Author: Dr Róisín Smith
In unveiling its work programme for 2020, the European Commission has set out an agenda of both new and familiar policy areas. Although the programme is varied and comprises several priority actions, including a stronger Europe in the world, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has stated the need to be ‘bold and resolute in tackling generational challenges.’ The Commission President now leads a college of 27 Commissioners, and a more gender balanced team, with eleven women and fifteen men. It is also the first college of Commissioners without a UK Commissioner.
Top of her programme is an emphasis on climate change and digitalisation; “We are committed to deliver on the European Green Deal and to improve chances for European citizens and businesses in the digital transformation. This Work Programme will help building a Union that strives for more.”
Yet, the key task for the leadership team in the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament is not merely to forge ahead with new or ambitious policies, but to work together to implement strategies and prioritise the major difficulties currently facing the EU. This will require the establishment of a good working relationship between all EU institutions, their support, confidence and backing – no easy feat.
The Task Ahead for the European Commission
The union will need strong political direction and leadership, decisive action at the right time, especially when the EU is under pressure to perform in key policy areas. As President von der Leyen declared; “this is an unsettled world, where too many powers only speak the language of confrontation and unilateralism. But it is also a world where millions of people are taking to the streets – to protest against corruption or to demand democratic change. The world needs our leadership more than ever.”
The Commission President has set the task of meeting the first one hundred days challenge or fourteen weeks to change and transform Europe. In her speech to the European Parliament, she stated that “our Union will embark together on a transformation, which will touch every part of our society and economy (…) and it will not be easy.” The first one hundred days will end on 9 March 2020, less than one eighteenth or roughly five percent of her allocated time in office, an artificial political construct, but perhaps a necessary one, given the complexities of the obstacles ahead for the EU.
A Fresh Start for Europe
Von der Leyen has six key priorities and undertakings for the new Commission, outlined in the European Commission’s 2020 work programme; a European Green Deal; an Economy that works for people; Europe Fit for the Digital age; Promoting our European way of life; a Stronger Europe in the world; and a New push for European Democracy. The Commission President will need to exert effective clout in terms of implementing her policies, where she hopes to give Europe the fresh start it badly needs. As she stated; “We sometimes forget that our greatest achievements have always come when we are bold. We were bold when we sought peace where there was pain. We were bold when we created a single market and a single currency. We were bold when we welcomed part of our European family that had been out in the cold for too long.” Under her ‘let’s get to work’ mantra, von der Leyen will focus on Europe’s green deal, on unemployment, migration, and gender equality; “things that people care about.” The Commission President has also declared that she wants to enact new rules on artificial intelligence within the 100-day timeline.
Europe as a Role Model in Climate Change
Von der Leyen has put climate action front and centre of her Presidency, of which protecting the planet from the harmful effects of global warming is key to the Commission’s agenda. The European Commission President is keen to work with Member States and admits that for some sectors it will be more difficult to transition to climate neutrality.
In March 2020, the Commission will present its proposal for Climate laws for the implementation of the Green Deal, bringing the climate neutrality target into law in the first 100 days in office.
By summer 2020, the Commission will also present a plan to increase the EU’s greenhouse gas emission reductions target for 2030. As the EU sets its own ambitious targets, it will also continue to lead international negotiations to increase the ambition of major emitters ahead of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
The European Green Deal proposes actions across the EU economy and a new circular economy action plan; the Commission will put forward a Strategy for Smart Sector Integration and a Renovation Wave. However, turning Europe into a Green Superpower while maintaining economic growth will be challenging and among others, it will involve substantial changes to the way Europe currently uses energy resources.
Von der Leyen’s Upcoming Priorities
In addition to the European Green Deal, the Commission President has emphasised “building a more inclusive and fairer EU”. One of the instruments the Commission has proposed is the introduction of a legal instrument on a minimum wage within the first 100 days. This has not been without controversy. Prioritising the protection of workers’ rights through regulation will be essential given today’s often precarious working arrangements, unstable or low incomes. For example, a recent EU observer commentary noted that ‘obliging Member States to a minimum wage on a certain level or calculated according to a certain formula, it would effectively force all EU countries to have either a statutory minimum wage or a system for extending collective agreements to all workers within a sector.’ Others argue that Member States who do not have statutory minimum wages, such as Denmark, Italy and Sweden may expect exceptions or protection of some kind, and it is unclear at this stage how this could be implemented.
Moreover, none of President von der Leyen’s priorities can be realised without the completion of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and negotiations over the EU’s budget to date has been slow. The European Council President, Charles Michel, has been mandated to preside over the negotiations. Michel admitted that the negotiations will be “extremely complex”, and the “most difficult one ever in EU history because of the Brexit gap.”
Europe’s Global Role and Citizen Engagement
The international aspect to President von der Leyen’s programme is equally united and bold, where ‘Europe can also stand taller in the world’. While the EU may well be attempting to cement an enhanced global role, protecting its interests and ‘domestic’ concerns may be at the core of its agenda and prove problematic in the coming months: in addition to endeavouring to develop and map out the future relationship with the UK. The European Commission is also setting up a European Defence Fund, meant to foster collaboration between EU countries in defence research and development.
A future of Europe conference is on the agenda, with a proposed launch date on Europe Day, 9 May 2020, and it is clear that the Commission President wants citizens to have their say on the future direction of Europe. Civic engagement and “meaningful dialogue through a bottom-up approach” have been proposed, although the ultimate goal of hosting a two-year conference on the future of Europe has yet to be determined. The Commission proposes two parallel work strands for the conference; the first strand will focus on priorities and the second strand will focus on topics specifically related to democratic processes and institutional matters. Nonetheless, a key element of its success will be making the conference relevant to citizens.
The level of aspirations from the European Commission President is noteworthy. She has challenged Europe to be ‘united and bold’, and despite the exit of a large Member State, Europe could ‘stand taller in the world’, if the European Commission’s programme is successful. In addition, Brexit has demonstrated that Europe can be united.
It will be important that the Commission’s programme does not overreach or where ambitious promises are ostensibly not fulfilled. The European Commission President von der Leyen has also displayed pragmatism, policies will not be easy to implement. Yet, she declared: “We are ready, Europe is ready. My message is simple: Let’s get to work.”
See Politico ‘Von der Leyen’s real 100 days challenge’. https://www.politico.eu/article/ursula-von-der-leyen-european-commission-first-100-days-timeline/
 Commission Work Programme 2020. A Union that strives for more. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar%3A7ae642ea-4340-11ea-b81b-01aa75ed71a1.0002.02/DOC_1&format=PDF
 EU Observer. ‘Why EU minimum wage is actually bad idea for workers.’ https://euobserver.com/opinion/147050
The view expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not the IIEA.