's first
climate-neutral continent by mid-century, unveiled a plan to cut
the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990
levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%. She also
pledged to use green bonds to finance those climate goals.

"There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it
comes to the future of our fragile planet," she said. "While
much of the world's activity froze during lockdowns and
shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter."

She acknowledged her proposals would divide member states
because the goals will require huge investments in transport,
heavy industry and energy, and businesses will also face higher
carbon costs under a plan to revamp the EU's carbon market.

The former German cabinet minister also called for greater
investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with
China and the United States, and said the EU would invest 20% of
a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects.

"FEAR AND DIVISION"

Officials said that, far from backing off the plans she laid
out at the beginning of her term because of the coronavirus
pandemic, von der Leyen believes they remain key to Europe's
long-term economic and political survival.

The EU has been buffeted for years by crises, from the
financial meltdown of 2008 to feuds over migration and the
protracted saga of Britain's exit from the bloc.

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the
onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share
protective medical kit with those worst-affected and closed
borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus.

The bloc's leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan
to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the
way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on
capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of
solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

"In the last months we have rediscovered the value of what
we hold in common," Von der Leyen said. "We turned fear and
division between member states into confidence in our union."

"BE COURAGEOUS"

Turning to the troubled talks with London on the future
relationship between the world's fifth-largest economy and
biggest trading bloc, von der Leyen said every passing day
reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal.

She stressed that the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified
their Brexit divorce deal and warned London the agreement
"cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied".

Brexit talks were plunged into a new crisis this month after
Prime Minister Boris Johnson put forward a new Internal Market
Bill that would undercut Britain's Withdrawal Agreement.

That increased the risk of the most damaging, no-deal
economic split precipitating at the end of the year.

Chiding EU countries for an ineffective foreign policy, von
der Leyen said the bloc must get better at responding to events
unfolding around the world.

Once able to boast of a soft power that helped transform
communist neighbours into market economies, the EU increasingly
finds itself unable to agree common positions on diplomacy
because of the need to secure unanimity among member states.

"When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them
'be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting',"
she said. "Be it in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk: Europe must take
a clear and swift position."
(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Gabriela Baczynska,
Kate Abnett, Robin Emmott and Yun Chee Foo
Writing by John Chalmers, Editing by William Maclean)

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