Thursday

20th Feb 2020

Analysis

EU puts forward five-year plan focusing on 'protection'

  • EU leaders, partly due to the insistence of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, pledged to protect the bloc's external borders (Photo: European Union)

EU leaders on Thursday (20 June) night agreed to an ambitious agenda for the bloc intended to serve as a benchmark for decisions in the next five years.

But when one reads the 'new strategic agenda' through the prism of reality, it is hard to see how the EU will be able to act on it - given the existing deep divisions among member states.

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Precisely those divisions foreshadow a bloc that will increasingly take decisions on the basis of the lowest common denominator, rather than bold strategic visions.

Nevertheless, the agenda hits all the right notes.

It defines the EU as a protector and guarantor of the rights, freedoms and prosperity of European citizens in a world that "has become increasingly unsettled, complex and subject to rapid change".

It underlines the message that emerged from EU leaders as a result of the migrant crisis and the populist wave that followed in the footsteps of asylum seekers: a Europe that protects.

EU leaders promise to strengthen the EU's ability to stand alone in the world, in response to US president Donald Trump's threats to pull out of Nato, Russia's hybrid warfare and China's aggressive trade practices.

"Over the next five years, the EU can and will strengthen its role in this changing environment," the EU leaders promise.

Their priorities are "protecting citizens and freedoms", "developing a strong and vibrant economic base", "building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe", "promoting European interests and values on the global stage".

Double standard

But it is already at the first pledge where the agenda develops a strange friction with reality.

"The EU shall defend the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens," the document says, adding that "the rule of law, with its crucial role in all our democracies, is a key guarantor that these values are well protected; it must be fully respected by all member states and the EU".

The EU Commission and the European Parliament, after years of procrastinating and labouring on new tools to protect the rule of law, has acted on infringements of judicial independence, for instance in Hungary and Poland.

But member states, and the EU itself, has failed to counter the systematic erosion of those freedoms, particularly in Hungary.

Scholars and observers are debating whether an EU member state, Hungary - which has signed up to this agenda - can truly qualify as a democracy.

The political and legal developments leading to this question all happened under the EU's watch.

Defining borders

EU leaders, partly due to the insistence of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, have also pledged to protect the bloc's external borders.

There is a clear desire from EU leaders to show citizens that the 2015 migrant wave will never happen again and the EU can keep track of who is entering its territory.

"Effective control of the external borders is an absolute prerequisite for guaranteeing security," the document states.

It also pledges to that leaders are "determined to further develop a fully functioning comprehensive migration policy", including asylum reform.

The EU has struggled with reforming its asylum policy for over three years, mainly because it is stuck on the issue of whether all countries should participate in distributing asylum seekers - in case of another migrant wave, that leaders pledge will never happen.

Some countries, where political forces are keen on keeping migration in the headlines and where anti-EU sentiment is whipped up by those in charge, were not interested in an asylum deal. Why would this attitude change any time soon?

Another pledge is sticking to deepening the single market, and making sure Europe does not lose out in the global digital and articificial intelligence competition. An important step is a promise to "dressing the fragmentation of European research, development and innovation".

However, both the Horizon2020 and the Juncker plan, aimed at boosting investment and innovation, fell short of closing those gaps.

Climate change

On climate, EU leaders failed to agree on new ambitious targets as Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Estonia rejected a clear long-term climate neutrality goal at the summit on Thursday.

Nevertheless, they write in the agenda that the "EU can and must lead the way, by engaging in an in-depth transformation of its own economy and society to achieve climate neutrality".

Along with migration and climate, inequality is another issue where voters' frustrations seemed to have prompted an EU pledge to respond.

EU leaders said recalibrating towards a greener economy requires "keen attention" to social issues, and pledge to implement a "European Pillar of Social Rights", warning that deepening inequalities pose political and economic risks.

Yet the reason the social pillar was slow to strengthen - member states' efforts to keep tax issues and social benefits close to home - is not likely to change soon.

EU leaders also pledge to step up Europe's defensive capabilities, while protecting a rule-based multilateral world order.

"The EU needs to be more assertive and effective," the agenda claims, but with diverging foreign affairs interests, it is difficult to see how this one single European voice can emerge from a cacophony of different capitals - even if some member states would be willing to decide some foreign affairs issues by majority rule.

The EU leaders' agenda is ambitious and aims to respond to voters' very much tangible concerns, but the track record of member states shows that the EU's strategic thinking can easily fall apart as soon as interests diverge, and they do.

And while the leaders set out their program, the four biggest parties in the European Parliament are also working for their own agenda for the next five years.

They hope to agree on it by next Tuesday.

For which agenda the next EU commission president - and who that president is - will be willing to take political risks, remains to be seen.

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