Anyone that lives and breathes the Brussels bubble will be all too familiar with the enduring phrase, “2016: the EU year of delivery.” It’s the year we’ve all been waiting for. The year of legislative action with proposals expected on heavyweight topics e.g. review of the Telecoms regulation and the EU gas package. 2015 ended on a positive note as the EU won plaudits for its role in facilitating the Paris COP21 agreement and it looks like there’ll be no respite in 2016. After tireless diplomatic efforts, the EU and global partners agreed to the lifting of Iranian sanctions. Hailed as another victory for the EU’s fledgling diplomacy, the impact of Iran’s unabated return to international markets has sent shockwaves across the global economy. The evolution of global energy markets and the long term ramifications on the political landscape in the Middle East and Europe’s near abroad are at the forefront of the EU policy agenda as the oil price dropped to $28, the threat of ISIS remains and the EU continues to grapple with what is perhaps its biggest challenge to date: the refugee crisis.
Clouds over Strasbourg: the EU facing new realities and new challenges
As the clouds descended over the European Parliament on Tuesday, the foggy atmosphere outside transcended its way into the debate on the outcomes of December’s European Council meeting, as President Juncker, President Tusk and MEPs articulated the words and means to demystify Europe’s future path.
Both Juncker and Tusk stressed the importance of European unity in these times of crisis, warning that if the EU does not act effectively to tackle the migration crisis, there could be grave consequences. It was striking how many times Juncker, Tusk and MEPs referred to a potential “collapse” or “end” of Schengen.” Even Guy Verhofstadt, a staunch supporter of the “community method” rang the alarm bells stating that “we can find ourselves without an EU if we continue to act as we do”. Specifically, Verhofstadt criticised the Council for not acting on the Commission’s proposal on a European border and coastguard underlining that the EU needs to be able to “register, monitor and secure”.
On the flipside, while pro-European forces fail to find suitable responses to the refugee crisis, eurosceptics and extremists continue to flourish and promote their agendas to electorates that are growing more and more frustrated by the EU’s inaction. One British Conservative, Geoffrey van Orden, emphasised that once again the EU institutions are trying to do too much and end up doing too little or nothing at all. To his right, the usual suspects (UKIP MEPs) abused the ‘blue card’ procedure at every opportunity in order to make interventions on the Brexit issue while they (together with French and other ENF MEPs) sarcastically applauded at each mention of the collapse of Schengen and the rise of Euroscepticism. One UKIP MEP went as far as to invite Guy Verhofstadt to the UK to defend the “In” vote, suggesting that Mr. Verhofstadt’s political positions would help UKIPs cause in the UK. One could feel that the changing political landscape across Europe is slowly but steadily creeping its way into the plenary chamber.
Situation in Poland
Poland is but one example of a Member State that is experiencing a dramatic political shift. The new government’s interventions on media freedom and the freedom of the judiciary led to the EP Conference of Presidents (CoP) decision to place an agenda item specific to Poland. Indeed, this was the first time that the CoP invoked the specific line in the EP rules of procedure handbook that foresees a debate on the rule of law in an EU Member State.
With all the controversy surrounding the issue, one expected some passion and heat in this debate. Quite the opposite, the debate was at best lukewarm. Polish PM Szydło had clearly been well prepared by her EU Minister Konrad Szymanski (a former MEP) in preparing a speech that was tailored to the ears and tune of the EP rhetoric. She was neither aggressive, nor defensive. On the contrary, PM Szydło underlined that Polish citizens voted for change and highlighted that she wanted to build a Poland that is a mirror image of the EU. In the end, the Polish government will be judged on its actions both by its citizens and the EU executive. In terms of next steps: the Polish government is awaiting the opinion of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, and the position of the European Commission. The EP is expected to revisit this item in February with the potential for drafting a resolution.
The Dutch Presidency
Theoretically one of the most important items on the Strasbourg menu, even the debate on the programme of the Dutch Presidency was temporarily hijacked to discuss an unfolding situation in an EU Member State. This time it was the Greens in the Parliament that requested a debate to discuss recent developments in Denmark.
Eventually, Dutch PM Rutte took the floor to outline the new Presidency’s agenda. He began by attempting to strike emotional chords, stating that following the Paris attacks, we cannot take our free and democratic life for granted. He added that for younger generations Europe doesn’t carry the same emotional charge as it did for his parents’ generation. To them Europe was about “no more war”. Thus, he called on all Member States and citizens to remind themselves of the EU’s raison d’etre and each assume their responsibilities while acting together to face the oncoming challenges. PM Rutte set out the following priorities for the Dutch Presidency:
- Tackling the refugee crisis
- Implementing agreements with Turkey as soon as possible in order to relieve the burden on EU borders
- Ensure safe reception and control of EU borders especially in Greece
- Registration of refugees and a need for a sharp reduction in the number of refugees in the coming 6-8 weeks
- Single Market
- Focus on the exploiting the untapped digital single market; facilitating online shopping and tackling unfair geo-blocking
- Energy & Climate: making use of the internal energy market potential and following up on the COP21 commitments
- Stimulating Jobs & Growth
The Dutch Presidency certainly has its hand full for the first 6 months of the New Year. It is tasked not only with taking the lead during the EU’s year of delivery, but also it must lead the charge in providing answers to the critics and the sceptics. Ending an optimistic note and using a football analogy, PM Rutte characteristically stated that “it doesn’t matter what style of football you play, it is the result that counts and we all know that Europe scores most of its goals in injury time.”
It’s time for us all to…pull our socks up!
Constantine Levoyannis is Senior Consultant and Mateusz Stankiewicz-Szynka is Consultant at FTI Consulting Brussels