End-of-Year Editorial

Everyone likes to feel that their views are heard. So after suggesting, in last year’s editorial, that Juncker’s promise of a ‘fresh start' looked little more than ‘business as usual’, we at EU Issue Tracker couldn’t help but notice with a twinge of pride that the title of the Commission’s 2016 Work Programme acknowledges that this is indeed "no time for business as usual".

We continue to support this sentiment. Yet we remain concerned that the Commission’s grand visions and statements cannot hide the sheer volume of legislative work at hand, something that could have long term negative consequences. We also question whether the Work Programme has truly become more transparent.

Here, then, is our analysis of the Commission’s Work Programme for next year, along with our view of whether "no time for business as usual" is more than just a catchy phrase.

A positive first year report

First though, a quick word on what was delivered in 2015. According to our EU Issue Tracker Scoreboard, out of the 29 promised items from the 2015 Work Programme, only four have not been delivered upon. This is pretty good.

Praise must be given in particular for the efficient establishment of the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI), which demonstrated that where there is a will there is a way – even in the EU.

However, not everybody is happy. There have been complaints that the money for the investment is not ‘new’ but simply shifted from other funds, such as Horizon 2020. Sceptics also doubt whether small-scale public investment will be able to open up larger scale private investment. Only time will tell whether the Juncker Commission will truly deliver on this proposal.

The vision thing

Indeed, one thing that the Juncker Commission has delivered on is vision. Grand strategies presented in the 2015 Work Programme (and indeed in the 2016 Work Programme) set out what can be expected in terms of future actions in key areas (energy union, digital single market, deepening economic and monetary union). Such ambition has in general been welcomed, and has even surprised those who feared that the former Luxembourg PM’s time at the helm would be simply about keeping the ship steady.

The real impact of these strategies of course will only start to materialise when these proposed actions are executed. Most are scheduled for 2016 and 2017. We will therefore have to wait a little longer to be in a position to judge whether the Commission has started to deliver on its big plans.

Scratching the surface

This leads us to a key concern though; that the Commission’s stated focus on streamlined strategies and big ideas simply cannot be translated into fewer initiatives. The fact that there are ‘only’ 23 new initiatives listed in the 2016 Work Programme barely scratches the surface.

To take just one example: the Commission has already announced a combined total of 99 new legislative and non-legislative measures in just four of these 23 new initiatives (DSM; SMS; CMU; Energy Union). Given that there are 19 other initiatives, it is hard to see how the Commission’s proposal production line will be anything other than business as usual. And then there are the REFIT initiatives. While the Commission has packaged them separately from new initiatives – they are meant to make EU law simpler and more effective – they still constitute legislative action.

The work structured along Juncker’s Ten Point Plan is indeed more focused than previous Commissions. But it is hard to see how this focus can be translated into fewer proposals (especially given that the implementation of a number of action plans is scheduled for 2016). Still, at least the MEPs complaining about how little work the Commission’s Better Regulation Agenda has left them will be kept busy.

Perception and reality

We have nothing less than admiration for what the EU is capable of achieving on a budget of EUR 162 billion; a faction compared to the budgets of individual Member States. This admiration however is not shared by everyone, and spreading the myth that you are only proposing 23 initiatives could make things worse.

Take for example the pro-Brexit camp. The EU’s budget and administration costs are two key targets. Stating that you are planning on working on only 23 proposals on a budget of EUR 162 billion – that’s more than EUR 7 billion per initiative – is playing into their hands a little.

Perpetuating this myth could also see the annual fight over the setting of the EU budget explode in the Commission’s face. Focusing on a selected number of objectives and delivering them within a tight budget certainly displays efficiency.  This is all well and good, but it makes it easier for the Council to argue – and more importantly decide – that as the Commission has proven it can deliver within a tight budget, there is no need for more money.

There is a precedent here. The European Chemicals Agency has found itself with more tasks and less budget because it runs things efficiently. There’s motivation for you … but extend this logic to the Commission and the risk becomes clear. The Commission is already pleading poverty, and by ‘appearing’ efficient – a false premise as we have argued – runs the risk of providing the Council with the perfect excuse to cut costs.

The dangers of ‘going big’

This leads us to the next point: the consequences of focusing on certain topics to the detriment of others. We have seen delays on issues that the Commission has decided not to focus on, something that can have unintended knock-on effects.

Take for example the alcoholic beverage sector. A Commission report on the labelling of nutrition and ingredients in alcoholic beverages was expected in December 2014. When – to the industry’s frustration – the report was still not published in March 2015, they took matters into their own hands and voluntarily started to provide the information on their labels.

The Commission continued to hold back from presenting both the report and a new alcohol strategy, although frequently urged to do so by industry, NGOs and the European Parliament. This led to 20 public health organisations walking away from the stakeholder platform ‘European Alcohol and Health Forum’, which has now become dysfunctional.

In November the report was delayed again, with no release date indicated. The reason for this delay? Other priorities. And the alcohol sector is not alone.

This focus on certain priorities is not the only source of delays. The Commission’s new working methods have introduced many new layers – such as having to go through the Vice-President for approval - and this has been cited as causing hold ups as well. NGOs have also accused the Commission of stalling through the use of impact assessments. In the case of endocrine disruptors, the delay even led Sweden to sue the Commission in 2014.

Thus the promise of the Commission to ‘go big’ on certain key issues has resulted in delays for smaller things. And with delays increasing, it is not unlikely that legal action against the Commission might as well.

Is it business as usual?

So is the 2016 Work Programme’s motto ‘No time for business as usual’ well-deserved? With a heavy heart, we must say no.

The 2016 edition looks a lot like the 2015 edition. Once again, the new initiatives – again 23 in total, including new and follow-up initiatives - fall well inside Juncker’s Ten Point Plan structure. And since the Commission bundles its legislative activities in large packages, those 23 new initiatives represent just the tip of the legislative iceberg.

It is interesting to note the Commission’s slight change of wording in the Programme’s text. While the 2015 edition talked about ‘new’ initiatives, the 2016 edition talks about ‘key’ initiatives. This subtle rephrasing leaves room for other unmentioned initiatives and it follows remarks made earlier by Mr. Timmermans that he wants to bust the ‘unproductive legislator’ myth.

However, in the end the Commission has stuck with ‘new’ initiatives as the title for the Annex, and boasts about having only 23 initiatives in their own ‘One Year Review’. The reality is that the Commission appears to have gone to great lengths to uphold this myth.

New this year is the priority list - a selection a proposals that should be adopted quickly by the EP and the Council. While we appreciate this idea, we remain cautious and will wait until next year to see what the added value of this list will turn out to be.

A final remark: the 2016 edition has unfortunately not become more transparent. Dates and details are still very broad, and post-2016 plans have been omitted. The Commission’s commitment to more transparency apparently does not apply to its Work Programmes.

On a more positive note, we welcome the fact that Commissioners are now required to publish all their meetings in their public agenda and to only meet with persons listed in the Transparency Register (the interinstitutional agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register has been postponed to next year, but this is still a positive step forward).

There is also room for improvement in the fulfilment of the Commission’s promise to have “an appropriate balance and representativeness in the stakeholders” that it meets. Rendezvous with corporate entities accounted for the vast majority of the meetings in 2015.

In a nutshell

So 2015 was a decent start for the Commission. It delivered most of what it promised and the strategies presented were ambitious.

On the other hand, the strategies’ successes will depend on their forthcoming proposals. And 2015 also showed that too much focus can have (unintended) consequences elsewhere.

So what do we expect from 2016?

Well, with a Work Programme that feels like an upgrade of its predecessor, it looks indeed like it’s going to be business as usual.

But we shall see. We certainly wish Mr. Juncker and his team the best of luck in realising their ambitious vision of a better-run Europe. And to them, and to our clients and all our readers, a Happy New Year!