Written by Etienne Bassot,
In her statements to the European Parliament in July and November 2019, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined the political priorities that would shape the Commission’s work programme for the years 2019 to 2024. The 2020 Commission work programme, adopted before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, mirrored these priorities. Without changing the overall structure of the six priorities, the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its significant impact across Member States obliged the Commission, however, to focus on immediate crisis management. As a result, at the end of May, the Commission adjusted its work programme for 2020, prioritising initiatives that it considered to be essential or necessary for the EU’s post-crisis recovery, in line with the Recovery Plan for Europe. The State of the Union debate provides the opportunity to take stock of the progress made thus far and to look ahead.
Delivering on promises while adjusting to a crisis scenario
Recalibrating political priorities
The von der Leyen Commission took office on 1 December 2019, a month later than expected and after a long investiture process, beginning in May 2019 with the European Parliament elections. The new Commission’s priorities were sketched out in von der Leyen’s political guidelines, presented prior to her election as President of the Commission in July 2019, and further developed in the Commission’s 2020 work programme (CWP 2020), adopted on 29 January 2020. Building on the European Parliament’s political priorities and the European Council’s new Strategic Agenda for the 2019-2024 period, the Commission sought to shift from the crisis management mode that had dominated the Juncker Commission’s activities in the previous term (i.e. the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis and Brexit) to focus on the long term. The new priorities aimed at leading the transition to ‘a fair, climate-neutral, digital Europe‘, building on six ‘headline ambitions’ or priorities: i) A European Green Deal; ii) A Europe fit for the digital age; iii) An economy that works for people; iv) ‘A stronger Europe in the world; v) Promoting our European way of life; and, vi) A new push for European democracy.
The Commission has delivered on some of its commitments for its first year in office. However, as the coronavirus spread among Member States and the public health crisis unfolded, the Commission focused on coordinating a common European response to the pandemic, through a wide range of actions aimed at supporting the Member States’ health systems and countering the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. As a result of the adoption of all those non-planned measures, the CWP 2020 was adjusted on 27 May 2020. Presented on the same day as the Commission’s Recovery Plan for Europe, the adjustments to the CWP 2020 introduced changes affecting the scope and timing of some of the initiatives included in the original work programme. The adjusted work programme prioritises all the initiatives that, according to the Commission, are essential or support the immediate recovery of Europe, such as the strategy for smart sector integration (Priority 1), the renovation wave strategy (Priority 1), the strategy for sustainable and smart mobility (Priority 1), the digital services act (Priority 2), the reinforcement of the youth guarantee (Priority 3) and the white paper on an instrument on foreign subsidies (Priority 2). In relation to some other relevant initiatives, such as the new pact on migration and the updated skills agenda for Europe (both Priority 5), the Commission expressed its commitment to adopting them as swiftly as possible, whereas some other initiatives have been delayed until the end of the year or early 2021. In any case, timelines may again be changed to reflect the Commission’s 2021 work programme, expected to be adopted in October this year.
Adjusting EU finances
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has had significant consequences for EU finances too. Both the 2020 EU budget and the proposals for the next long-term budgetary plan, covering the 2021-2027 period (the multiannual financial framework − MFF) have had to be adjusted to the new circumstances and priorities. Already in the first weeks of the pandemic, as part of the immediate EU response to the crisis, the Commission proposed to reallocate part of the 2020 budget to support the policies most in need, such as healthcare systems, research into treatments and a vaccine, and protection of jobs and businesses. To finance these actions within the very limited resources of the 2020 budget, the Commission had to resort to the budgetary margins and flexibility instruments, while also proposing amendments to the provisions of the 2014-2020 MFF.
The pandemic has further complicated the lengthy negotiations on the 2021-2027 MFF. On 27 May 2020, together with its adjusted CWP 2020 and its Recovery Plan for Europe, the Commission presented a budgetary package for recovery and resilience. The Commission’s proposal linked the future 2021-2027 MFF with the €750 billion recovery instrument (‘Next Generation EU’). The latter would be financed through funds borrowed on the markets by the Commission on behalf of the EU, the first time such a method had been used on such a big scale. Political agreement on the proposals was reached by EU leaders at a special European Council meeting on 17-21 July 2020, opening the way for formal negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament, whose consent is required for the adoption of the MFF.
Adjusting the Commission’s structure and working methods
The pandemic has also had an impact on the von der Leyen Commission’s original structure and working methods. As all Commission staff in ‘non-critical functions’ moved to teleworking (as of 16 March) and all meetings of Commission decision-making groups, including the weekly meetings of the College of Commissioners (as of 18 March), switched to being held by video-conference or tele-conference, efforts were stepped up to facilitate the exchange of information, increase coordination and speed-up the decision-making process. The Commission introduced fast-track procedures to accelerate coordination at administrative level and the College privileged written procedure (as opposed to oral procedure) to expedite the adoption of decisions. Coordination was ensured by different means, including the creation of thematic clusters (global vaccine, macroeconomic aspects of the crisis, recovery phase), in which the members of the Commission took part on the basis of their areas of responsibility, and the creation of a coronavirus response group. Initially composed of five Commissioners (Janez Lenarčič, Stella Kyriakides, Ylva Johansson, Adina Vălean and Paolo Gentiloni) and headed by the Commission President, the group aimed to coordinate the EU’s efforts to handle the crisis, although its creation was seen by some commentators as a move towards further centralisation and presidentialisation of the Commission.
Finally, it is to be noted that the recent resignation of the Trade Commissioner (Phil Hogan) may also lead to changes in the Commission’s structure or working methods. On 26 August 2020, Hogan tendered his resignation to President von der Leyen after controversy over his attendance at an event with more than 80 people, despite the applicable Irish public health guidelines to contain the coronavirus pandemic restricting gatherings to a fraction of that number. Although von der Leyen did not formally request Hogan’s resignation under Article 17(6) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), she accepted it the following day, opening the way to the appointment of a new Irish Commissioner through the procedure provided for under Article 246 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). As requested by von der Leyen – who has been committed to ensuring parity within the Commission since the beginning of her mandate – the Irish government proposed both a female and a male candidate, the First Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, and a recent European Investment Bank Vice-President, Andrew McDowell. On 8 September, von der Leyen announced that she had chosen Mairead McGuinness, and that she would take over financial services, financial stability and the capital markets union from Valdis Dombrovskis. The latter would take the trade portfolio permanently (having already taken it in the meantime), while continuing in his role of Executive Vice-President. The Council has to appoint the new Commissioner, by common accord with the Commission President, after consulting the European Parliament. Parliament is expected to organise hearings of both McGuinness (on her qualifications to be a member of the College and for her portfolio) and Dombrovskis (as regards his new portfolio), as set out under Rule 125(9) of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure concerning candidates proposed to replace individual Commissioners or in the event of a substantial reshuffling of Commission portfolios.
Read the complete briefing on ‘The von der Leyen Commission’s six priorities: State of play in autumn 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.