The Commission’s first 100 days in office – A Europe in transition
A joint PfEU article
5 April, 2020
The 9th of March marked the first 100 days since the new Commission took office. This is an important mark as it gives an indication of the future direction of political initiatives and their possible success. The 100-day promises made by the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were characterised by a will to become an important global actor that spearheads responsible governance. That is true for Environment with the extensive Green Deal proposal, for EU Foreign Affairs and Security with the wish to become more geopolitical and to strengthen global partnerships, and to a wide extent for (digital) economic policies and the commitment to a Europe fit for the digital age. Some plans have already materialised while others have stopped moving forward. The Conference on the Future of Europe is one example of an important initiative where the Commission has not yet fulfilled its promises.
We have analysed different policy initiatives, evaluated if the Commission delivered on its 100-day commitments and if initial success can be measured. The global effects of and response to Covid-19 will most certainly make the implementation of certain policies more difficult in the months to come, but current challenges must not put important initiatives that are crucial for the future on pause, such as the Green Deal or the Conference on the Future of Europe.
EU Foreign Affairs and Security
The Commission President took a bold stance when taking office as she pointed to the need for a “Stronger Europe in the World”. The Commission would be geopolitical, according to von der Leyen, pushing for increased recognition as a strong and united actor on the global stage. The geopolitical agenda stretches across different policy fields, but this section will evaluate the 100 days commitments in Foreign Affairs and Security and the priority of becoming more active in the world.
A brief overview of the main priorities
Von der Leyen reiterated the importance of the accession process in her Political Guidelines, naming the engagement with the Western Balkans as a priority. A goal for the Commission is to reaffirm the European perspective of the Western Balkans by remaining in close contact, showing the EU’s dedication to the enlargement process. This explains the Commission’s support for the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Membership talks with these two countries were blocked in October 2019 when the French President Macron objected to the rules of the accession process. The two countries had already undertaken reforms required for talks to begin, making the current Commission dedicated to keeping its promise to the states as it would otherwise jeopardise the trust in EU’s commitment. In an attempt to balance the different interests, the Commission published a proposal on how to improve the accession process. In line with the wishes of Macron, the proposal held that accessions could be suspended or reversed and that it would become more predictable. The Commission was given a green light to open the accession negotiations on 24 March.
Another important priority for the new Commission has been to develop a comprehensive strategy on Africa. The first country outside the EU that the Commission President visited was Ethiopia, with which she wanted to illustrate the revived commitment to Africa. The goal is to form a strong partnership and deepen cooperation in all aspects of the EU-Africa partnership. A joint communication was presented on the Commission’s 100th day in office and it proposes a framework that would enable both sides to achieve their common goals, with a focus on digital transformation and green transition. It is a well-received initiative that recognises the need to engage with Africa as a partner for effectively tackling common challenges. However, if it is supposed to be more than just a symbolic narrative shift, the Commission will have to induce the policy aspirations with substance while actually taking steps towards a genuine partnership.
Towards an enlarged EU and strong global partnerships
The sceptical stance towards the accession process was based on the fear of moving too fast towards an engagement that states are not ready for. With the proposed revisions, the Commission delivered in two ways; it showed the Western Balkans that the EU is still dedicated to integrate them into the Union and it signalled that the EU is still committed to and capable of taking united geopolitical decisions that respects the principle of multilateralism. The opening of the accession process was a sign of increased trust in the process, which can be beneficial for its future.
The approach to Africa is also in line with von der Leyens geopolitical agenda. Other countries have already built or intend to build stronger ties with Africa through increased engagement and investments, in particularly China. EU’s strengthened commitment is therefore timely. However, if the Commission intends to play a more important role, it must illustrate that it seeks a genuine partnership where inputs are valued and considered, with a willingness to compromise. Only then can EU-Africa find “common paths towards the future”, as von der Leyen has called for.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, a two year long framework which aims at bringing together EU institutions, Member States and civil society in order to develop an updated vision of the European Union and to possibly propose a new election law, had been one of the key priorities of the new Commission in the beginning of their term, before reality caught up with it. A Franco-German non-paper shed some light on the possible framework of the Conference but did not boost discussions in Brussels significantly. This section will evaluate the progress on the Conference on the Future of Europe which is part of the Commission’s “new push for European democracy”.
A brief overview of the progress
The Conference is planned to be launched on Europe Day, 9 May 2020. However, the different stakeholders have not found common ground on the framework yet. Criticism has been raised in regard to the proposal of establishing an additional EU body that is tasked with overseeing the Conference. Further, while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen could imagine a treaty change shortly after taking office, this overexcitement has quickly turned into a sobering awakening. As already analysed in a previous article, the chances for a treaty change are poor. More likely are specific amendments. It can be expected to see a reform of the European electoral system as the current law and its interpretation by the European Parliament have led to a serious inter-institutional crisis shortly after the European elections of 2019. One man in particular is interested in finding a solution to this dilemma: the French President Emmanuel Macron. He has been arguing for transnational lists since day one of his presidency and will likely use the French Council Presidency in the first half of 2021 to push this idea through.
What to expect and possible pitfalls
The Conference on the Future of Europe has the potential to unite Member States once again, to rethink the self-understanding of the European Union and to find solutions to the challenges of our time. The Commission as the guardian and enforcer of the European treaties must once again prioritise the Conference after the Covid-19 crisis. In order to be successful, it needs a clear guideline in regard to the framework, schedule and objectives. It needs dialogues between the EU and national governments and, more importantly, between the EU and its citizens. New forms of participation have to be developed and implemented. The EU must use the enormous potential of digital tools to reach out to the young generation in particular. The young generation is ready to be heard and to influence policy making. Is the EU ready to listen to them? If it does not act fast, the only remaining hope for a successful debate on EU’s future is the prioritisation of the Conference by the upcoming Council presidencies of Germany and France, the EU’s two most powerful member states.
The crisis in 2015 revealed flaws to EU’s policy on migration and the difficulty to uphold the principle of solidarity. Since then, the EU has struggled to develop a joint approach that balances the different interests and concerns across the Union. It was therefore timely that the Commission President made it a priority to address current flaws and promote a fresh start on migration. This section will evaluate the 100 days engagement on migration and the road to a fresh start.
An overview of the main developments
The first step towards a fresh start on migration is going to be the proposal for a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, including the relaunch of the Dublin reform of asylum rules. This will be an important measure that could address the problems with the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), responsibility sharing and solidarity. During the first 100 days, Vice-President Schinas and Commissioner Ylva Johansson consulted the Member states to find common ground for migration and the Commission will present the proposal after Easter.
The first 100 days proved to be particularly turbulent in the field of migration due to the Greece-Turkey border issue. The 2016 agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants was broken in February when Turkey opened its borders, allowing migrants to head towards Greece. Turkey’s ability to put politically motivated pressure on EU’s external borders revealed its vulnerability. The structural problems with EU’s migration policy have still not been resolved and a long-term sustainable solution is needed for this vulnerability to be addressed. The border issue particularly brought the questions of responsibility sharing and solidarity to the fore once again. The pushback of refugees at the Greek border and their announcement to suspend the right to apply for asylum is in line with the security-based approach that has been guiding Member States actions since the solidarity principle started deteriorating. Furthermore, the problem with overcrowded refugee camps and reported human rights abuses on the Greek islands continues to show the pressing need to ease the burden on external border states. The Commission acknowledged that Greece needs extensive help to deal with the pressing situation on the Greek islands, providing € 350 million as a first step to improve the situation. But, if the situation is to actually improve, increased funding will not be enough. As a short-term measure, it might relieve the most pressing humanitarian issues, but it does not resolve the uneven implementation of the CEAS or the flawed Dublin regulation with its “first state of entry rule”. It is only by addressing such structural problems that the approach to migration would be sustainable, which could also reduce the fear of future migration flows and thereby minimise the current vulnerability. The initiative to “outsource” migration control has now been proven not to be a viable solution for the future and will hopefully be a motivator for developing a comprehensive New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Time for solidarity to prevail
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum will be a defining proposal as it sets the direction for EU’s future migration policy. It is too early to say if the Commission can improve the policies on migration since the proposal has not yet been published, but it has been announced that the Commission will deliver “a more resilient, more humane and more effective migration and asylum system”. Nevertheless, cautions have been raised and it will be crucial for the Commission to not bend to pressure from Member States critical towards responsibility sharing but to rather start champion a rights-based approach where the EU’s core principle of solidarity is upheld.
Just like the ever-warmer global climate, EU Environmental Law has progressively become the domain where the most heated debates are going on. This is why the new European Commission has put the fight against climate change at the core of its commitments, dubbing it ‘this generation’s defining task‘. This section will analyse the Commission’s work on Environment during its first 100 days in office, with a view to assessing whether the promises made in the December 2019 Political Guidelines are being fulfilled or whether more ought to be done.
A brief overview of the promises and progress
From the outset, the Commission President von der Leyen has made clear that the central goal pursued would be to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, and that all decisive actions in this direction would have to be promptly put in place. Specifically, the Commission proposed to put forward a comprehensive strategy that would help achieve the climate-neutrality target by acting upon and radically transforming all the sectors of the economy. According to von der Leyen, the envisioned blueprint, named European Green Deal, would yield beneficial results for the health of the EU environment and citizens, as well as for its industries.
The Commission presented the Green Deal as early as 11 December 2019: it essentially reflects the declarations contained in the Political Guidelines and Communication. The Commission also managed to submit a proposal for a European Climate Law, as announced before taking office. This legislative proposal immediately raised high expectations, because, if adopted, it would formally make the target of climate-neutrality a legally binding obligation and would commit the institutions and the Member States to systemically acting on all fronts. In recognising the need to have financial resources to implement the reforms, the Commission also proposed to establish a Just Transition Fund. Despite the indispensability of such a financial instrument, the Fund has regrettably not been disciplined yet.
Lastly, a new and innovative biodiversity strategy was promised to complement the actions in the Environment field. This was supposed to set up higher standards to protect biodiversity and restore natural habitats through a series of actions across different policy sectors – from agriculture to trade to industry. This latest proposal has not been advanced yet, presumably on account of the recent World health predicament.
Evaluation and recommendations
Overall, the Commission’s efforts in the environmental domain are commendable, as the Green Deal is the first EU strategy to be so thorough and ambitious, leading the way for achieving the climate-neutrality target. However, it is too early to declare initial success as more concrete actions are still needed. For instance, the proposal for a ‘Climate Law’ is still under discussion and, even if approved, the cross-cutting and far-reaching policies envisaged therein would make its implementation a herculean task.
Furthermore, not all the proposed actions have hitherto materialised: beside the above-mentioned biodiversity strategy, a fund from the Just Transition Mechanism seems far from becoming a reality, due to the fierce opposition by the most climate-sceptical Member States. To overcome these challenges and move towards the actualisation of the Green Deal, more appealing incentives for climate-sceptic states and industries could be developed.
Finance, Trade & (Digital) Internal Market
Trade – 100 days with challenges and successes
It has not exactly been a calm first 100 days for Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Trade. The World Trade Organization lacks an effective dispute settlement mechanism, the important multilateralism approach in trade is threatened by national solo efforts, and the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises a full and comprehensive EU-UK trade agreement until the end of 2020. That the latter was “just not possible” was not only the opinion of Phil Hogan but of many other experts, not least in light of the time it took the EU to conclude trade agreements of far smaller volume. The 2020 goal is simply not realistic which is why Phil Hogan’s clear statement deserves acknowledgement.
One of the key successes within trade was the interim appeal arbitration agreement the EU and 16 other WTO-members concluded in January. It will guarantee that the participating WTO members continue to have access to an effective dispute settlement mechanism including the important possibility to appeal. Convincing, beside others, Australia, Brazil, Canada and China to conclude this agreement, demonstrates the economic power that the European Union has and which it should use more in the future in order to promote free trade around the globe. Free trade should also be the goal for the future relationship with the UK beyond 2020. It is important to prioritise the trade agreement, to close chapter by chapter and thus to decrease the degree of negative economic consequences.
Can Europe stay (and become) competitive in the digital age?
With Commission Vice President Margarethe Vestager being responsible for the digital portfolio and being Commissioner for Competition to the same time, and Thierry Breton as France’s powerful Commissioner for the Internal Market, the (digital) internal market has probably been the most prioritised field beside (and often connected to) environmental policies.
Margarethe Vestager, driven by a powerful Franco-German-Italian-Polish alliance, announced a review of DG COMP’s market definition criteria. The Commission will in June set out proposals addressing the advantage that Chinese state-influenced companies have under European competition law, in particular when being subject to merger control proceedings. The mentioned alliance of member states called for a revision of the market definition, pushing for defining global markets instead of European, in order to capture the control China exercises over its companies. Vestager however, seemed long critical of industrial considerations in merger control but showed willingness to cooperate. The chosen path is a realistic and welcomed move towards a fair competition in Europe. It remains to be seen how the Commission aims at tackling the issue in detail but readjusting the definition of control should be in the centre of the discussion. It will also be important to develop a unified solution within the International Competition Network.
To the same time, the European Commission is boosting its digital agenda, with a white paper on artificial intelligence and its data strategy. Considering the once announced legislative initiatives in the first 100 days, a white paper is not a success. However, it constitutes an important step towards regulating AI without losing more ground to competing economies. With the GDPR the EU has shown that it is able to set global regulatory standards and it should aim at doing so again. Now the EU has to deliver on its promises, setting global standards without over- or underregulating, and focus on key areas where the EU is a leader or can potentially become one.