One year of institutional change ends; another year of political and policy change begins: on 16 December 2014, the new European Commission agreed its Work Programme for 2015.
The new programme, like the new Commission, aims to break with the past and introduce a new (and more political) way of working. Instead of a long list of actions for years ahead, this plan focuses only on the next twelve months, seeking to ‘clear the decks’ of moribund proposals.
What changes will we see to Europe’s political and policy environment in 2015, and how are the Commission’s working methods adjusting to ‘deliver’ the proposals set out in the Work Programme?
The politics of the 2015 Work Programme
Again underlining the continuity from electoral manifesto, to presidential programme, to detailed work programme, the Commission’s plans for 2015 are based on the same ten-point list of priorities presented by Jean-Claude Juncker to the Parliament in July.
However, this political continuity can be contrasted with legislative discontinuity, as the Commission seeks to start afresh. One of the main themes of the Work Programme is to abandon old proposals that are blocked in the system; another is to remove ‘regulatory burdens’ (while ensuring high levels of social, environmental and consumer protection). Overall, the focus is clear: economic growth, job creation, and acting only on issues where there are perceived to be concrete benefits for European citizens from EU-level action.
The 2015 programme is smaller than previous years, and has been criticised by MEPs in particular (with Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President of the Commission, the target of much of the criticism).
The focus is clear: economic growth, job creation, and acting only on issues where there are perceived to be concrete benefits for European citizens from EU-level action
There are just 23 new legislative ‘packages’ (containing many more legislative and non-legislative initiatives) and 80 current initiatives are to be withdrawn, because they either fail a ’regulatory fitness’ test or are blocked by one or other of the EU’s legislative bodies. The aim was not to list everything, but only that which the Commission believed would be achievable in 2015.
However, the reaction by many MEPs to the Work Programme was negative. Aside from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) Group, other groups drafted parliamentary resolutions criticising the plan. None won a majority, although in the vote on 15 January a majority of MEPs did back amendments that criticised the plan to scrap a set of environmental proposals. Many in the Parliament believe that doing less, even if it is done better, will do little to persuade people that Europe works in their favour.
The contents of the 2015 Work Programme
The Commission grouped its actions under three themes: ‘new initiatives’, ‘cutting red tape’ and ‘clearing the decks’.
Of the 23 new initiatives, the most eye-catching is the €315bn Investment Plan to stimulate the European economy. On 13 January the first legislative element of this Plan – the proposal to create a European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) – was proposed. The Commission hopes to have this new fund in place by June.
Other employment and investment initiatives include a package of measures intended to address long-term and youth unemployment.
Digital Single Market (DSM) measures are included in a single package that aims to give consumers “cross-border access to digital services, create a level-playing field for companies and create the conditions for a vibrant digital economy and society”. Legislative proposals will include an attempt to modernise copyright law. The Vice-President responsible for the DSM, Andrus Ansip, has already committed himself to ending geo-blocking.
Measures to create an Energy Union focus on supply security, integration of national markets, demand reduction, “decarbonising the energy mix” and promoting research and innovation.
As for internal market measures, the Commission plans to take steps to improve mutual recognition and standardisation, including in services and regulated professions, increase labour mobility and coordinate social security systems to prevent abuse, develop a Capital Markets Union, and boost the competitiveness of the aviation sector.
Elsewhere, economic governance of the eurozone will be addressed, as will tax avoidance, with plans to move to a system under which the country where profits are generated is also the country of taxation – including in the digital economy. The Commission also plans to relaunch work towards a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base.
There will be reviews of the EU’s trade, security, fundamental rights and migration policies, including the Blue Card Directive, the EU-wide work permit for skilled workers from third countries.
Finally, a new inter-institutional agreement on better law-making is planned – which will include a new approach to delegated and implementing acts and a mandatory lobbying register.
79 measures were marked down for evaluation, new studies or withdrawal as part of a mission to cut red tape. Food laws, e-Privacy, audiovisual media services, telecoms, birds and habitats, accounting standards and machinery are among the diverse areas undergoing examination in the coming couple of years.
Of the 80 current initiatives or laws that are being withdrawn, the most eye-catching was the ‘Circular Economy package’, which was intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill. Timmermans told MEPs that he would propose something “more ambitious” in 2015. The proposed Energy Taxation Directive was similarly discarded. Other proposals – such as on maternity leave – were given a stay of execution, and are to be withdrawn should there be no agreement within six months.
The Commission’s new working methods
A new structure for the European Commission – with seven powerful vice-presidents, four of them running specific ‘project teams’ that focus on key priorities – has meant a new way of working.
On 11 November a 38-page Communication from the President to the Commission set out how Juncker wants things done; a further note was sent to the Commission’s services in January, explaining how to give practical effect to the new working methods.
Some elements seem obvious – such as the obligation of commissioners to attend meetings of the College – but nevertheless represent a departure from the past: whereas Catherine Ashton was often absent, her successor as High Representative, Federica Mogherini, is expected to play the ‘Commission Vice-President’ part of her dual role to a greater degree (and, to this end, she sits in the Berlaymont building with her fellow commissioners, rather than in the European External Action Service headquarters).
The overall tone of the documents is one of centralisation and politicisation (in terms of political control, rather than necessary party political control).
Previously, technocrats handled issues in minute detail, and the political picture emerged later. Now, the intention is that politics comes at the beginning, and that the civil service will take its direction from the commissioners.
Meanwhile, the Spokesperson’s Service has agreed ‘lines to take’ and (aside from commissioners) the exclusive right to speak on behalf of the Commission. Commissioners’ private offices, or cabinets, no longer have spokespeople, but ‘communications advisors’.
The overall tone of the documents is one of centralisation and politicisation
In addition, there is a renewed emphasis on transparency, with an obligation on commissioners, cabinet members and senior civil servants to put on public record any meetings held with interest representatives.
The changes have faced some internal opposition, and meant an increased coordination role for the Secretariat-General, which is supporting the (department-less) vice-presidents.
Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s chef de cabinet, is providing political oversight, alongside the Commission Secretary-General, Catherine Day. They have been part of an ‘inner circle’ (including the President, vice-presidents and their cabinets) who drew up the Work Programme.
Now, that Work Programme is in place. It is time to get on with the job.
A version of this article first appeared on the Europe Decides website