Posts in "Institutions" Category

Paris climate deal marks rare EU victory

The European Union is getting so used to feeling under siege, it is easy to forget it can eke out a victory every now and then, and last week’s move to ratify the Paris climate change agreement is definitely a win.

After a series of recent setbacks, from Brexit to the persistent refugee crisis and the ongoing economic slump, the Paris deal is proof that EU officials still have a few tricks up their sleeves.

There were doubts about whether the ministers could pull off what is effectively a fast track approval of the sweeping agreement from last December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21, in the French capital. Legal experts pondered the legitimacy of a decision by the EU to deposit its ratification of the accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions before it was ratified by all 28 member states.

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Going Dutch – looking back at the presidency

In the first half of 2016, The Netherlands held the presidency of the European Council for the fourth time since 1986, a record in the Union. Many think the country’s stance towards the EU has been changing for the worse, in fact, the Financial Times even named The Netherlands ‘the most obstructive’ EU-member state. 

In line with their reputation, the Dutch went cheap on their presidency. All meetings were held in the same location, hardly any trips were organised outside of Amsterdam, and there was no grand opening or closing. This was to accommodate the increasing anti-EU sentiment in the country. At the start of the Dutch term, Rutte had already been Prime Minister for six years, and was fairly familiar with the EU routines and key players.

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Saving EU trade policy

These are tough times for the European Union’s trade policy. Public sentiment has never been more hostile to the idea of free trade than it is now. An area previously of interest only to specialists of technical issues like tariff schedules, quotas, customs rates and trade balances is now the subject of impassioned street protest and furious rhetoric over the perceived risks of such deals for consumer rights and more. Free trade is now so contentious that nervous ministers are ready to block even the most modest of EU agreements.

This past year has already seen many setbacks for trade.

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Brussels Brexit Briefing – 2nd August

As we enter the summer break in the UK and across Europe, Brexit fervour at last seems to be dying down.

The big news in the last week has been the appointment, by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, of former French Foreign Minister and EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, to lead the EU’s Brexit negotiations. Mr Barnier, who led the Commission’s overhaul of EU banking laws in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, is already being seen as a provocative appointment by many in the UK media, given France’s firm stance on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

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Brussels Brexit Briefing – 27th July

Theresa May’s new government has made its first practical moves towards Brexit by pulling the UK out of its scheduled slot in the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2017.

The UK’s space will be taken over by Estonia, which will bring forward its own presidency by six months. A spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said there was “broad agreement” when EU ambassadors met in Brussels, although the decision still has to be formally confirmed.

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Brussels Brexit Briefing – 19th July

Key EU figures have put pressure on Theresa May to move fast to quit the EU. European Parliament President Martin Schulz called on her to invoke Article 50 after the summer, saying her government must give “the utmost consideration” to the European Parliament, which has the power to veto the UK’s EU divorce and any future trade deal. In an article for the Guardian, Mr Schulz called for talks to begin “without rancour” and for Britain to be thought of as a beloved relative leaving home rather than a treacherous renegade.

However, EU officials have acknowledged they have no powers to force the UK to trigger Article 50. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, at a summit in China, offered conciliatory words for Mrs May, saying that the UK will face no “hate” or “revenge” during the Brexit talks. “I will not negotiate with Britain in a hostile mood. We have been partners in the EU for 40 years. We are allied countries, most of us in the North Atlantic Alliance,” he said.

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How much tax is ‘fair’?

Google’s agreement with Britain’s tax collectors and the European Commission’s proposals on tax avoidance have put corporate tax firmly back on the front pages – although it never really went away.

The issue will no doubt remain near the top of political and business agendas for the foreseeable future.

So here’s four takes on what’s happened and what it means.

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Digital Single Market – Commission at crossroads in development of digital health

The scope of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy is certainly ambitious: copyright, geo-blocking and online shopping are all covered, with the aim of helping consumers and businesses to realise the potential of the digital revolution.

Dig a little deeper, and you also find numerous references to digital health. This is a welcome move, after more than three years of inactivity since the publication of the eHealth Action Plan 2012-2020, the second roadmap to support the development of digital health (eHealth). But at the moment, the strategy is heavy on analysis of the problems, and light on solutions.

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New priorities, new approaches, new structures: what does Juncker’s team have in store in 2015?

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 (pictured) 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). 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 (pictured), 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 (pictured), 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 – explained in further detail in our Client Briefing – 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’.

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.

This blogpost is a shorter version of a briefing sent to Burson-Marsteller Brussels’ clients in mid-January. Click the button to contact us for more information on how we can help your business or organisation.

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Words  David O’Leary
Photos  (c) European Union 2015