Author: Clare Gray
On 20 June 2019, Heads of State or Government in the European Council adopted the EU’s Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024. This high-level document is designed to provide a blueprint of the EU’s political direction for the next five years. This search for a common narrative has perhaps been deeper and more reflective this time around, as the EU prepares for life as a Union of 27.
Discussions on the content of the Strategic Agenda were shaped heavily by geopolitical circumstances in recent years, namely the 2015 migration crisis, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The result is an agenda which is as much a response to the events of the previous five years as an attempt to pre-empt the challenges of the next five years.
The current Strategic Agenda identifies four key priorities:
- Protecting citizens and freedoms;
- Developing the EU’s economic base;
- Building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe; and
- Promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world.
On closer inspection, the Agenda appears to be a delicate balancing act between two core, and seemingly contradictory, priorities: ensuring a protective and prosperous Europe internally while also maximising the EU’s openness and influence globally. As the Strategic Agenda notes: “The EU must address internal and external challenges in an integrated manner. For external action to be effective, we need a strong internal economic base.”
While the Strategic Agenda is ambitious and forward looking, its immediate impact should not be overstated. It is, after all, a strategic document rather than a legally binding agreement. Turning words into actions will depend on the willingness of Member States and indeed the other EU institutions to implement these priorities. This requires compromise among several different and sometimes competing visions of the future of Europe and of issues such as migration, the EMU and security and defence.
Nonetheless, the emphasis on balance could be a useful unifying objective for the EU’s new legislative term.
Preparing the Strategic Agenda
The Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024 is the second Strategic Agenda prepared by the EU.
While the European Council is the ultimate penholder, during the drafting process Member States and the other EU institutions put forward their own contributions. Ireland was one of the few Member States which conducted intensive dialogue with citizens, the Parliament and government departments before producing its contribution to the Strategic Agenda. The Commission also produced its own recommendations for the Strategic Agenda, many of which are reflected in the final document.
These contributions were packaged together to form the bones of a Strategic Agenda for the Sibiu summit on the Future of Europe in May 2019, which European Council President Donald Tusk said aimed to “touch the essence of Europe”. By the time the Strategic Agenda filtered up through the ministerial ranks of the Council and reached the European Council on the 20 June 2019, it was agreed unanimously without much dissent.
Defining the priorities
The emphasis of the previous Strategic Agenda of 2014-2019 was on recovery and renewal, as the EU attempted to counteract the damaging effects of the financial crisis. It identified five priorities, the first of which was the creation of a stronger economy, underpinned by a stable job market.
This time around, there is a move away from crisis management. The Strategic Agenda recognises the persistent and significant challenges facing the Union, such as migration, rule of law, climate change and threats to multilateralism. Nevertheless, there are cautious tones of optimism about the EU’s ability not only to weather these challenges, but indeed to turn them into opportunities both at home and globally.
- Protective Europe
At the heart of the agenda is ensuring the protection of citizens and freedoms, understood as respect for rule of law and common values, ensuring the territorial integrity of the Union and the development of a comprehensive migration and asylum policy. On migration the text is particularly resolute: effective external border control is “an absolute prerequisite” for internal security and the functioning of EU policies. This phraseology closely mirrors French President Macron’s calls for a ‘Europe that protects’ and indeed the Commission’s vision for a more ‘protective Europe’. 
Although migrant flows are in decline (migrant arrivals between January and March 2019 were down 91% on the same period in 2016), its identification as the Union’s first priority reflects the political salience of the issue. In fact, migration was the challenge most commonly identified by Heads of State and Government in the European Parliament’s Future of Europe debates. The Economist went so far as to predict that ‘a Europe that protects’ is becoming the defining political narrative of the European project. 
If this is to be the case, the EU will need to strike a balance between answering fears about migration, without compromising its commitment to increasing European engagement in the world. They will also need to close the gap between those southern countries that call for greater solidarity in managing migration (particularly Greece and Italy) and those in the east that are opposed to greater burden sharing if they are to make any progress on key reforms such as the reform of the Dublin regulation. 
- Prosperous Europe
The second priority identified in the Strategic Agenda is the development of our economic base: the European model for the future. The economic objectives contained in the Agenda again reflect the synergy of internal and objectives. It identifies the importance of developing a strong economic base not only as an end in itself to ensure job creation and cohesion in the EU, but also as a means of ensuring the EU’s “competitiveness, prosperity and role on the global stage”. Equally, Franco-German led calls for an EU level industrial strategy are balanced by pledges to increase investment in entrepreneurship, research and education – a key priority of the Irish Government.
In contrast to 2014, the overarching economic objective is outward looking: maximising the EU’s influence worldwide, by leveraging the Single Market, increasing the international role of the euro and creating a “digitally sovereign” Europe through investment in AI, data and infrastructure.
If this is to be achieved, the EU will first need to reconcile competing visions for the future of the Union’s own internal market and completing the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). However, significant divisions exist on how best do this, with some countries favouring risk reduction (such as Germany and the Netherlands), while others advocate greater risk sharing (such as France and Italy). These differences were evident at the recent June Euro summit, which ended without agreement after Dutch opposition to the introduction of a budgetary instrument for the Eurozone.
- Green Europe
Perhaps surprisingly, the third priority, building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe, generated the most debate before being signed off at the June European Council. The Agenda is ambitious in its aspiration to lead the way on climate neutrality, by engaging in “an in-depth transformation of its own economy and society”. However, to the disappointment of many Member States, the agenda fails to specify a time limit for achieving climate neutrality, as a result of opposition from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia. 
This opposition, alongside the recent Yellow Vest protests in France, cannot be ignored. It demonstrates the importance of striking a balance between ambitious climate targets which will allow the EU to become a global leader on climate action, while also giving Member States the time and support to adjust. This is something the agenda itself recognises by interlinking environmental and social objectives. It notes that the green transition must be socially just to ensure that no-one is left behind. It equally advocates keen attention to social issues, including for the first time a real emphasis on the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
In essence, the success of the EU’s quest for global climate leadership will depend on the social and economic viability of its own internal green transition.
- Global Europe
The fourth and final priority focuses on promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world. It emphasises the importance of increasing the EU’s capacity for independent action to allow it to play a formative role in addressing global challenges such as climate change, sustainable development and migration. The Agenda also calls for the EU to position itself as a protector of the global rules-based order and multilateralism, greater cooperation with Africa and a commitment to further EU enlargement.
Equally, the Agenda recognises that acting on these objectives will depend on Member States presenting a united front on key issues. It advocates “giving a clear priority to European economic, social, political and security interests”, making more resources available and Europe taking greater responsibility for its own security and defence.
This will be easier said than done. Traditionally, EU Foreign Policy has remained firmly in the grasp of Member States. Attempts to forge EU-wide positions on foreign affairs through the appointment of a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have been viewed as merely symbolic. Equally, Member States are divided on how far EU cooperation on security and defence should go. The widening vs deepening debate on enlargement also continues, after France and the Netherlands among others, indicated their opposition to the opening of accession talks with Albanian and North Macedonia. 
The Strategic Agenda for 2019-24, with its emphasis on creating a protective Europe internally while also projecting the EU’s influence worldwide, is all about balance.
In prioritising a protective Europe, the Agenda is an attempt to respond to concerns about migration in particular, but also social inequality and climate change. Ultimately, the EU will need to forge some commonality of purpose if it is to maximise its global influence. The Agenda appears to suggest that this common purpose will be conditional on the EU’s ability to respond to the concerns of Member States at home.
In terms of delivering on the priorities, the Strategic Agenda also appears to recognise that a joint approach is required between the EU and Member States. It underlines the importance of respecting the principles of subsidiarity in order to afford Member State actors “the space to breathe”.
It remains to be seen if this call to action will be enough to be translated into concrete policy actions. Significant divisions remain. But it is encouraging that with the Strategic Agenda, the EU tries to chart a new course in a complex global environment while at the same time ensuring security and prosperity at home. This message of balance may just be enough to steer the EU through uncertain waters.
 The European Council’s Strategic Agenda, Clingendael Report, January 2019 https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/Report_The_EC_Strategic_Agenda.pdf
 Address to the IIEA by Professor Danuta Hübner MEP, Friday 28 June 2019
 Takeaways from the EU’s leadership summit, Politico, June 2019 https://www.politico.eu/article/5-takeaways-from-eus-leadership-failure-summit/
 Dear Europe, Brexit is a lesson for all of us: it’s time for renewal, The Guardian, March 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/04/europe-brexit-uk
 Mixed Migration Flows in the Mediterranean, International Organisation for Migration, March 2019 https://migration.iom.int/reports/europe-%E2%80%94-mixed-migration-flows-europe-monthly-overview-march-2019
 The era of a “protective Europe is dawning”, The Economist, April 2019 https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/04/13/the-era-of-a-protective-europe-is-dawning
 Reforming the Dublin Regulation, Euractiv, October 2018 https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/opinion/why-are-we-not-reforming-the-dublin-regulation-yet/
 The Future of the Economic and Monetary Union, SIEPS, 2018 http://www.sieps.se/globalassets/publikationer/2018/sieps-2018_1op-web.pdf?
 Stabilisation mechanism in induced coma after EU leaders’ meeting, Euractiv, June 2019 https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/news/stabilisation-mechanism-in-induced-coma-after-eu-leaders-meeting/
 Albania, North Macedonia braced for delay to EU membership talks, Irish Times, June 2019 https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/albania-north-macedonia-braced-for-delay-to-eu-membership-talks-1.3928480