Ursula von der Leyen’s 2023 State of the Union speech notably lacked significant discourse on democracy, in stark contrast to her 2022 address. This year’s speech only briefly mentioned democratic principles, accompanied by an overstated claim of progress.

One issue was strikingly absent from Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech on 13 September: democracy. This was a major change from her 2022 speech, which featured democracy heavily.

In her 2022 speech, von der Leyen made the much-cited claim that the Ukraine war was “about autocracy against democracy”; she made reference to democracy twenty-one times and announced a Defence of Democracy Package. This year’s speech mentioned democracy and democratic principles only four times and no major democracy initiatives were announced.

In this year’s speech, the Commission president claimed she and her team have already made far-reaching progress on democracy commitments – tightening rules on corruption, proposing a new anti-corruption sanctions regime, and starting a new generation of citizen panels.

This claim is hugely exaggerated. In 2023, the EU deepened its energy and commercial cooperation with authoritarian regimes for economic interests, signed new migration partnerships with non-democratic Tunisia and Egypt, and delayed its Defence of Democracy Package – the latter due to valid civil society concerns that the new initiative would actually restrict pro-democratic organisations. Also absent from this year’s speech, was the Conference on the Future of Europe follow-up, a flagship initiative of the Commission that sought to bring citizens into discussions on European policies and programmes.

The Commission president was far too self-congratulatory with respect to how much the EU has achieved in shoring up democratic norms inside and outside the Union.

The apparent downgrading of democracy is also evident in the European Council’s preparation for the new 2024-2029 EU Strategic Agenda. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has defined four major priority areas for this; democracy is not among them, unlike in the 2019-2024 Strategic Agenda.

In the past year, the EU’s commitment to Ukraine was not matched by support from other countries around the world. In this year’s speech, Von der Leyen suggested that the EU needs to “show the same unity of purpose towards Africa as we have shown for Ukraine”. She added that this would involve “cooperation with legitimate governments and regional organisations”, implying a more pragmatic and cautious approach to democracy support but also noting the illegitimate coups that have spread in recent years.

In line with the prominent stress on security, the Commission president argued that “migration needs to be managed” and that more migration deals with non-democratic regimes are on the cards. She supported a proposed revision of the MFF that would top-up the NDICI external aid budget with additional funds for migration control.

This year’s speech referred to enlargement as a “catalyst” for the democracy in applicant states. The president proposed that in the future, accession countries should be included in the Commission’s Rule of Law Reports as a means of spurring reforms – perhaps the speech’s only significant concrete innovation in the area of democracy. Still, even here, the focus was on enlargement being determined by geopolitical rather than values-based dynamics.

If Von der Leyen has previously framed democracy as something of a defining narrative of her tenure, the State of the Union speech this year will leave her legacy on this issue as far more questionable