For five years I wrote the State of the Union speech for a Belgian Prime Minister, and for years I gave a masterclass in speech writing.
So, on Wednesday September 16, I looked at the State of the European Union of Ursula von der Leyen through the eyes of a speechwriter.
Von der Leyen’s speech lasted 75 minutes, or one hour and 15 minutes. It is not too long.
In a State of the Union, the speaker must highlight what Europe has done in the past year and announce what it plans to do in the coming year.
At the same time, there are messages that must be given, to European citizens in general – but also targeted messages to governments, businesses or the European Parliament.
If you try to be too concise, the speech quickly starts to sound like a wish list. It would have been even more difficult to watch.
To avoid a “list” type speech, each topic needs an introduction and a conclusion. This is what von der Leyen did.
However, there is no doubt that for many listeners the speech must have sounded a bit too long.
This could have been avoided by creating ‘bridges’, little stories that give the ears a little breathing space. The story of the two Ligurian tennis players was such a story, but unfortunately the only one.
Why wasn’t there a focus on a message?
To the average listener, von der Leyen’s speech sounded like a wish list that lacked a clear message.
However, unlike most normal speeches, a State of the Union cannot focus on a single issue.
Most people and policy makers hope to hear what the European Commission plans to do in their particular area.
If you skip foreign policy, for example, there would be criticism that the committee is not interested in politics outside the Union.
However, a good State of the Union always needs a narrative framework. This year, that story wasn’t too hard to come by: Covid-19.
Von der Leyen started with Covid-19 and ended with it. This is the right way to go.
Why can’t Europe be more outspoken?
The general criticism of the EU, which she does not communicate clearly, does not really count for this discourse.
Von der Leyen was very clear on many points. Take for example the Green Deal:
“The European Green Deal is our plan to effect this transformation. At the heart of it is our mission to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. […] On this basis, the European Commission proposes to increase the 2030 emission reduction target to at least 55%. ”
Regarding the ongoing protests in Belarus, she said very clearly:
“I want to say it loud and clear: the European Union is on the side of the Belarusian people. […] The Belarusian people must be free to decide their future for themselves. These are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. “
She was also tough on several racist incidents in Europe:
“Hatred is hate – and no one should have to put up with it. […] Because in this Union, fighting racism will never be optional. […] And we will appoint the very first anti-racism coordinator of the Commission to keep it high on our agenda and to work directly with people, civil society and institutions. ”
When asked if she couldn’t be more candid on other issues, such as US President Donald Trump, or the rule of law in Hungary, a speechwriter’s response is, do too much. of points is the same as not doing any at all. You have to make choices.
Has he convinced the ordinary EU citizen?
When you start with the good points of the speech, you have to say that it was written in non-bureaucratic language, and in short sentences.
Also, the State of the Union started with empathy towards all those Europeans who suffered because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another positive point, von der Leyen showed ambition. She wants Europe to move forward.
When asked whether this has convinced people of the role the EU has played so far in the coronavirus crisis, the answer is less certain.
Across Europe, people have seen borders being closed, various measures and closures everywhere, and anti-corona medical supplies stranded at borders.
The EU has made a lot of effort to stop these national measures, often selfish. He has also invested heavily in keeping the economy alive and making huge contracts for vaccines for all Europeans.
Even though it might sound a bit defensive, I would say it was a good time to defend the European Union and the work it has done here.
But the fact that this defense has been too fragmented in the speech will mean that this message will not be heard.