With regard to Europeanism, the work program presented on Tuesday 16 July in the Strasbourg hemicycle by Ursula von der Leyen, elected President of the Commission in the evening by a narrow margin of votes, leaves no room for misunderstanding. Her opening statement to MEPs was designed to secure a strong majority in the European Parliament, which she won with 383 ayes over the required 374, (327 voted against, 22 abstained, one vote was not valid). The five-year pro-European policy agenda – not without some ambiguity and strategic “silences” – will officially kick off on November 1st.
“Rediscovering unity.” “ Anyone that is with me in wanting to see Europe grow stronger and to flourish can count on me as a fervent supporter. However, anyone that wants to weaken Europe will find in me a bitter opponent”, declared former Ministry for the Family, Labour and Defence Ursula Von der Leyen, 60, married, 7 children, leading representative of the German Christian Democrats, close ally of Angela Merkel. “We must rediscover our unity. If we are united on the inside, nobody will divide us from the outside and then we will be able to turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.”
Determined and pragmatic, a skilled mediator (“we need a strong economy because what we need to spend we need to earn first”), she was nominated as a candidate for the Commission on 2 July by the European Council.
Thereafter, she built up a list of key themes that partly reflects that of the Juncker Commission, and partly – tactfully – focuses on issues of interest to the pro-European majority in the European Parliament (on whose favourable vote her mandate depends), always remaining within the framework of the Treaties and avoiding significant course changes, accelerations or radical institutional reforms.
Fathers and mothers of the EU. The reference to the “founding fathers and founding mothers”, and to the EU’s successes in 70 years of integration: peace, freedom, rights, economic and social development, was obvious but appropriate. To the EPP group, whose support is undisputed, she pledges respect for EU rules, without further impetus. She highlights the need for economic development, support to small and medium enterprises, fiscal equity (ensuring taxation to Internet giants). But there is no mention of increasing the Community budget –critical to securing additional resources and action capability to the EU. Yet this would require “perturbing” far too many PMs in the EPP family, starting with the members of the Visegrad group.
Economy and social pillar. The greatest “concessions” go to the Socialists & Democrats and the Liberals of the Renew Europe Group. The former are assured the easing of the Stability Pact and of financial rigour, and that the European “social pillar”, minimum wage, would be given a strong boost: “In a Social Market Economy, every person that is working full time should earn a minimum wage that pays for a decent living.” The emphasis on respect for the rule of law (some countries in Central and Eastern Europe would seem to be breaching these founding principles), the strengthening of Economic and Monetary Union and of the free internal market seem to be tailor-made for the liberals. Von der Leyen somewhat “overlooked” a few important topics at EU level: the future of agricultural policy, common defence, energy policy and the digital challenge.
Green Europe e migration. The EU Commission president-elect broached a wide range of cross-cutting themes, starting with the fight against climate change (albeit not enough to secure support from the Greens). “I will put forward a Green Deal for Europe in my first 100 days in office”, since “our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy.”
Her ambition is for “Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in theworld by 2050.”
This entails reducing CO2 emissions by 2030 by 50, if not 55% and introducing a Carbon Border Tax. On migration: “the Mediterranean has become one of the deadliest borders in the world. At sea there is the duty to save lives.” “I will propose a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, including the relaunch of the Dublin reform.” Focus on migrants’ reception and solidarity with Countries of first arrivals with emphasis – in a speech viewed as overly pretentious and “excessively unerring” – on the urgent need for “reinforced European Border and Coast Guard Agency with a standing corps of 10,000 Frontex border guards at least by 2024.” “We must reduce irregular migration, we must fight smugglers and traffickers, we must preserve the right to asylum and improve the situation of refugees, for example through humanitarian corridors in close cooperation with the UNHCR.”
Children, young people, women … Cross-cutting issues include opportunities for youths (tripling the Erasmus+ budget, increased financial resources to the “Youth Guarantee”), the commitment to uproot child poverty and ensure full gender equality, starting with the Commission: “I will ensure full gender equality in my College of Commissioners. If Member States do not propose enough female Commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names.” Von der Leyen insists: “women represent half of our population. We want our fair share.” As regards Brexit, in her opinion UK citizens’ decision is a political mistake, but her proposal is pragmatic: “I stand ready for a further extension of the withdrawal date, should more time be required for a good reason. In any case, the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.”
What about reforms? Ms. Von der Leyen is rather elusive on a key theme: the distance separating the EU from its citizens, a political challenge involving the whole continent and that has (partly) rewarded the populist and nationalist forces in recent EU elections. She pledges to support a Parliament legislative initiative (currently in the hands of the Commission) to improve the Spitzenkandidaten system on the appointment of the new president of the Executive, highlighting the need to take foreign policy decisions by qualified majority.
Finally, green light to a Conference on the Future of Europe”
to start in 2020 and run for two years, thereby giving citizens the opportunity “to play a leading and active part in building the future of our Union.”