Mostly empty promises

4 min read

As the world waits eagerly to see, whether Queen Ursula will get a chance for a second term or not, it might be interesting to look back on the one she’s about to finish.

While it was rare in history, that a monarch’s tenure took an abrupt end because of bad policy choices or scandals, in the long term, history still remembers them for their failures (think Ivan, the Terrible or Ibrahim the Mad of the Ottoman Empire).

On the other hand, (supposedly) democratically elected politicians’ performances should be under continuous scrutiny. Unlike monarchs, who inherit their positions from their predecessors, an elected politician is chosen by the people based on the package of promises they make before elections. They get their position for their (supposedly) outstanding leadership qualities and crisis-management (even prediction) skills, don’t they? Accountability is the key feature of democratic leadership.

Ursula von der Leyen outlined her six political priorities in two statements (in July and November). The list of promises made at the beginning of her term (and during that, the latest being promising a “European Democracy Shield” against EU-level foreign interference) is anything but modest.

Alas, looking back on the last five years, her performance (the extent to which she managed to deliver those promises) is dismal, at best.

According to the European Parliamentary Research Service’s (EPRS) recent analysis, across the six priorities, 45 percent of the initiatives announced have been adopted and 15 percent are close to adoption.

To express numerically: through the course of the last four and half years, 661 initiatives have been announced, 526 have been submitted (that’s 80 percent) and of the 526 already-submitted initiatives, 301 have already been adopted (57 percent of the submitted initiatives) and 97 others are close to adoption.

This could as well be impressive.

Though only until nobody digs deeper.

While the 97 “other” initiative is close to adoption, barely six months ago it was only 26. A last-minute effort to push the numbers up. And it also means that the remaining 102 (19 percent) will not be adopted during this term.

Analysing the various political priorities doesn’t bring a much shinier picture, either. Something that shouldn’t come as a complete surprise after the State of the Union speeches of von der Leyen, often filled with “numbers and pledges kept”, but then “just glossing over the delays and diluted ambitions”.

Think about climate change.

Back in 2019, von der Leyen promised to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions (50 or even 55 percent by 2030). She promised a European Green Deal, a “growth strategy aimed at making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by fostering a modern, resource-efficient economy.

The Commission started hard and fast on this field. Out of the 167 planned initiatives in this field, 77 percent got submitted and half of all submitted initiatives got accepted.

What is not visible from this numbers is how different the outcome in each case is from what the Commission planned originally (in some cases beyond recognition as the first “plan” lacked political support across the continent).

Take for example the elements of the “European Green Deal”, the set of policy initiatives approved in 2020, let it be the Fit to 55 policy package, the European Climate Law adopted in 2021, or other legislative ideas. To quote Dr. Pierre Dechamps, senior advisor for FTI Consulting, “what it has achieved so far is it has set very ambitious objectives. I think that next phase is to turn those (…) into reality.

Or consider how mixed the acceptance rates of the various initiatives falling under the umbrella of Green Deal are. Not to mention the regional differences.

If anything, the Commission failed to unite the citizens of Europe behind its flag, especially not when it comes to “green” vs “affordable” energy on a continent where millions of households live in energy poverty. Despite all the (promised) focus and talk about “just transition”, the lack of visible action is frustrating. (Even experts admit that progress made towards this principle since 2019 has been poor and warn that this area should be one of the top two priorities of the Commission after 2024.)

And, as the latest farmers’ protests on the streets of Paris proved it, even in Western European countries, that (supposedly) exhibit higher “greenness” than Central- or Eastern Europe, many measures ignited protests and political backlash. (Think: the EPP blocking the nature restoration law.) And promptly, some proposed legislation was already pulled back (but it will show only in the next EPRS analysis, so until then, no harm done, right?) Again, experts see increased financial support for farmers as one of the most necessary measures.

And the deluge of green tech cash von der Leyen promised in 2023 in Davos failed to arrive, too. Instead of pouring billions into the technologies that could (not save the world, but maybe) help Europeans to feel green transition less of a burden, there is just a process that right now only hurts European industry. (Especially compared to the state-investment driven U.S. perspective.)

To summarize: the effort was put in, but was done poorly, thus the end-result is that while 69 percent of the experts think that the overall external impact of the European Green Deal is positive, most of them (usually around 70 percent) think that the progress has not been good.

The economic gains (along with her 2019 promises of reshaping Europe’s economy, reaching circular economy and other buzzwords) could maybe offset the negative effects of the transition period.

Alas, there are none: only the dream of playing a great role, when, in reality, it is China and the US who compete for global supremacy and the EU is watching from the sidelines. And it is likely to stay so until the “EU can persuade the world to adopt at least some of its environmental zeal”.

Probably it would be time to rethink the whole thing, taking into account the changed geopolitical and scientific realities. As the latest Eurobarometer poll revealed, “environment” is only the fifth most important topic for voters, the backlash for doing so would maybe not so severe.

Another topic featured in her inaugural promises, tackling irregular migration, also proved to be a bite bigger than the von der Leyen Commission could chew.

Since the migration crisis of 2015, the issue of dealing with migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to enter the bloc has been a thorny one. Von der Leyen promised to expand Frontex to 10,000 agents and to develop a common European approach to migration and asylum based on solidarity, responsibility, and respect for human rights.

Right now, the focus is on stopping migrants from reaching the borders of the EU, by signing bilateral deals with several African countries, maybe a step in the right direction, but with limited effects (right now, as many such agreements would be needed to stop the flow). In fact, 15 member states are pushing the Commission to introduce further measures to curb immigration; urging von der Leyen to “think outside the box” in finding ways for more efficient returns of people whose asylum claims have been rejected.

The latest development in the issue was that (following the “breakthrough” reached in December last year between the Council and the European Parliament), on May 14, the Council finally adopted a landmark reform of the European asylum and migration system, that will (hopefully) help to manage arrivals in an orderly way – if all the Member States make prudent use of the two-year window to implement the laws.

But it didn’t happen because the Commission managed to find a common ground amongst the member states, but because the new legislation required only qualified majority.

Speaking of unanimity.

While the main task of the European Commission should be to act as a unifying force, the von der Leyen Commission failed at this task, too.

The countries of Europe have never before been so disunited, societies had rarely been so near to the edge. Instead of unanimity, the Continent is more divided than five years before.

Part Two of the series will focus on Ursula von der Leyen, the crisis-manager (how her Commission reacted to unexpected developments).

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