Written by Pierfrancesco Maria Lanza (EST Ambassador to Italy, Reggio Calabria)

“A Union that strives for more”, is the goal for a renewed European Union (EU) which the new President of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, wants to achieve. On the 27th November 2019, the EU opened a new chapter with the election of the next EC. The European Parliament (EP) voted with 461 votes in favour and 157 against the proposed commissioners. A total of 89 members of parliament abstained from voting. In addition to its historic challenges of building a lasting legacy of peace and an increased integration of the European economies after the Second World War, the European institutions now face new trials, including the resurgence of autocracy and the ongoing migration crisis since 2016. How can the EC successfully deal with these new issues? To answer this, we must first take a step back to look at the background and working principles of the EC. Then, I will outline its major challenges for the near future and how they can be faced in order to let the EU acquire more unity and reliability from all its citizens.

BACKGROUND

Article n.13.1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), also known as the Maastricht Treaty, states that the EC can be considered a “government” of the Union and its main goal is to promote the general interests of the Union. However, it has other crucial functions for the life of the EU, as established by article n.17.1 of the TEU: 

  • It shall ensure the application of the Treaties, and of measures adopted by the institutions pursuant to them. 
  • It shall oversee the application of Union law under the control of the Court of Justice of the European Union. 
  • It shall execute the budget and manage programs. 
  • It shall exercise coordinating, executive and management functions, as laid down in the Treaties, with the exception of the common foreign and security policy, and other cases provided for in the Treaties.
  • It shall ensure the Union’s external representation. 
  • It shall initiate the Union’s annual and multiannual programming with a view to achieving inter-institutional agreements.” (The European Union, 1992, p.13)[1]

Due to these duties, the EC is composed of 27 professional and independent high commissioners, one for each Member State (MS). There will be a total of 27 members after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) with Brexit, a possibility allowed by Treaties. The Commission is led by a President whose term of office is five years. It has close bonds with other EU institutions, including the EP, on which its election depends; in fact, the Parliament must elect the President of the Commission and all the other commissioners. The European treaties provide that the European Council (an institution that brings together all the Heads of State or Government of the Member States) proposes a President of the Commission that the EP should then confirm by a majority of its members. However, a system of Spitzenkandidaten has been adopted, meaning each political party puts forward a main candidate for the election. Usually, the Spitzenkandidat of the political party that received the most votes is elected after reaching agreements with other parties and has the task of drawing up a list of candidate commissioners who have to gain the trust of the EP with their programs to eventually be elected. Once appointed, the new Commission will have to execute its program and face all the challenges that will arise, in order to build a stronger and more united Union. Although Ursula von der Leyen was not one of the initial Spitzenkandidaten, she became EC President due to the fact that a majority in favour of one of these candidates had not been reached. So the EP tried to find a compromise with an external person.

BREXIT: SO FAR SO CLOSE

The first challenge that the new EC had to face immediately after its election was to tackle the exit of the UK from the EU. The Commission’s task is to continue to defend the interests of the EU. This relates to the fact that the UK is not only an important country for economic and political reasons but also because millions of European citizens reside on its territory. Their future is currently still uncertain. After a long period of discussions and extensions, on the 30th January 2020, the EU ratified the general withdrawal agreement negotiated between the British government and the European delegation. Consequently the UK formally left the EU on 31st January 2020. However, there are many unresolved issues, so both sides still need to decide what their future relationship will look like during the “transition period”. This has started in April 2020 with a round of online negotiations, which were initially postponed due to the Coronavirus crisis. A number of issues are currently on the table. First of all, those related to trade. The UK will leave the European single market and customs union at the end of the transition. There will be discussions for a free trade agreement that will be able to maintain the status quo and allow the movement of goods without checks. If this does not happen, the trade will continue without a trade deal, which among other trade barriers would mean that tariffs are imposed both on UK and EU goods. Moreover, both the actors must find an agreement that should be as fair as possible on other significant issues contained in a political declaration which sets the framework for the future relationship. As stated in the “Political Declaration” of the EC in 2019: there will be the need for a deal for an economic partnership including energy, climate, environment and fisheries and open and fair competition between the business sectors. Other topics on the Brexit discussion table will be Europe’s security and the safety of citizens guaranteed by the law enforcement and criminal justice, as well as foreign policy, security and defence [2]. A fair agreement which could enable the participation in Union programs for the UK, for example in science and education sectors (e.g. the Erasmus project) is also required. Additionally, working, studying and tourism possibilities guaranteed for years by the main principles of the EU may change, affecting British and EU citizens more directly. Accordingly, by stating that “the UK must decide how close or distant it wants to be to the EU and its rules”, Ursula von der Leyen made clear in a conference in Zagreb that “if there is no free movement of people, there can be no free movement of capital”(Von der Leyen, 2020). She thereby made the position of the EU clear and centered her focus on the core of the problem. Indeed, the aim of the EU is to have the closest possible partnership with the UK in all those strategic sectors, but at the same time, the EU must protect the main interests of its citizens against those who have chosen to abandon the European project. The resistance of the British government has repeatedly put a strain on the requests of the EU, for example, it has chosen not to join the single currency nor ratify the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. There will always be uncertainties until the UK’s departure from the EU is fully realised, which could put the Commission under pressure because of the need to make fair agreements. However, together with the other EU institutions, the EC has been able to demonstrate all of its skills in order not to senselessly give ground nor damage the interests of the MS.

INTERNAL REFORMS: HOW TO CHANGE THE EU’S FACE

The new EC has been elected in a Union which no longer feels as “united” as was the case during the signing of the Schuman Declaration in 1950 to reach peace and stability in Europe. In recent years, the Union seems to give in to protectionism and national interests. There are still many issues to be resolved, which affect the Union’s credibility around the world. Firstly, autocracy has undoubtedly gained ground since the election of the EP in 2019 in European states like Italy, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, sovereigntist parties such as the League (34.26%), Fidesz (52.56%) and Law and Justice (45.38%) have respectively achieved important electoral results at the national level [3]. For instance, Hungary and Poland are currently dealing with issues relating to authoritarianism. These countries have been accused of infringing on their national democracies and threatening cardinal principles of the EU, especially the role of the rule of law. In Hungary, authorities have prevented many NGOs from helping migrants and have increased public control over universities and the media, for example by using censorship. In Poland, the government has almost cancelled the courts’ independence and placed many restrictions on independent organisations working on LGBT, women’s and migrants’ rights [4]. For these reasons, protecting Europe from its autocratic side is one of the new Commission’s main internal challenges.

Another highly divisive issue is the immigration system and asylum requests of migrants. It is necessary to promote a reform of the 3rd Dublin Regulation which currently states, as proposed by the past EC (2014-2019): “that the responsibility for examining an asylum claim lies first and foremost with the Member State which played the greatest part in the applicant’s entry to the EU” (The European Commission, 2016) [5]. This system passes most of the responsibility onto a few MS, often those on the borders of the EU, and even now, other MS have up to now not shown a great effort to help them. Countries like Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, known as the Visegrad group, have not shown willingness to accept the redistribution of refugees according to the proposed quotas [6]. Especially after Turkey allowed thousands of asylum seekers stranded in refugee camps on its territory to cross the EU borders through Greece, a greater union of the Member States will be necessary for an efficient reform of the regulations in order to distribute the burden of this management on all countries in a collaborative way. The Commission will have to promote a reform of the Dublin regulation to lighten the most affected States such as Italy, Spain and Greece and create legal immigration channels to the EU.

Lastly, the reform of the economy and in particular, the Eurozone, should be achieved. The Commission has decided to commit itself to strengthen the common economy, indeed a large part of the EU budget for 2021–2027 will be placed for sustainable development of small businesses and local territories of Member States, also empowering the European Investment Bank, which funds its regions [7]. Moreover, the European policies will aim to further digitalise the economy by “helping to make the EU’s digital world a seamless and level marketplace to buy and sell” (The European Commission, 2020) [8], empowering the digital skills of the workers. Regarding the Eurozone, President von der Leyen and the Economic Affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni will have to propose new reforms in order to make the Eurozone resilient to economic shocks and support consumption and investments in times of low growth, by allowing flexibility [9]. In addition, reforms will be needed to complete the banking union and help make the euro a stronger international currency.

THE NEW GREEN DEAL: “EUROPE’S MAN ON THE MOON MOMENT”

One of the most crucial challenges for the future of the EU is protecting its own territories and the planet: only a clean environment can be the basis for a prosperous future. The spreading of many green movements and their fight against pollution and climate change, especially the action of “Friday for Future” led by the young Greta Thunberg, has created awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. The EU has become involved in this crucial challenge too. Indeed, the new European Commission has promoted the realisation of the Green New Deal. Its main aim is making the EU’s economy sustainable through significant actions. The crucial one is promoting energy decarbonisation in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 starting with a 50% cut in CO2 emissions compared to the objectives previously set for 2030. This will be more easily accomplished, as shared by the Commission, with the “European Climate Law turning the political commitment into a legal obligation and a trigger for investment” (The European Commission, no date) [10]. Secondly, in doing this, no one and no place can be left behind. The core of the plan is the 2021-2027 Just Transition Mechanism, a fund of 100 billion euros of investments that will be destined to the regions and sectors of all the Member States, in order to encourage the energy conversion of their industries, adapting them to a low-carbon economy and implementing recycling [11]. For example, the Green Deal document reports that the European industry uses only 12% of recycled materials. Moreover, improving the use of resources and energy will be fundamental, in fact, the document shares that producing and using energy involves more than 75% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, another policy is easily helping the public sector and private individuals to make sustainable investments.

However, this great environmental reform has proven to be a rather difficult challenge due to the non-unanimity of the Member States. A rift between the East and West of the EU has been created after some countries expressed their distrust with the plan. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, whose economies are mainly based on the coal industry, are against the Green Deal, believing that it will penalise their economies. In fact, they have considered it too ambitious and too expensive, because it will take much time to be able to abandon the use of coal and find ways to realise sustainable alternatives like solar panels or wind turbines. In conclusion, the new EC needs to find consensus without sacrificing the importance of the Green Deal, a “Europe’s man on the moon moment”, as declared by President Von der Leyen.

EU FOREIGN AFFAIRS: A STRONGER EUROPE IN THE WORLD

Furthermore, the changing power balances within the international community and the new challenges the current decade will bring, require a stronger role of the EU on the international stage. Promoting European values, the respect for human rights and acting together is the Union’s international challenge. For this reason, the new EC has promoted the vision of a “stronger Europe in the world”. It is looking to increase its focus on external action. The role of the Commission and the High Representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, is enabling the EU to act as a united international player, not subordinated to the other major powers [12] [13]. This could hopefully be achieved through the realisation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which for too long has suffered from the reluctance of the Member States to join common foreign views, instead following different and conflicting interests of their own. 

For instance, when the Venezuelan democracy crisis occurred, by opposing the Head of State Nicolas Maduro to the President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidò, the EU has presented itself divided with Italy, Greece and other members that have not chosen to support Guaidò. Moreover, we can observe the current differences between the Member States regarding the Libyan civil war fought between the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by the United Nations and most of the International Community, and the government of Tobruk, backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of the General Haftar. The EU has not been able to find a common position yet and the efforts promoted to reach peaceful diplomatic solutions have miserably failed. This is partly due to the different views between France, closer to Haftar, and Italy, the main promoter of the GNA. Again, as Josep Borrell writes in his report “Embracing Europe’s power”: 

If we want the Iran nuclear deal to survive, we need to ensure that Iran benefits if it returns to full compliance. If we want the Western Balkans to succeed on the path of reconciliation and reform, we need to offer a credible EU accession process delivering incremental benefits. If we want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, we need to stand up for a negotiated solution agreed by all sides, based on international law” (Borrell, J, 2020). 

Due to this, the EU needs to make its own voice heard by strengthening the cooperation with its neighbours and partners: promoting EU enlargement especially with its candidate countries of the Balkans in order to stabilise those territories once and for all; implementing “a comprehensive strategy on Africa” ​​through policies for trade, investment, innovation, migrations and respect for human rights, so as to make it a more prosperous continent.

Lastly, “we must get serious about devising credible approaches to dealing with today’s global strategic actors: the United States, China, and Russia. While different in many ways, all three are practicing issue linkage and power politics. Our response should be differentiated and nuanced, but clear-eyed and ready to defend EU values, interests, and agreed international principles.” (Borrell, J, 2020) [14]

As we can understand it, there are many international challenges that require efficient measures aimed at respecting international law and human rights, therefore it is necessary that the new EC and the European institutions are able to overcome the resistance of the Member States and encourage the best common course of action.

CORONAVIRUS: AN UNEXPECTED TRIAL

Perhaps the most serious recent threat has been the Coronavirus epidemic, which has challenged the Member States of the EU. Initially considered to be a distant disease that appeared in China in December, instead, the COVID-19 turned the lives of European citizens upside down with its disruptive force, hitting Italy and Spain particularly hard and quickly spreading to most European countries. The battle against it required wartime measures, including the closure of schools and universities, interruption of all non-essential work activities, drastic falls in tourism due to flight cancellations and the closure of borders. All these measures required enormous human efforts to find medical supplies, beds in hospitals and health workers, and the adoption of immediate economic aid policies. This has already caused serious damages to European economies and undoubtedly requires intervention by the EU. The first task of the Commission has been providing immediate support. Firstly, it financed the creation of a supply of medical equipment for the States most needing it. It has also funded the search for a vaccine with 80 million euros and coordinated the return operations of EU citizens residing all over the world. Secondly, it asked to strengthen health measures along the borders, guaranteeing the free movement of goods as well. Moreover, from a strictly economic point of view, the Commission has requested the Council of the EU to allow the Member States to be able to deviate from the budgetary duties enshrined in European standards and therefore spend more to face the crisis. It has also eased restrictions on State aids by allowing its Members to financially support their businesses and has proposed to unlock € 37 billion of European funds in order to give more aid, a measure that has been approved by the Council [15]. Additionally, the Commission launched SURE (Support mitigating Unemployment Risks in Emergency), a tool aimed at protecting workers from unemployment risks by funding the Member States with up to € 100 billion in investments [16]. 

Nevertheless, once again the most difficult task has been finding a common agreement between the Member States. The main clash has involved the issue of Eurobonds to deal with the impact of the crisis on European economies. These bonds, given out by European governments, could be purchased by investors of the Member States to whom borrowed money will then be returned, increased by an interest rate. Two fronts in this discussion have been created. The countries that support the Eurobonds are mostly in the South of Europe: made up of Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Portugal, Ireland and Greece; and a Northern front that opposes the bonds, made up of Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Finland. As a result, Southern States have argued that Eurobonds are the best solution to share the financial burden. Nevertheless, the Northern States, with generally stronger economies, have not wanted to see the European public debt increase by taking on a collective debt. For this reason, the Northern side has proposed to use the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a tool that allows loans given to the Eurozone States under the condition that they have to comply with certain commitments to economic and financial reform. The Southern States have rejected the ESM because they consider its conditions too strict, even though they have previously accepted light conditions as part of the loans for medical expenses against Covid-19. Arguing that completely reforming the ESM could require much time while being  unsure about a concordant possibility to streamline the strict conditions, Southern States have asked for cooperation on Eurobonds due to their higher short-term needs for many resources. Moreover, they have ensured the need to re-stabilise their public debt, once the emergency would have been over. The Commission, uncertain on the subject, has had the task of mediating between these two fronts, trying to re-establish the union once again. Fortunately, a compromise was reached in May 2020. The agreement provided MS to apply for loans to the ESM at much lower rates (close to 0,1%). The Northern States managed to get approval on the condition for all MS to not access credits for an amount greater than 2% of their national GDP. On the other hand, Southern countries obtained the advantage of the stringent conditions to cover health and prevention costs until the end of the emergency. Although the GDP condition did not solve their needs for more resources at all, the unity seemed to have been restored. However, this union was undermined once again after the French and German proposal to establish a Recovery Fund of €500 billion as grants to help the MS’s economy recover from the negative impact of the pandemic. This purpose was opposed by the Northern States, led by Austria, which instead proposed a system of loans to be repaid in order to not mutualise the EU debt. Finally, the Commission mediated between both sides by adopting a proposal to establish a Recovery Fund of a total of €750 billion: €500 billion available as grants and €250 billion as loans to help repair the economic and social damages of the pandemic. The measure was thought to be financed by bonds repayable between 2028 and 2058 and “green” taxes on emissions, plastic and on large multinationals in a more sustainable perspective [17].

CONCLUSION

As we can understand it, the new EC and the other EU institutions do not have an easy task in facing the myriad of current challenges. However, the main objective of the EC must remain the guaranteeing of unity and solidarity between the Member States. These principles are important to keep in mind. Indeed, protectionism and division can be noticed in crucial issues like foreign policy or the renewal of the economy by the Green Deal. This has been further exacerbated by the emergency of the coronavirus and essentially risks the undermining of the foundations of the EU. Additionally, it causes a lack of trust amongst European citizens in the EU institutions. Therefore, unity and solidarity by reaching common agreements has the potential to renew the EU and solidify its guiding role in matters of equality, prosperity and peace for the whole world.


References

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[2]. The European Commission. (2019, October). “Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom as agreed at negotiators”, retrieved from 

<https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/revised_political_declaration.pdf>

[3]. The European Parliament. (2019, July). “2019 European election results” retrieved from

<https://www.europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en>

[4]. Dam P. (2019, December). “Von der Leyen’s new Commission should strengthen scrutiny over rule of law abuses”, Euronews, retrieved from 

<https://www.euronews.com/2019/12/23/von-der-leyen-s-new-commission-should-strengthen-scrutiny-over-rule-of-law-abuses-view>

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[6]. Barigazzi J. (2017, June). “Brussels takes on (most of the) Visegrad Group over refugees”. Politico.eu. retrieved from

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[9]. The European Commission’s Presidency. (2019, September). “Mission letter to Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner-designate for Economy”, retrieved from 

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[14]. Borrell, J. (2020, February). “Embracing Europe’s power”. Project Syndicate. retrieved from 

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<https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/crisis-management-and-solidarity_en>

[16]. The European Commission. (no date). “Economy” in “Coronavirus response”, retrieved from

<https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/economy_en>

[17]. The European Commission. (2020, May). “Europe’s moment: Repair and Prepare for the Next Generation” communication, retrieved from

<https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-europe-moment-repair-prepare-next-generation.pdf>