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URSULA VON DER LEYEN PRAISES MALTA'S REFORMS IN STATE OF THE UNION SPEECH

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Malta’s judicial reforms on Wednesday during her annual State of the European Union address on Wednesday morning.

In the key address, von der Leyen outlined the work of the EU over the past year and spoke about the future plans for the bloc.

Amongst other things, von der Leyen focused on the topic of rule of law, saying that the protection of the rule of law should not just an aim to reach, but a goal that requires “daily hard work.”

She praised judicial reform in Malta and also praised anti-corruption work in Slovakia, but expressed concern that certain activities of member states remains of great concern.

Von der Leyen paid tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia and other journalists, such as Slovak Jan Kuciak, who were killed for their stories and said that the Commission would be introducing a media protection law to protect journalists who are working for transparency and for uncovering corruption in Europe.

“Journalists are under attack for doing their job. Some are threatened, others are beaten up and tragically some like Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak are murdered,” she said.

Speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic, von der Leyen pledged to deliver 200 million more coronavirus vaccine doses to Africa to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale.

She said that the new donation to be fully delivered by the middle of next year comes on top of 250 million already pledged and underscores the EU resolve to boost the challenge low-income nations are facing.

Von der Leyen called it an “investment in solidarity and it is an investment also in global health.”

She said that on top of delivering 700 million doses to Europeans, the 27-nation bloc had also sent as many to a combined 130 nations.

“We are the only region in the world to achieve this,” she said in her State of the European Union address to the European Parliament.

“Our first and most urgent priority is to speed up global vaccination," von der Leyen said. "With less than 1 percent of global doses administered to lower income countries, the scale of injustice and the level of urgency is obvious.”

Meanwhile, stung by the swift collapse of the Afghan army and the chaotic U.S.-led evacuation through Kabul airport, von der Leyen unveiled new plans to develop its own defence capacities to try to ensure that it has more freedom to act in future crises.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated in the frenzied final days of the U.S. airlift after President Joe Biden said American troops would leave, forcing the hands of EU countries incapable of facing the Taliban alone. Many thousands of Afghans remain, desperate to escape the uncertainty of Taliban rule.

The scenes of chaos included Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on take-off and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. personnel and encapsulated the end of a two-decade war led by Washington with financial, political and security support from the Europeans.

In her address, von der Leyen said that the failure of the government and security forces in Kabul and their fall to Taliban insurgents in a matter of days raises troubling questions for the 27-nation bloc, but also for NATO.

“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers. “To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.”

“There are deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within NATO,” the former German defence minister said. But she conceded that cooperation with NATO, where the U.S. is by far the most powerful and influential member, must also remain a priority.

Still, von der Leyen said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, that “Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own,” and she insisted that “It is time for Europe to step up to the next level.”

Earlier this month, EU ministers debated creating a standby EU force of around 5,000 troops to deploy in crises like the one at Kabul airport. The plan faces opposition from some of the 22 EU countries that are also members of NATO, notably countries bordering Russia comforted by U.S. security assurances.

The idea is not particularly new. The EU has a system of battlegroups to deploy to hot spots but they’ve never been used, and the Europeans are generally reluctant to send their troops to active conflict zones.

“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity — it is the lack of political will,” von der Leyen said. “If we develop this political will, there is a lot that we can do at EU level.”

She said the EU must lay the foundations for better collective decision-making and intelligence sharing, improve the interoperability of the 27 member countries’ military equipment, and invest in common projects like fighter jets, drones and cyber capacities.

The EU’s chief executive proposed a waiver on value added tax for defence equipment developed and produced in Europe, which could help wean the bloc off its dependence on U.S. gear.

Von der Leyen said that she and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long-called for more EU defence autonomy, notably during the turmoil of the Trump administration, will convene a summit on European defence when France takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2022.

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