Zooming-in on Civil Society and the EU’s Political Strategy for the Next Five Years
Written by David Klotsonis
In July 2019, following an unconventional nomination procedure, Ursula Von Der Leyen assumed the presidency of the European Commission, becoming the first woman to ever rise to that position. Despite not following the usual path to presidency, Von Der Leyen has put forth an ambitious portfolio containing six lofty priorities that show her determination to play a role in shaping the future of the EU.
The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. In practice, this means that it is in charge of proposing legislation, implementing decisions but also ensuring the smooth functioning of the institutional machinery on a day-to-day basis. The priorities set by the Commission president – which are developed jointly by the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission – are a set of general goals spanning over several themes that form a common vision for the future of the EU as a whole; they are therefore essential in understanding where the Union is headed in the next half-decade.
The priorities proposed for the period 2019-2024 are the following:
- A European Green Deal
- An Economy that works for people
- A Europe fit for the digital age
- Promoting our European way of life
- A stronger Europe in the world
- A new push for European democracy
In what follows, we zoom-in on three priorities, that are particularly relevant to the field of citizen participation and digitisation.
A European Green Deal
For the first time in the history of the EU, a substantial amount of attention is being given to the issue of climate change, making it the first priority on the list. The ‘European Green Deal’ is nothing less than a long-term strategy to make the EU’s economy sustainable. The daring promise is that, if all goes according to plan, the EU will successfully comply with the Paris Agreement targets for 2030 and Europe will be the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
In charge of the strategy is recently-appointed Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who will be coordinating the different components of the plan. In order to ensure a comprehensive approach towards a multifaceted issue, each component tackles a different part of the problem; these include: a) setting things into stone by proposing new legislation b) investing in different sectors of the economy to create innovation, but also to ensure an equitable transition for all member states c) engaging in ‘Green diplomacy’ to create international coordination d) preserving the European ecosystem and e) ensuring a high quality of farm produce. Given the range of the scope, one might wonder how this formidable feat is to be achieved – the answer lies in the one-trillion-euro investment that will be supported by the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan over the next decade, which will require an additional 286 billion euro investment per year.
On the ‘ground’, civil society organisations, collectives and NGOs have been more active in the sustainability domain than perhaps any other domain in the last few years. New action-based organisations such as Extinction Rebellion have grown at an impressive pace, while more grounded civil society organisations such as the European Environmental Bureau (that bring together 160 environmental NGOs in 35 countries) have had visible impact, most notably by raising awareness and creating political pressure. A recent example is the ‘Urgenda Climate Case’ against the Dutch Government, the first case in the world in which citizens established that their government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change. As a result, the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government to take action by cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020.
This shows that institutional top-down initiatives are essential in tackling climate change, but also that civil society initiatives can play an important complementary role in this process. Although this complementarity is not explicitly mentioned in the Commission’s action plan, E.U. politicians appear to be aware of this. During the COP21-24, several members of the EESC acknowledged that civil society organisations are key players and should be better represented in the negotiation and implementation processes of climate change agreements. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, to what extent the proposed legislation will be adopted by the parliament and the way each country will implement it nationally remains to be seen. If anything, however, this is clear evidence that the urgency of climate change is being felt by citizens, and government alike.
A Europe fit for the digital age
On the digital front, the priorities are also novel, albeit with a renewed focus. Acknowledging the immeasurable impact that digital technologies have already had on our lives, the Commission’s plan will strive to enhance technological development in the hope of making the E.U. a global leader in technological innovation, once more. This includes increasing investment in so-called ‘disruptive’ research, but also investing in education to improve digital literacy across the E.U.. In doing so, the main focus will be on data science and Artificial Intelligence, where Von Der Leyen believes that the future of technology lies.
That being said, all this comes with substantial emphasis on the importance of security, privacy, safety and overall striving for “high ethical standards”. In order to safeguard the above in the long run, a new Digital Services Act will upgrade liability and safety rules for digital platforms, while legislation for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence will be a central priority. Civil society organisations such as EDRi have been vocal advocates for improving digital rights in the E.U., a demand that the Commission is visibly responding to. The need to balance the burning excitement for innovation on the one hand and the prudence towards new technology on the other hand by implementing preemptive measures is therefore clear and will likely be well-received by European citizens.
Finally, Von der Leyen aims to drive the full digitalisation of the Commission, thus promising to increase flexibility and effectiveness in certain domains, but also overall transparency. This will hopefully allow for new digital methods to be implemented and for the advent of long-overdue European Digital Diplomacy – although what such a diplomacy would look like has yet to be clarified. Overall, the urge to respond to multiple digital challenges simultaneously bears testament to the increasing need to do so. Whether addressing all of these areas in the space of five years is feasible can be questioned, but the emphasis on boosting innovation while remaining cautious brings hope regarding the interaction between the goals of EU institutions on one hand and the demands of citizens on the other.
A new push for European Democracy
In the face of strong populist eurosceptic movements across the EU, it should come as no surprise that one of the priorities focuses on strengthening democracy. To address the growing demand for responsiveness in the political system, Von Der Leyen’s Commission has vowed to give Europeans a stronger role in decision-making, most notably by creating a Conference on the Future of Europe where citizens, young people, civil society and institutions can come together to agree on common objectives and possibly propose legislation. Whether this will prove enough to engage EU citizens in the current climate of distrust remains to be seen.
In terms of more top-down approaches, another way in which the Commission will seek to improve EU democracy is by strengthening its partnership with the European Parliament. This entails closer communication and cooperation between commissioners and MEPs, but also the possibility for the parliament to request legislative proposals by the Commission. In theory, this will allow for greater consensus-building and therefore more effective decision-making.
Additionally, Von Der Leyen aims to improve the ‘leading candidate’ or ‘spitzenkandidat’ system, which is perhaps not surprising given that her appointment did not, in fact, follow that procedure. The functional, but controversial, spitzenkandidat system has previously received criticism for not being democratic enough, while there are even questions regarding its legality on the basis of EU treaties. As such, it is not unlikely that this change is an attempt to tackle the legitimacy issues that the EU has been facing in recent years, in part due to questionable institutional procedures such as this one. As part of the same effort, an independent ethics body common to all EU institutions will be created to ensure integrity but also improve transparency.
Lastly, a European Democracy Action Plan will be put forth in order to address the threats of external intervention in European elections. That being said, it will also include legislative proposals to ensure greater transparency on paid political advertising and clearer rules on the financing of European political parties, while there are even calls for creating common standards to tackle issues such as disinformation and online hate messages.
Without a strong democracy and reliable institutions, all other priorities are arguably futile. At the same time, addressing Euroscepticism and strengthening democracy in the EU will surely be a challenge that goes beyond the simple creation of a Conference, or better collaboration between the Commission and the Parliament. These initiatives are important but they are also largely superficial, if taken individually. The democratic crisis of legitimacy that the EU is facing is no doubt epiphenomenal of a crisis of economy and identity – both resulting from the advent of globalisation. As such, all six priorities proposed by the Commission are designed to and must implicitly work together to fight the multiple roots of the problem. When it comes to focusing-in on “strengthening democracy”, while institutional changes are necessary, civil society is invaluable, perhaps more so than in any other domain. Initiatives such digital citizen participation are not only possible remedies to existing ills in our democratic system, they are also creative and innovative practices that (if empowered) have the potential to shape the future of democracy forever.
Overall, the goals that these new priorities are hoping to achieve are a potential window to really start advocating for a citizens’ Europe. This will require a closer collaboration with civil society, citizen movements and innovative democratic practices, but it shines a ray of hope unto what has recently been a continent largely obscured by scepticism and disillusionment.