Usually at this point of the year, the European Commission publishes its work program; a long list of legislative proposals designed to deliver on the E.U.’s major policy objectives. In the U.K. it would be a bit like the Queen’s Speech but done without any of the drama or ceremony.
What is the program about?
Although largely ignored by the rest of the world, it is an important event nonetheless in the Brussels policy calendar. Apart from telling you what you’re going to be working on for the next 12 months, you also get an idea of the state of European politics and an insight into the priorities of the Commission president, currently held by Germany’s former defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen.
I found this program somewhat lacking in ambition. You get the feeling that President Leyen doesn’t want to upset her political masters in the centre-right CDU party too much, but nor does she want any bad-tempered meetings between Europe’s governments and the European Parliament. It is a compromise between business-friendly approaches in areas like the digital economy and cybersecurity, while offering something for the NGO community, with promises to get large companies to pay their fair share of tax and promises on the green economy.
You would assume this compromise-driven approach will dominate European politics for the next ten years. Even though it has long dominated the makeup of the majority of governments, the center-right is becoming more isolated as a political force and change is inevitably coming. In the recent German elections, we saw the re-emergence of the Left and a major breakthrough for the Greens. For von der Leyen, it looks like the writing is on the wall, and her time as Commission President will end in 2024.
What does the program contain?
The European Commission work program contains a zero-pollution package, something the Greens will have insisted upon, but some expected legislative proposals are missing. There is a consensus that the biggest immediate environmental concern lies in the chemicals we touch every day. Europe’s current chemicals policy framework is outdated and in need of reform. So, it was a surprise that no specific legislative proposal on chemicals was included, as was widely expected. The chemicals industry will be delighted but many have been left scratching their heads.
To help Europe’s economies bounce back from COVID, the Commission wants us to know that it hasn’t forgotten about promoting growth, and particularly green growth. We will see new rules on cross-border trade and services, harmonization in financial services and the digital economy, revision of the competition law rulebook as well as completing the E.U.’s digital and green transitions. But when you look at the detail, many of these initiatives are some years away from being resolved.
Now, when I was a younger man, this list was heavier to pick up than your average encyclopedia. But stung by the incessant criticism from the British media (before Brexit obviously) along the lines of – why is Europe regulating how bent my bananas are – they changed approach. The Commission discovered prioritization and presentation. A new feature of this work program is the introduction of a ‘one-in, one-out’ approach.
This means that should unavoidable new burdens on business be introduced, burdens linked to existing E.U. legislation in the same policy area will be systematically and proactively reduced. As a sector made up primarily of SMEs, that alone will be appreciated.
In the next article, we’ll look into the green policy agenda, and see what is there, and what our industry might want to start thinking about in this important area of rulemaking.
Alisdair Gray is the executive director of the European Franchise Federation