Written by Etienne Bassot,
When Ursula von der Leyen took office as President of the European Commission on 1 December 2019, she and her fellow Commissioners did so on the basis of certain key political priorities which she had set out in statements to the European Parliament in July and November 2019, first as candidate for Commission President and then as President-elect. Her six priorities were to pursue ‘A European Green Deal’, ‘A Europe fit for the digital age’, ‘An economy that works for people’, ‘A stronger Europe in the world’, ‘Promoting the European way of life’ and ‘A new push for European democracy’.
During the new European Commission’s first one hundred days in office, however, the European Union, and indeed the whole world, were to be profoundly affected by the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, with the developing pandemic soon evolving into a multi‑faceted global crisis. This crisis has inevitably had an impact on the Commission’s six priorities and its practical capacity to pursue them over its five-year term (2019-24), but the interesting feature is that the Commission has not chosen to abandon or significantly change these priorities – simply adding a de facto seventh priority to its existing portfolio, namely action to contain the coronavirus crisis and promote economic recovery from it – nor has it significantly reconfigured the portfolios of members of the College, in response to the crisis, as some might have expected. (For example, there was no move to give greater responsibilities to the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety).
The European Commission has made it clear that it sees the coronavirus crisis as reconfirming the relevance of its existing priorities, rather than eclipsing or recasting them. It also sees the crisis as offering an opportunity to move further and faster in certain fields, talking about ‘the great acceleration of change’ which the crisis has unleashed and ‘the great opportunity it [has] paradoxically presented’. This attitude is notably the case with the two most ambitious of the six priorities – ‘A European Green Deal’ and ‘A Europe fit for the digital age’ – where the Commission has sought to use the momentum of events surrounding the crisis not only to assert the increased relevance of these priorities – suggesting that radical changes in human behaviour are possible and that these are likely to be driven in large measure by digital innovation – but to operationalise them further through the €750 billion ‘Next Generation EU’ (NGEU) recovery fund, which itself helps carry forward the third priority, ‘An economy that works for people’. Defined percentages of the recovery and resilience facility are to be used for investment in initiatives that will advance Europe’s move to climate-neutrality as a continent by 2050 and in digital modernisation of various kinds (37 and 20 per cent respectively).
The Commission has also sought to use the climate and digital agendas as a means to assert its fourth priority, ‘A stronger Europe in the world’. They offer an opportunity for the Commission to try to lead opinion on two major areas of policy where it has a global agenda for change – even if the geo-political setting was largely inhospitable until the replacement of Donald Trump by Joe Biden as US President, and still remains complex and challenging. With the spotlight on the causal link between the loss of biodiversity and the pandemic, the Commission President has set Europe the objective of leading the world at the conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity, scheduled for October 2021 in China.
Under the fifth priority, ‘Promoting our European way of life’, which includes migration and health, the impact of the crisis has been paradoxical: although it delayed several initiatives planned for 2020, it has greatly increased the likelihood of the Commission achieving the ambition of building a ‘European health union’. Here it has outlined pro-active initiatives to strengthen the EU’s crisis-preparedness and management of cross-border health threats, and to reinforce the mandates of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The Commission’s sixth priority – ‘A new push for European democracy’ – was initially set back by the coronavirus crisis, with the Conference of the Future of Europe stalled for some time. However, even here, the relevance of the Conference now appears to have been enhanced by debates about whether Europe is adequately equipped to address new global challenges (such as health pandemics) where expectations of common European action can be high. Delayed due to lack of agreement among the three main EU institutions on a series of procedural issues, a joint declaration between them was finally signed on 10 March 2021 – captured in the photograph on the front cover of this publication – paving the way to the official launch event of the Conference on 9 May 2021.
The successive annual Commission work programmes for 2020 – published in January 2020 and updated in May 2020 – and for 2021 – published on 19 October 2021 under the title ‘A Union of vitality in a world of fragility’ – show a surprising degree of continuity. Even if some legislative proposals (notably in the digital field) have been introduced later than originally anticipated – there were delays on 12 of the proposals originally flagged up in January 2020 – very little has fallen by the wayside and some new, ambitious elements have been added, most notably the introduction of a more stringent climate target (55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030) and the launch of NGEU.
Our assessment is that of the nearly 400 initiatives foreshadowed by the von der Leyen Commission on taking office or since (397), almost half have already been submitted (192). Among these, one in five has already been adopted (43), while the great majority of the remainder are either proceeding normally in the legislative process (97) or are close to adoption (26). Conversely, a certain number are proceeding very slowly or are currently blocked (26). While the Commission’s first priority, the European Green Deal, ranks highest in the number of initiatives announced (87), the third priority, ‘An economy that works for people’, has the greatest number so far actually adopted (15). It is worth noting that almost one in six of the Commission’s initiatives are non-legislative in character, such as strategies, action plans and other communications. (All figures here relate to the situation as of 31 March 2021).
This paper forms part of a series that monitors the stay of play on the achievement of Commission priorities and which is published, in principle, once every six months. There has been a significant increase in the number of initiatives submitted by the Commission under each of its six priorities, compared with only six months ago – an increase of one-third overall, compared with early September 2020. This confirms that the Commission has now entered the very active phase, in the early middle part of the five-year EU political cycle, during which the executive keeps coming forward with a large number of proposals, whilst simultaneously the twin branches of the legislature (the European Parliament and the Council of the EU) are fully engaged in considering and (very often) amending them.
One underlying condition for the success of the von der Leyen Commission’s priorities is, of course, having the financial means to implement the various initiatives tabled. In December 2020, the adoption of an unprecedented budgetary package for the years 2021 to 2027 brought new momentum to the financial front. The new Own Resources Decision will introduce important changes to the system and significantly increase resources for the next seven years. However, it still needs to be ratified by all the Member States, and completing that process is the next major challenge that the European Union faces in spring to summer 2021.
The following sections of this paper analyse, for each of the Commission’s six priorities, the state of play on its initiatives, reporting progress made, delays suffered, and any specific impact as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The infographic featured on the next page illustrates, in condensed form, on one page, the degree of progress so far made – both overall and under each of the six priorities. It is based on a proposal-by-proposal assessment which is available on the European Parliament’s ‘Legislative Train Schedule’ website, also developed by EPRS and available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/
The next edition of this paper will be published in September 2021, in advance of President von der
Leyen’s annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament.
Read this complete in-depth analysis on ‘The six policy priorities of the von der Leyen Commission: State of play in spring 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.