European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen believes that the EU must rise above its fragmented approach on dealing with coronavirus by centralising more decision-making on health issues.
In her annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, she also announced that Italy will host a global health summit next year during its G20 presidency.
Ms von der Leyen fully acknowledged the fragile state that the pandemic has left the EU in, with the death toll closing in on 150,000 and the economy facing the worst slump in the bloc’s history.
To counter this, Ms Von der Leyen said she wants more money poured into research and development and more powers going to EU-wide institutions like the European Medicines Agency.
“So for me, it is crystal clear we need to build a stronger European health union. It is time to do that,” she said.
During the early part of the pandemic, EU member states took independent measures to contain the virus with some borders closed, creating massive traffic jams and stranding citizens in other EU nations and beyond.
“When it’s closed borders, we created green lines for goods. When more than 600,000 European citizens were stranded all over the world, the EU brought them back home,” she said.
Italy was the early hotspot in Europe as the virus spread from China, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed the summit, saying: “We stand united to protect our health and to build a better future for the next generation.”
Ms von der Leyen also proposed a more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, setting a reduction goal of at least 55% by 2030 compared to the current target of 40%.
She predicted the new target will be “too much for some and not enough for others” but added that it should help the EU achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
“Our economy and industry can manage this, and they want it, too,” she said.
EU leaders agreed last year to make the bloc’s economy carbon-neutral by the middle of the century.
Ms von der Leyen said she wants 37% of the 750 billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund approved by EU countries to be spent on environmental objectives, adding that 30% of the fund should be raised through “green” bonds whose proceeds are meant to have a positive impact on the environment.
The EU also plans to dedicate a quarter of its budget to tackling climate change and to work to shift a trillion euros in investment towards making the EU’s economy more environmentally friendly over the next 10 years.
According to the EU, its greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 23% between 1990 and 2018, a period when the economy grew by 61%.
"It’s good to see that you set out a higher emission reduction target. I’m sure there were a lot of pressures to prevent you from doing so. This is a step forward. Even though, we know that from a scientific point of view, 55% won't be enough."
— Greens/EFA in the EU Parliament 🌍 (@GreensEFA) September 16, 2020
Ms von der Leyen also confirmed the EU is working on a kind of carbon tax aimed at avoiding a situation in which EU countries reduce emissions but at the same time import goods embedded with CO2.
“Carbon must have its price because nature cannot pay this price anymore,” she said.
While endorsing the idea of a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” at EU borders, Green members of the European Parliament said the proposed 55% cut to emissions was not enough, pushing for a 65% reduction.
“Droughts & global fires show that we need more effort to limit #GlobalWarming,” the Greens group wrote in a message posted on Twitter.
Friends of the Earth was also critical, urging the EU to opt for a fossil-free economy “to avoid devastating warming”, while Greenpeace accused the Commission of trying to offset emission cuts in polluting sectors including energy, transport and farming “with emissions absorbed by carbon sinks like forests and soil”.