STRASBOURG--EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced an anti-subsidy probe into Chinese electric vehicles on Wednesday, presenting herself as a champion of European business as she defended her track record ahead of elections next year. Von der Leyen, who is widely expected to seek a second term as head of the EU executive next year but has yet to announce her plans, promised in her annual state of the union speech to take steps to help Europe's wind industry, make business easier for small companies and address labour shortages.
"Europe will do whatever it takes to keep its competitive edge," she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "In a world of uncertainty, Europe once again must answer the call of history," the 64-year-old former German defence minister told EU lawmakers, saying this applied to a wide array of policies, including the EU's support for Ukraine, promotion of green energy and defence of business against unfair competition. In a speech that announced few concrete steps on the foreign policy front - Ukraine, she said, must do more before joining the bloc - the most substantial announcement was the launch of the probe into China's electric vehicles. The Commission, she said, would investigate whether to impose punitive tariffs to protect European Union producers against cheaper Chinese electric vehicle imports it says are benefiting from excessive state subsidies. "Europe is open to competition. Not for a race to the bottom," she said. Von der Leyen, who has been at the head of the bloc's executive Commission since the end of 2019, also said she would appoint an envoy to help small and medium-sized enterprises tackle red tape to make it easier to do business. In her last State of the Union speech before European Parliament elections next June, she said the Commission was proposing to extend special protections granted to Ukrainian citizens who fled to the EU to escape Russia's war.
She also restated the EU's commitment to long-term support for Kyiv, praising the "great strides" it had made towards joining the EU but saying hard work still lay ahead. "Our support to Ukraine will endure," she said. Lawmakers gave a standing ovation after von der Leyen recounted the fate of Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer and activist who was killed in a Russian attack on Ukraine. MEPs applauded as Héctor Abad Faciolince, a Colombian writer who was wounded in the same attack, showed a photograph of Amelina to the chamber. An upcoming package to support Europe's wind industry would be aimed at helping the sector as renewable energy companies struggle with steep inflation, von der Leyen said. "We will fast-track permitting even more. We will improve the auction systems across the EU. We will focus on skills, access to finance and stable supply chains," she said, adding: "The future of our clean tech industry has to be made in Europe," she said. Looking back at her track record, she told the EU assembly: "When I stood in front of you in 2019 with my programme for a green, digital and geopolitical Europe, I know that some had doubts ... But look at where Europe is today." "We have seen the birth of a geopolitical Union – supporting Ukraine, standing up to Russia's aggression, responding to an assertive China and investing in partnerships," she said, also touting policies to promote green energy. Von der Leyen also said the wealthy bloc must engage more with African countries and accused Russia of stirring chaos in the Sahel region of the continent. "We need to show the same unity of purpose towards Africa as we have shown for Ukraine. We need to focus on cooperation with legitimate governments and regional organisations," she said.