After a decade marked by the formidable policrisis formed by economic turbulence, the migration challenge and Brexit, the EU aims to take advantage of the first year of the new decade to give great impetus to its future priorities: first, the European Green Agreement (authentic totem of a new era); then the digital question (strategic foundation for the future), in its tax, regulatory and innovation aspects; the reorganization of the migratory and common asylum system (matter that moves masses of votes); the integration of defense (key to European geopolitical autonomy); and the resolution of multiple commercial conflicts (main field of the power struggle).
That ambition to manage substantive issues must overcome the challenge of urgencies on the table, which distract and corrode.
First of all Brexit, a great pending issue. Everything indicates that on January 31 the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU will be consummated. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set December 31, 2020 as the maximum date for the closing of a pact on the future relationship with the Twenty-Seven. Therefore, a year of frantic and tense negotiations is predicted to seal an agreement of enormous complexity.
Secondly, in 2020 the EU budget for the next september should also be approved, another corrosive negotiation that will take the stage and that will form the livelihood of all the mentioned work axes.
Externally, the EU must face the increasingly stark competition of other powers; internally, an economic slowdown is coming and the thorn remains on the flank of the Eurosceptic populist movements, which did not succeed in the European elections last May, but have considerable strength.
However, the worst of the polycrisis of the previous decade is over; European institutions have just begun a new cycle with the vigor that these moments always represent; German and French legislatures expire in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Therefore, 2020 constitutes a window of opportunity.
On all these issues, without pretending to be exhaustive, there follows a perspective vision supported by the eyes of four European commissioners – Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager (A Europe adapted to the Digital Age); Vice Presidents Josep Borrell (High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security) and Margaritis Schinas (Promotion of the European Way of Life); and the head of Commerce, Phil Hogan-. His views were collected during more than four hours of different conversations held in Strasbourg in mid-December, as part of a trip organized and funded by the European Commission for a small group of Spanish journalists.
The conversations with the four commissioners show the internalization of the Green Pact as a high priority of the new stage, with derivatives in multiple areas and the ability to become the new great flag of the EU. “We have launched the European green pact. This will color the entire mandate. Each sector, each strategy will have to be rethought to help achieve the objective. It is also a growth strategy, ”says Margrethe Vestager (Denmark, 1968). There is no lack of problems, resistance points, criticisms of warmth. “But if we looked at just two years ago, they would have found no more than 10 or 12 ambitious states of the Union in the fight against climate change. This has changed a lot. This dynamic has changed because of what the voters are asking for, ”says the vice president.
The definition of the mechanisms to move towards the achievement of the emission neutrality objective by 2050 will therefore be a central political axis of 2020. A titanic mission that encompasses internal (Poland) and external government resistance (US denial, reluctance from China, etc.); sectoral negotiations; the activation of huge funds to stimulate innovation and compensate the victims.
The mainstreaming of the topic is total. Josep Borrell (Spain, 1947) points out that his mandate includes an “intense climate diplomacy” and underlines the tremendous complexity, even moral, of the matter: “We are moving towards emissions neutrality. Other countries observe that much of the CO2 they emit is to produce goods that we consume. What counts? The carbon produced or consumed?
In that sense, Vestager points out the high intensity of energy consumption of digital services. A couple of searches on Google are equivalent to energy expenditure to produce a cup of coffee, he says, and therefore highlights the importance of projects of common European interest in the microprocessor and battery sectors to make them more efficient.
Phil Hogan (Ireland, 1960) emphasizes how, also in trade policy, the issue of emissions will increasingly be a polar star in the management of agreements. The green transition will touch in 2020 a range of extraordinary breadth.
The negotiation of the future relationship with the United Kingdom will strongly mark the year. After the victory with a clear absolute majority in the December legislatures, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to establish by law on December 31, 2020 as the deadline for the pact, even though the current stipulations provide for the possibility of an extension of the transitional period beyond that date.
“I can’t understand why the British prime minister is tied to such a short negotiation period,” says Hogan. “I live in the hope that he will demonstrate the same flexibility he showed in October 2019,” the curator adds, “when he did not perish in a gutter (as he had claimed to prefer rather than accept an extension) and there was an extension until the end of January although he denied it for months. It is probably reinforced by a majority, but it would be wise to maintain some flexibility, to at least accept the prospect of closing the principles of the political agreement and perhaps allow time for the implementation of the necessary legislation. If he wants to start on the basis that he has all the cards in the negotiation he is making a fundamental mistake in his negotiating strategy, ”says Hogan. 43% of all UK trade is done with the EU (and 25% of the EU is with the UK), says the commissioner.
It is a negotiation of remarkable complexity, covering security and cultural issues. Possibly the most thorny are those that will affect the financial services of the City.
In general terms, political signals from London (and the mere willingness to settle this so quickly) point to the British will to negotiate a minimum agreement that leaves the United Kingdom very free to seek a competitive advantage against the EU in fiscal, labor, social terms. Brussels must prepare in 2020 for the metamorphosis of the United Kingdom from partner to rival, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned a few months ago.
Since the remarkable wave of arrivals in 2015, the immigration issue is one of the main political agitators on the continent. It has moved millions of votes and given wings to numerous nationalpopulist parties. A five-year period later, the EU has not yet managed to agree on a comprehensive reform of the immigration and asylum system. While the intensity of the flow has diminished since then, dramatic situations remain and the EU continues to solve chronic problems with occasional patches amid outdated scaffolding. Margaritis Schinas (Greece, 1962) is the vice president in charge, among other things, of culminating years of negotiations in a new architecture that guarantees solidarity to the countries of the external border. The task is Herculean, as years of absolute failures show, but Schinas shows optimism and plans to present his reform plan to the member countries in March.
“The current asylum system means passing everyone’s responsibility to the countries of the external border. This can not be. It cannot be that Greece, Spain, Malta and Italy assume this responsibility on behalf of others. We must change the laws and find a way to share this responsibility among all. But this cannot be done in isolation. We must add more things. The main challenge is how to build the pact so that everyone finds something that interests them and allows them to participate, ”argues Schinas.
So far, several countries, especially in the east of the continent, have been reluctant or strongly opposed to making solidarity commitments. The Greek commissioner raises the following ways of working to overcome resistance.
1. “First, we need a wave of agreements with countries of origin and transit, to help them create prosperity, manage their borders and their structures. Partnerships must be raised, you cannot give only money and investment. They have to include commerce, visas, Erasmus bags… ”
2. “Second, improve the management of external borders with 10,000 permanent staff. We will deploy the first 700 European coastguards in spring. They will be the first community body that will have its own equipment, ships, will carry weapons, will have community uniforms. We are moving towards a federalization model of border management. ”
3. “There will also be an element of legal migration in the pact, in order to bring people to Europe with skills and abilities that they need in an orderly manner, because as long as we do not have a legal migration system, we push the illegal one.”
4. “In addition, we want to put in the pact an important dimension of returns. We have to improve the return figures of those who do not have the right to asylum. One of the reasons we failed in the 2016 attempt is precisely because the Visegrad and other governments did not want to participate because they did not have the certainty that there was a sufficient dimension of responsibility in terms of border control and return mechanisms. ”
Schinas proposes to create a system with different solidarity mechanisms. “An idea of how to structure solidarity more would be to organize different baskets. A basket of automatic relocation of asylum seekers, another of means of supply, another of assuming tasks (for example, managing returns). The idea is that everyone contributes to the baskets. No penalties The important condition is that they have to have a sufficient number of Member States that are united in the first concept ”.
In the last legislature the failure was resounding. The Greek commissioner offers arguments for his current optimism: “First, Europe cannot fail for the second time on such an important thing and there is awareness of it. Second, a new political circle begins and there are always more opportunities in these phases. Third, France and Germany for the first time have very strong, very good and very European interior ministers who are willing to put all the meat on the grill. Fourth, the duo Schinas / Ylva Johansson (Commissioner of the Interior) is a well-thought duo, because I am a Greek from the popular family who knows the situation of the border countries well and Commissioner Johansson is a Swedish Social Democrat from a champion country of receiving [peticionarios de asilo]”
“Europe will remain a territory of asylum. It is what defines us, ”says Schinas.
The digital agenda
The management of the colossal digital platforms will also be one of the key issues of 2020. This is another strategic and cross-cutting issue, which concerns tax, regulatory, and industrial innovation aspects. In the fiscal section, Vestager warns that the Commission will act at the end of 2020 if the OECD fails to capture a global system that guarantees an equitable payment of taxes by these giants.
“The OECD is in it. The best would be a solution in that framework, because it would be global. But if it does not work, the Commission will address this again [después de un fracaso en la anterior legislatura]. We will see how we can reconstruct a new proposal. This is very important. It is absolutely untenable that most companies pay their taxes and then look at their competitors and see that they do not do so for reasons that have to do with their business model, ”says Vestager.
The vice president also addresses issues of regulatory asymmetry related to data access and storage. “For the banking sector, I think the tax issue is not the biggest problem. It is asymmetry regarding what type of access they have to customer data. There are European banks that would like to expand their portfolio of services but do not necessarily have the same access to data that some of these digital platforms have, because we have been regulating banks but not platforms. We will work on it. This partly applies to telecoms, which are also subject to regulations. So there are asymmetries regarding access to data and the way in which this is regulated. We will have to see if it is necessary to make the regulation more flexible in some sectors if it is excessive or increase it in the platforms ”, points out the vice president.
Beyond the issue of platforms, the digital section presents other momentous challenges, among which the implementation of 5G networks stands out, the object of a huge international pulse in the face of fears that awards to the Chinese company Huawei may favor espionage activities .
The commercial pulses are perhaps the privileged terrain of the rivalry between powers. The EU sails in rough waters both in the relationship with the United States and with China. In the first case, the spectrum of a tariff war continues to fly over the Atlantic and discrepancies over the WTO aggravate the outlook; in the second, Brussels negotiates an investment agreement with Beijing.
“With respect to the US, we will do our best to work with Washington even though there are difficulties in the relationship,” says Commissioner Hogan. “We have a pillar to support the relaunch of the relationship, which is the meeting between the presidents [Donald] Trump and [Jean-Claude] Juncker in July 2018. But nothing has happened since then, unfortunately. As you know, since December 11 the WTO appeal panel to resolve disputes no longer has quorum due to the US blockade This is unfortunate. We want to work with the US to reform the WTO, to make it more effective, we want to hear the ideas of the US, but we haven’t received any to date, ”laments the Irishman.
“With respect to China,” he adds, “we are looking for an investment agreement for September 2020. Our objectives include better access to the Chinese market for European companies in a spirit of reciprocity. We are also concerned about the high level of state aid that allows Chinese companies to invest in Europe; the issue of forced technology transfers and, in general, the establishment of a level playing field. ”
Hogan emphasizes that it will prioritize the effort so that SMEs can fully benefit from already sealed agreements and future ones.
Foreign Policy and Defense
High Representative Borrell has repeatedly urged the EU to assume the role of actor of the great geopolitical game, warning that the alternative is to become a playground. At the same time, he urges to be realistic. “It has to be. We are what we are. The positions of different countries are different, why fool ourselves. We have to talk about the differences, look for common positions and unity and then look for partners, multilateralism, ”says the Spanish politician. “One of the weakest points of our foreign policy is that our interlocutors know our divisions. In addition, we move in a delicate interface between values and interests. ”
The coordination challenges will be multiple. Relations with Russia and the Libyan conflict are two issues that will keep the EU occupied in 2020 and where there are signs of lack of coordination. “Russia is a divisive issue. But we have just renewed the sanctions. In my opinion, we should not lift them without obtaining something from Russia, but it is clear that the relationship cannot be limited to accumulating sanctions, ”observes Borrell.
On the other hand, there are discrepancies in several matters between Germany and France. Borrell does not deny them. “I don’t think they are older than at other times. Maybe now they become more explicit, ”he says.
On the other hand, the development of a common defense policy is another major challenge for the year that begins and in which there are different impulses. The issue is one of the flags of European geopolitical autonomy in a changing world and in the face of a relationship with the United States that metamorphoses. “On the one hand there are those who believe in the creation of joint capacities. In defining together what we need and how we achieve it. We spend 250,000 million a year on Defense, but inefficiently because each one pursues its strategy. On the other hand, there are those who have a more operational point of view, to have prepared forces to be able to act quickly on the ground. Finally, those who consider themselves satisfied with NATO. ”
Improving cohesion in these lands in geopolitically demanding times in view of the assertiveness of various powers will be a key challenge of 2020.
The negotiation of the community budgets for the next september – which should be concluded throughout 2020 – is emerging as the great pulse underlying all the issues on the table. It is a political macropulse between Member States and institutions. In gross terms, Germany and the Hanseatic League are looking for a budget that is around 1% of community GDP, while another large group of countries, especially on the southeast flank, are fighting for higher levels with the political backing of the Commission and Parliament.
The exit of the United Kingdom, net taxpayer, will open a gap in the accounts. On the other hand, the Commission promotes a reorientation of spending that would reduce the proportional weight of historically dominant items such as rural spending to give wings to other sections. It is a battle of winners and losers of great weight that will absorb many energies and attention.