Written by Etienne Bassot.
This edition of EPRS’s six-monthly assessment of the delivery of the six policy priorities of the current European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, comes as the Commission approaches the middle of its five-year term. On the eve of taking office in November 2019, then-President elect Ursula von der Leyen stated that ‘Europe urgently needs’ a ‘geopolitical Commission’. Russia’s war on Ukraine, unfolding as this publication was being written, confirms the relevance of this challenge beyond what most experts had envisaged at the time. The pressing need for the Union to develop its ‘strategic autonomy’, brought into focus by the various barriers thrown up during the initial coronavirus lockdowns, has become even starker, and not just in the field of security and defence policy – with war on the EU’s borders – but also in fields such as energy and food, where dependence on external suppliers risks compromising the Union’s stability.
Published on the eve of the 2021 State of the Union address, the previous issue of this publication was drafted as the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops were withdrawing from, and the Taliban taking over, Kabul. This issue comes as war has returned to Europe and millions of refugees are fleeing Ukraine to the European Union. This is a stark reminder to European citizens, as well as their leaders and representatives, that peace and democracy, which are at the heart of the European project, cannot be taken for granted.
Among its many effects, this most dramatic crisis has strengthened unity among the 27 Member States. It has pushed security and defence higher on the European Union agenda, a subject that was already a priority for the French Presidency of the Council of the EU. This is evidenced first in the Versailles Declaration following the 10‑11 March 2022 informal meeting of the Heads of State or Government, which analysed Russia’s war on Ukraine as ‘a tectonic shift in European history’. It is also seen in the decision to take more responsibility for the EU’s security and bolster its defence capabilities, and later in the endorsement of a reinforced, updated Strategic Compass by the European Council on 24‑25 March (see Section 4).
It is no longer the pandemic, but the war on Ukraine and its numerous consequences, that define the European agenda. As the cover photograph of this publication illustrates: on 1 March 2022, the European Parliament, chaired by its new President, Roberta Metsola, held an extraordinary plenary session on the situation in Ukraine at which the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was welcomed with a standing ovation.
The predominance of Putin’s war on Ukraine in the media and our conversations – reaching unprecedented levels of coverage and spread due to the extent of social media use in Ukraine, Europe and worldwide – should not divert our attention from other major ongoing challenges: the policy priorities of the European Commission. On climate change, this Commission’s first priority and an area where President von der Leyen wants Europe to lead globally, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on 28 February 2022 raises the alarm on ‘increasing climate risks’ (see Section 1). Helping the EU recover from the coronavirus crisis (see Section 3), turning the EU into a digital continent (see Section 2), promoting the European way of life (see Section 5), and the new push for European democracy, notably with the Conference on the Future of Europe (see Section 6), are all high on this Commission’s agenda.
This paper monitors all six of these priorities. It combines a two-page presentation of each priority and an infographic illustrating in a single page (page 3), the degree of progress– both overall and under each of the six priorities.
Our assessment is that, of the almost 500 initiatives foreshadowed (504), more than half (57 %) have already been submitted (288). It is worth noting that almost one in five of the Commission’s initiatives are non-legislative in character, such as strategies, action plans and other communications. Among these 266, almost half (47 %) have already been adopted (135), while the great majority of the remainder are either proceeding normally through the legislative process (113, or 74 %) or close to adoption (11, or 7 %). Conversely, a certain number are proceeding very slowly or are currently blocked (29, or 19 %).
These numbers reflect the state of play as the Commission reaches the mid-point of this five-year EU political cycle, during which the executive continues to come forward with new proposals, whilst simultaneously the twin branches of the legislature (the European Parliament and the Council of the EU) are fully engaged in considering and (very often) amending them. The ranking and proportionate progress have remained stable compared with the previous assessment, which is all the more remarkable as the Commission has returned to a more ‘business-as-usual’ mode after more than one year in pandemic mode.
With a focus on each of the six policy priorities, our assessment shows how the European Commission is performing at the different stages of announcing and tabling proposals, followed by the three institutions’ progress in negotiating and finally adopting legislation. The European Green Deal ranks highest in the number of initiatives planned (125) but the executive has tabled less than half of them (or 45 %), leading to only one-fifth being adopted by the co-legislators so far (20 %). The third priority, ‘An economy that works for people’, comes next (101), but this time with more initiatives tabled (68 %) and the highest number of initiatives adopted (32 %). The urgent need to recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic explains this result and why the third priority has overtaken the lead expected for the second ‘twin transition’ – digital – in terms of initiatives planned, tabled and adopted. This latter totals 84 initiatives planned, half of which are already submitted (44), and 14 already adopted (17 %). For ‘A stronger Europe in the world’, an area with relatively few legislative initiatives, by definition and by contrast with the majority of the Commission’s priorities, over three in four (78 %) initiatives have already been tabled (see Section 4), but a fair amount of work remains to be done for the other priorities (38 % of the proposals remain to be submitted for ‘A Europe fit for the digital age’, 39 % for ‘Promoting our European way of life’ and 49 % for ‘A new push for democracy’ (see Sections 2, 5 and 6). This latter priority comes lowest in terms of number of initiatives announced (55), as neither the Conference on the Future of Europe, which is expected to come to a close this spring, nor (however important), upholding EU values, especially fundamental rights and the rule of law, require such proposals to proceed.
The next edition of this biannual paper will monitor the situation in September 2022, on the eve of the 2022 State of the Union address. The coming months will be crucial for this Commission to deliver on its commitments and on the ‘main elements guiding the preparation of the Commission work programme’ for 2023. The Commission is expected to set out its plans in writing to the Parliament, under the 2010 Interinstitutional Agreement between the European Parliament and the European Commission.
In the face of the latest events and their ‘tectonic’ magnitude, this publication and the next will continue to monitor this Commission’s ambition to become a ‘geopolitical Commission’.
For more information on how the von der Leyen Commission’s agenda is proceeding, a proposal-by-proposal assessment is available on the European Parliament’s ‘Legislative Train Schedule’ website, also developed by EPRS, at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/.
Read the complete ‘in-depth analysis’ on ‘The six policy priorities of the von der Leyen Commission: State of play as the Commission approaches mid-term‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.