EU delivers its own “State of the Union” address

September 7, 2010

The European Union talks frequently about wanting to be a bigger player in the world, about making its political influence match its economic weight and the need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.

And at least in one respect it can now say it’s America’s equal — both have a State of the Union address.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, delivered his inaugural State of the Union speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday, a sweeping assessment of where the bloc of 27 countries stands and what it needs to do to be better in the future, tapping a similar vein to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress in January.

But beyond the matching titles, and some common themes, there were few similarities, at least from a rhetorical point of view.

Barroso’s 4,300-word discourse was heavy on EU-speak, the need for the Union’s member states to stand closely together, work on “economic governance” and build “strategic partnerships” for the future.  It was hardly a grand rallying cry to the glories of greater European unity.

Compare for example this passage from early in Barroso’s address, assessing Europe’s response to the economic crisis, to a similar passage from Obama’s State of the Union.

“As I look back at how we have reacted, I believe that we have withstood the test,” said Barroso. “We have provided many of the answers needed — on financial assistance to member states facing exceptional circumstances, on economic governance, on financial regulation, on growth and jobs. And we have been able to build a base camp from which to modernise our economies. Europe has shown it will stand up and be counted.”

Or as Obama put it to America in his 7,500-word address: “One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression.  So we acted — immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.”

The ends of the addresses are also notable for their rhetorical diversion. Barroso goes for a straightforward, no-nonsense closing, reiterating to parliament what he’s done over the year and what he’s going to do.

“I have made the case of why we need a common crisis response capacity and a common defence policy. And I have urged European leaders to act together if they want Europe to be a global player and defend the European Interest. It is an ambitious and challenging agenda. For Europe to succeed, the Commission needs your support. Thank you.”

For his part, Obama goes for the heartstrings of middle America.

“The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people. We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit. Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.”

Obviously there’s more to assessing the comparative statures of the United States and the European Union than a couple of speeches. And when it comes to an EU-US summit to be held in Portugal in November, the agenda will be a lot more hard-nosed and specific than the broad themes laid out in a State of the Union.

But if the EU wants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States and make its voice heard in the corridors of Washington, Beijing and New Delhi, it might help to ramp up the rhetoric and make the words a little more rousing.

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