I am delighted to be invited by the committee to present the European Union State of the Union address 2021, which was delivered in Strasbourg a month ago by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. This speech is an annual exercise by the European Commission to lay out its stall for the next year. It tends to be quite forward-looking and basically sets the agenda for legislation and other activities, setting the priorities for the Commission for the next year. It was the president's second State of the Union speech and was entitled, "Strengthening the Soul of our Union".
She looked back a little on the Covid-19 experience. It is difficult not to look at that because it has been such a cathartic experience for Europe and the world. She also looked ahead and set priorities and new initiatives for the year ahead. On the pandemic, she acknowledged the speed and magnitude of events which, initially, had been very difficult to grasp. Europe's initial response with the vaccine roll-out was slower than expected due to production bottlenecks. All members have seen the various toings and froings in that regard. Nonetheless, Europe very much caught up and, indeed, was one of the best performers in the world in the roll-out of the vaccine. Every part of Europe got the same access to lifesaving vaccines. Big and small member states were treated the same. If we remember the scramble for vaccines, this was not necessarily guaranteed at the outset. If there had been a free-for-all and everybody had tried to do their own thing, it was not necessarily guaranteed. Europe coming together ensured that, regardless of the size of the member state, equal access to the vaccines, equal distribution and so forth were very beneficial to all. There is no room for complacency. The pain of Covid is very much still felt, but we have reasons for confidence in the future. Europe achieved its objective by the summer of vaccinating over 70% of adults, with Ireland, of course, in the vanguard, which is very impressive.
The EU digital certificate, which was developed and implemented in a period of three and half months, has also helped to get lives back to normal and get free movement flowing again, which is one of the fundamental benefits of EU membership. The president underlined the need to strengthen our pandemic preparedness and announced plans for a new health authority, called HERA, who I think was a Greek goddess. Members of the committee who know the Classics might be able to tell me more. It is planned to get this new health authority up and running. This new authority will address serious cross-border health threats, monitor medical countermeasures and reinforce global health emergency preparedness in case a similar situation ever arises again.
Looking beyond its borders, Europe has shared half of its vaccine production, more than 700 million doses, with the rest of the world from the outset. Other countries kept their production for themselves, but from the outset Europe shared the production of the vaccines in the European Union. It has also been a key supporter of COVAX, which is the global facility to procure vaccines for low and middle income countries.
There is still a lot to do, and global vaccination remains a big priority. The president announced a new vaccine donation of 200 million doses by the middle of 2022 on top of the donation of 250 million doses being given this year. She underscored the need to boost vaccine production capacity in Africa. There are measures to set up facilities in Africa so it can produce its own vaccines.
On the economic and social protection front, there has been a lot of hardship over the past year. Nevertheless, when the pandemic struck, the EU's response was quick and effective. It is fair to say lessons have been learned from the way in which the economy was handled during the financial crisis, and I know that will be welcomed in Ireland. The EU supported more than 31 million workers and 2.5 million companies across Europe through its SURE programme, which stands for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency. Ireland is drawing down €2.5 billion in loans under the SURE facility. A robust rebound of the EU economy is under way, and Ireland's recent excellent growth forecasts are clearly good news in that regard. The continued easing of virus containment measures has helped propel a higher-than-expected GDP growth. A significant element of Europe's response has been its NextGenerationEU programme and the positive impulse provided by the recovery and resilience facility. In an unprecedented step, the EU is borrowing from the financial markets to help lay the basis for short-term recovery and longer term growth. Ireland's own recovery and resilience programme, which was at the heart of the visit by President von der Leyen to Ireland in July and her meeting with the Taoiseach, has a significant role to play in that regard. There is roughly €1 billion for Ireland in that facility. Another focus of the address was digital Europe, with the president describing it as "the make-or-break issue". There are now plans to develop a European chips Act which would aim to link together Europe's world-class research, design and testing capacities and to tie that in with the production of semiconductors, which, as all members will be aware, are in great shortage at the moment and are holding up a lot of production. Looking back, we could compare this forward-looking attempt on the chips Act with the time when the Galileo satellite system was being developed a couple of decades ago. There was a lot of scepticism and even derision as to why the EU was putting money into that, but, looking back at it today, it now provides the navigation system for more than 2 billion smartphones. We want to try to get ahead of the curve with the semiconductors operation. Supporting young people, particularly those who have fallen through the gaps and are not in employment, education or training, was another big theme. Europe needs to do more. The Commission will shortly propose to make 2022 the European year of youth and will put in place a new programme called Aim, Learn, Master, Achieve, ALMA, to help young Europeans find work experience abroad. We are therefore not just focusing on Erasmus or higher education students; we also want to help young people in difficulty to have experience of working abroad.
There have been many activities in respect of the green deal over the course of the past year. The EU has high ambitions on climate change and environmental protection, including the target of at least 55% emissions reduction by 2030. The Fit for 55 package which, unfortunately, sounds like some kind of exercise programme but is not meant to sound like that, published in July contains a very broad and ambitious set of interconnected measures to achieve this. We want to get that package adopted and implemented. That is a key objective of the coming months and year. The president underlined that the green transition must be socially just and fair, and the proposed new social climate fund is intended to tackle energy poverty and provide support to vulnerable households. For the moment the amount earmarked for that is €73 billion. With climate change and environmental protection being issues that require a global response, the president announced a doubling of external funding for biodiversity, in particular for vulnerable economies. She also set out plans to propose an additional €4 billion for climate finance until 2027 and called for the US and other partners to work closely with Europe on this issue.
Turning to the global dimension, the president was clear on the EU's commitment to the Afghan people and the need to do everything to avert the risk of famine and humanitarian disaster. Yesterday the committee may have seen that the Commission announced a €1 billion support package for Afghanistan in order to avert such a humanitarian crisis. We are already hearing stories of malnutrition and even starvation come out of Afghanistan, where there appears to be a total breakdown in the functioning of the state. Defence was another theme of the address and one that drew some attention here in Ireland. The president reflected on the painful events in Afghanistan and the need to reflect on how the Afghan mission could have ended so abruptly. Co-operation with NATO is vital, and the EU is investing great efforts in this direction and working on a new EU-NATO Joint Declaration. The president said Europe can and clearly should be able to do more. For example, we need to provide stability in our neighbourhood. We need to be able to tackle the evolving nature of threats - for example, cyberattacks. To quote the president, "You no longer need armies and missiles to cause mass damage.". All you need is a laptop to paralyse administrations. We have seen this happen to some extent in Ireland with the cyberattack on hospitals earlier this year.
Cybersecurity is a big part of defence. The president set out the ambition not just to be satisfied to address the cyber threat, but also for Europe to become a leader in cybersecurity. She called for a European cyberdefence policy which would help ensure that Europe has the capacity to develop cyberdefence tools. She also called for legislation on common standards under a new European cyber-resilience Act. A European defence union does not mean a European army. It is a matter of the need to develop effective measures to respond to crisis. It is a matter of the ability to have a common assessment of threat to gather information and anticipate attacks. It is a matter of strengthening our resilience, overcoming capability gaps in the EU and working effectively with partners. This will be taken forward under the next Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which is the French Presidency starting in January of next year.
Finally, rule of law, democracy and common values are a subject very much in the news at the moment. On the rule of law, on which this committee has engaged productively with Commissioner Reynders, the president pointed to worrying developments in certain member states, saying that dialogue always comes first but that dialogue is not an end in itself. There is a need for a dual approach of dialogue and decisive action. As part of a strengthening of the Commission's rule of law reports, including for Ireland, from 2022 those reports will come with specific recommendations to member states, a bit like the European semester in the past. In the field of fundamental rights, the Commission will also propose by the end of this year a new law to combat violence against women. The president noted that the pandemic has been particularly terrifying for those with nowhere to hide, and action is needed from prevention to protection and effective prosecution.
Finally, as a means to protect those who create transparency and defend democracy, the president undertook to deliver a media freedom Act in the next year. This is in response to some rather alarming developments in relation to journalists, even the murder of journalists, in the EU, and the need to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press.