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After Brexit, the EU policy agenda continues

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Whilst the UK has now left the EU, the policy and legislative work of the bloc continues.  Given the Scottish Government’s commitment to continued alignment with EU law, it is important that the Scottish Parliament continues to maintain awareness of policy and legislative developments at EU level.  This blog sets out the policy aims of the current Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU and the ambitions set out by the European Commission, most recently in its legislative work programme for 2022. 

The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU

On 1 July 2022, the Czech Republic took on the rotating six-monthly presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Presidency has two main tasks:

  • Representing the Council in relations with the other EU institutions, particularly with the Commission and the European Parliament.

The Czech Presidency is the second of the current trio of presidencies, with France preceding it and Sweden to take over in January 2023.  The trio programme had identified four core themes:

  • To protect citizens and freedoms, by focusing on respecting and protecting European values – democracy, rule of law, gender equality, etc. – and on strengthening both the Schengen area and the common asylum and migration policy.
  • To promote a new growth and investment model for Europe, based on sustainable green growth and on strengthening the EU’s industrial and digital sovereignty.
  • To build a greener and more socially equitable Europe that better protects the health of Europeans.
  • A global Europe that promotes multilateralism and renewed international partnerships, while adopting a shared vision among the 27 Member States regarding strategic threats.

Whilst the trio programme’s priorities will inform the work of the Czech Presidency, they were agreed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has presented new and challenging questions for EU member states focussed on security and energy.  As a result, the Czech Presidency has identified five linked policy areas for its presidency:

  1. managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery
  2. energy security
  3. strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities and cyberspace security
  4. strategic resilience of the European economy
  5. resilience of democratic institutions.

The Czech Presidency priorities reflect the changed environment of the last six months.  This is acknowledged in the introduction to the priorities:

“The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, which has completely overhauled the geopolitical situation on our continent this year, has demonstrated at the same time that Europeans in a crisis triggered by an external threat are able to act very quickly, effectively and in a united way. Yet European unity is not one of an authoritarian unanimity, but a unity in diversity of a multi-voice debate, which, however, is driven, by our common values, towards consensus. Our culture of political dialogue and consensus-building that we have been forging for decades proves to be a strength rather than a weakness of the European project.”

The Czech Presidency’s response to the Russian invasion is to propose a greater focus on Europe, as demonstrated by the Presidency motto “Europe as a Task”.  The Presidency’s focus appears to be on developing the EU’s strategic response to the issues that have developed in the last six months. In this way, it will allow the EU to then pursue the “long-term goals of the green and digital transitions”.  As a result, the overall objective of the Czech Presidency is “to contribute as much as possible to creating the conditions for the security and prosperity of the EU in the context of the European values of freedom, social justice, democracy and the rule of law and environmental responsibility”.  This approach is likely to leave the European Commission to continue to be responsible for promoting the EU legislative agenda. 

What’s the European Commission up to?

The current European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen set out six priorities for the duration of her term which will last from 2019-2024. The six priorities are:

1. the European Green Deal

2. a Europe fit for the digital age

3. an economy that works for people

4. a stronger Europe in the world

5. promoting our European way of life

6. a new push for European democracy.

The European Commission work programme for 2022 was published in October 2021. The work programme titled “Making Europe stronger together” set out a number of legislative priorities under each of the six Commission priorities. 

According to the European Commission, the priority for 2022 was to have been “making Europe stronger together”.  Recognising the different challenges the EU faced, the Commission wrote:

“Our Union is emerging from a time of unprecedented crisis. Faced with a series of disruptive global events, we have shown that by acting together, united and with great ambition, we can tackle the toughest of challenges and deliver for European citizens.”

The European Commission has reacted swiftly to challenges, from confronting the COVID-19 pandemic to addressing the effects of climate change and the nature crisis, and from ensuring an increasingly digital world works for people to facing a new global geopolitical reality. In doing so, we have put in place the necessary building blocks for a better future. All this was done in line with our bold and transformative agenda across the six headline ambitions.”

Whilst the nature of the challenges may have changed as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the overall ambition is likely to remain.

The policy direction of the Commission during the remainder of its term will seek to build on the successes it has identified from  previous years including the Fit for 55 package to tackle climate change and the proposals for a digitally empowered Europe by 2030. Other issues highlighted by the Commission included the European Pilar of Social Rights action plan and proposals to step up the fight against racism and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, whilst intensifying efforts to enable citizens with disabilities to fully participate in society.

The Commission also highlighted its proposal for a European Health Union in response to the COVID pandemic along with significant funding to tackle the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

The European Policy Centre has published a discussion paper examining the progress of the von der Leyen Commission at the half-way term.  It concluded that whilst the Commission must continue to pursue its identified priorities, the European Union faces a new reality as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  The EPC concludes that:

“The EU and its member states must make a choice: opt for a joint future or watch the old continent drift into fragmentation and irrelevance, unable to defend its own interests.”

Why does this matter to Scotland?

Whilst the UK has left the EU and as a result is no longer required to comply with EU law, the Scottish Government has a policy commitment to align with EU law where appropriate, as set out in the 2021-22 Programme for Government

Whilst decisions about which particular EU legislation Scotland might choose to align with will be at the discretion of Scottish Ministers, it is important that the Scottish Parliament continues to maintain awareness of EU policy and legislative developments.  This will allow parliamentarians to effectively scrutinise Scottish Ministers’ policy commitment and its use of the “keeping pace power” (provided for in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021).  It will also help MSPs identify policy areas and occasions where decisions are taken not to align with EU law and scrutinise the reasons for this.

In addition to the requirement to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s policy commitments, the Scottish Council for Global Affairs has identified the need for the development of public policy to support the level of debate over international questions in Scotland.  Engagement with the EU’s policy and legislative priorities, even after Brexit, can support this approach. 

Demonstrating the commitment to continue to track the development of EU policy and legislation, the Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee will take evidence from the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the UK on the Czech Presidency priorities shortly after summer recess.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research