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European Commission: the 100-Day Challenge

BLOG - 6 January 2020

The new European Commission chaired by Ursula von der Leyen took office on December 1 2019. As the President of the Commission recalled in her presentation of the new College of Commissioners, "My message is simple: Let us get to work". In recent years, the European Commission has devoted most of its work to dealing with problems requiring an immediate response, whether it was the Greek crisis, terrorist attacks, the Brexit referendum or the so-called refugee crisis. The scale of these crises has largely fuelled doubts over a Europe trapped in its divisions and an agenda directly imposed by international circumstances.

The new Commission intends to regain a power of initiative to enable Europe to steer the major changes taking place in our world. "We have the duty to act and the power to lead". Stated by Ursula von der Leyen in her last speech to Parliament, this sentence alone sums up the Commission's ambition: moving away from emergency management to give Europe a new start, to make Europe the leader in the environmental transition and a digital power on the frontline. The European Commission has given itself 100 days to demonstrate its ability to breathe new life into Europe. After a mixed start, does the European Commission still have the means to fulfil its ambitions? At the European summit in Brussels, where the Conference on the Future of Europe, the New Green Deal and the next multiannual financial framework of the Union have been debated, the new Commission will pass the first litmus test.

Towards a new institutional balance

The new College of Commissioners was approved by the European Parliament by a large majority, with 461 votes, while 157 MEPs voted against and 89 abstained. The European Parliament's support for the new executive puts an end to a period of institutional crisis, which began last June with the rejection of the "Spitzenkandidaten" system, whereby the candidate leading the top list in the European elections would be designated by the European Heads of State as President of the Commission. The Heads of State’s inability to agree on one of the list’s heads resulting from the elections thus led in June to dismiss from the Commission’s presidency the German Manfred Weber, Chairman of the EPP Group, the Dutch Frans Timmermans from the Socialist Group and the Margrethe Vestager, the Danish leader of the Liberals.

Against Parliament's advice, Ursula von der Leyen was finally nominated by the European Council as candidate for the Commission presidency.

The European Parliament has demonstrated that it does not intend to act as a registration chamber.

The very narrow majority with which she was elected by Parliament – barely 9 votes in advance – demonstrated the willingness of the Strasbourg Parliament to carry more weight in the European institutional game. A new balance of power was established in Brussels, leading to an unprecedented deadlock in the history of the institutions.

Initially scheduled for 1st November 2019, the entry into office of the new Commission was postponed due to the rejection by the European Parliament of several candidates for the posts of Commissioner. The candidacies of the conservative László Trócsányi, former Victor Orban’s Justice Minister to the post of Enlargement Commissioner, and that of the socialist Rovana Plumb, former Romanian Minister for the Transport portfolio, were rejected due to likely conflicts of interest. The rejection of Sylvie Goulard’s candidacy, former French Minister of the Armed Forces suggested by Emmanuel Macron for the post of Commissioner for the Internal Market, appeared to be the peak of an institutional crisis marked by the confrontation between the European Parliament and the Council over key appointments in the Commission.

By forcing Hungary, Romania and France to put forward new candidates, the European Parliament has demonstrated that it does not intend to act as a registration chamber and the affirmation of its independence goes hand in hand with a better consideration of its opinions. The Parliament's approval of the College of Commissioners on 27th November is certainly a sign of the easing of tensions, but this unprecedented institutional battle has made it necessary to rethink the appointment process at the European level. This is precisely the purpose of the Conference on the Future of Europe, announced by the President of the Commission and supported by Paris and Berlin, who in a joint declaration called on the Union to initiate, as early as February 2020, a reflecting process on the functioning of the institutions – envisaging the possibility of drawing up transnational lists and revising European treaties.

Led by Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, the Conference on the Future of Europe involves European institutions’ representatives and should enable European citizens to be more closely involved in the reform process. However, this conference cannot solve the main short-term challenge posed to the Commission by the Parliament.

The political fragmentation of the European Parliament and the absence of a coalition between the different political groups deprives the executive of a real majority. The Commission will therefore have to deal with the forces at work and reach a new consensus on each of its proposals. Demonstrating its ability to win MEPs’ support is thus the first challenge facing the Commission, which has committed to presenting a series of flagship measures during its first 100 days in office.  

The Commission's new commitments

In her general policy speech to Parliament on the eve of her inauguration as Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen expressed her desire to give Europe a Commission with real political ambition. By taking up the "100 days" concept, a period during which the newly elected government enjoys a state of grace to fulfil its campaign promises and at the end of which it agrees to be judged, Ursula von der Leyen is bringing to the European level a political concept hitherto reserved for national politics.

In its first 100 days after taking office, the new Commission has committed to presenting four ambitious reform projects:

  • a Green Deal for Europe, the first European climate legislation anchoring in law the objective of climate neutrality by 2050;
  • the introduction of binding measures on pay transparency to combat pay inequalities between men and women;
  • the definition of a coordinated European approach to the human and ethical implications of artificial intelligence and;
  • the establishment of a fair minimum wage for all workers in the Union.

Protection of the environment, defence of gender equality, management of the digital revolution and the promotion of social justice are thus the fundamental pillars of a Europe that does not merely react to crises, but now wishes to chart its own course.

The first project is undoubtedly the European New Green Deal, which has been presented on Wednesday 11 December at the COP25 in Madrid. Led by Dutch Vice-President Frans Timmermans, this commitment by the Commission should enable Europe to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. A number of measures are to be proposed to achieve this objective, ranging from the reduction of free allowances allocated to the aviation sector to the revision of the directive on energy taxation; from the introduction of a strategy for the hydrogen economy to the presentation of a new plan for the circular economy; from the integration of environmental criteria into future trade agreements to the definition of a new framework for green finance. This set of ambitious measures covers also the use of pesticides and chemicals, a "farm to fork" strategy for more sustainable food and a major reforestation plan for Europe.

The aim of this New Green Deal is to drive a radical transformation of the European economy, to make this transformation a lever for growth and jobs in Europe. Despite the ambitious character of this plan, several uncertainties remain: it is unlikely that the border carbon tax wanted by the Commission and supported by France and the V4 countries can be introduced soon. Despite the promise of a Just Transition Fund to support regions with particularly high CO2 emissions, the Commission has also to deal with opposition from Poland, which see this ecological ambition as a threat to their competitiveness.

The aim of this New Green Deal is to drive a radical transformation of the European economy, to make this transformation a lever for growth and jobs in Europe.

In order to tackle the climate crisis, the European Union must first and foremost have a long-term budget that includes climate change among its priorities. This is the whole issue of the multiannual financial framework (MFF) which has been debated at the European summit on 12 December. As shown by this interactive infographics published on the Institut Montaigne’s website, the draft long-term budget proposed last spring by the Commission shows a slight increase in the funds allocated to climate change compared to the previous financial framework. However, the Commission's desire to increase the appropriations allocated to financing the New Green Deal could come up against an impossible budgetary equation, dominated by the refusal of the Nordic states to contribute more to the Union's budget concomitant with the refusal of several states to accept a reduction in allocations to traditional policies in order to finance new priorities. The new Commission’s enthusiasm in the climate field could thus quickly be drowned in the icy waters of selfish calculation, as demonstrated by the concern expressed by Ursula von der Leyen after Finland's presentation of the new financial framework.

Approved by the Member States, apart from Poland, the New Green Deal guidelines that were presented by the Commission in December are not expected to be translated into legislation until March, leaving the Commission little time to present its plans for equal pay or the introduction of a European minimum wage. As for measures on the ethical and human implications of artificial intelligence, expectations range from a mere declaration of intent to a new excess of over-regulation. At this time, it seems that the priority is to redefine a new European architecture, to which the Conference on the Future of Europe could give a decisive impetus.

By committing herself to presenting concrete results quickly while Europe still seems to be at a standstill, Ursula von der Leyen is taking the risk of proving right those who criticized an out-of-system President who is ignorant of the Brussels mechanism. At the same time, however, she gives full meaning to Vaclav Havel’s quote, with which she opened her speech introducing the new Commission: "Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed".

 

Copyright: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

 

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