Green Deal, digital, health. The Commission’s programme for 2021 (from strategy to delivery)

Mattia Ceracchi

The ambition to repair “the world of today” by shaping “the world of tomorrow”, and a marked shift “from strategy to delivery”, in line with the framework of the Recovery Plan and NextGenerationEU’s funding guidelines. The European Commission’s Work Programme for 2021, adopted on 19 October, takes up the six Political Guidlines presented by President Ursula von der Leyen at the beginning of the legislative cycle and follows up her first State of the Union, dealing with Europe’s response to the health, economic and social crises and relaunching the EU executive’s key priorities, the green transition and digital transformation. While 2020 was first and foremost the year of wide-ranging policy strategies and communications, over the next twelve months the Commission will be preparing to put on the table actual legislative proposals, which aim to introduce new acts and amend existing legislation, and will have a direct impact on all sectors concerned. Digital, energy and transport first.

THE WORK PROGRAMME – The Work Programme is adopted yearly by the Commission to set out its key initiatives for the coming year, detailing how (and when) the EU’s strategic priorities will be translated into concrete actions in the following twelve months. For 2021, it outlines: the new political and legislative initiatives to be adopted, grouped into 44 strategic objectives, which will be accompanied by the initiatives originally planned for 2020 and postponed due to the pandemic crisis; the existing legislation to be revised following the better regulation principles and the ‘one-in, one-out’ approach; the priority pending legislative files where the Commission wants the co-legislators to take the swiftest action; and the pending proposals that it intends to withdraw. On the basis of the Work Programme, the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council will then establish by the end of the year, in a Joint Declaration, a list of common priorities on which the three institutions agree to act swiftly.

GREEN DEAL – As expected, the Commission’s plans for 2021 reinforce the key priority of the European executive’s action – the twin green and digital transitions, as it was renamed in Brussels. It had already been outlined in the political programme at the beginning of the current institutional cycle, and reiterated in the Recovery Plan, as the main guidelines for the formulation of national plans and the allocation of the Recovery Fund. In relation to the Green Deal, the Commission will propose a review of all energy and climate legislation in order to align it with the new (proposed) target of reducing emissions by at least 55% by 2030. This “Fit for 55” package will include a proposal to revise, by mid next year, around ten existing pieces of legislation – including the energy efficiency, renewable energy, ETS and energy taxation directives. It will also introduce, as set out in the von der Leyen Political Guidelines and reiterated several times in recent months, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (the so-called carbon border tax), which aims to provide incentives for foreign producers and European importers to reduce their carbon emissions and remains a key component of the desired future basket of the EU Budget’s new own resources. The work planned under the Green Deal will also be reflected in the transport sector with the Commission presenting in the third quarter of 2021 a set of measures on smart and sustainable transport, which will be detailed in the Mobility Strategy scheduled for next December. This will include a revision of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) Regulation and the Intelligent Transport Systems Directive.

DIGITAL – Strong commitments have also been announced in the digital field. As mentioned by von der Leyen in September, the Commission will propose in the first quarter of next year a roadmap with clearly defined digital targets for 2030 (Digital Compass) – on connectivity, skills and digital public services, among other things – to make the 2020s “the European digital decade”. As suggested by the European Council, the Digital Compass should introduce a system to monitor Europe’s strategic digital capacities and capabilities and outline the tools and milestones for achieving these goals. Also, by the first three months of 2021, the EU executive will follow up last February’s White Paper and propose the first organic European legislation on artificial intelligence. The proposed Data Act will have to wait until September 2021, but it will be anticipated by the legislative framework on data governance, scheduled for the first half of November 2020. Furthermore, the Commission will propose early next year the establishment of a new European digital identity to facilitate access to online services across Europe and give individuals greater control over the sharing and use of their data. It will also formulate, by mid 2021, the European proposal to introduce a system of taxation on the big digital companies, should an international agreement not be reached, as now seems likely – another levy proposed to feed new own resources into the common European budget. The series of initiatives in the pipeline in 2021 will come together with what is already planned for the end of this year. On 2 December, the Commission will unveil its proposal for the Digital Services Act, which aims to rewrite legislation for digital services, redefine the role and responsibilities of online platforms and make profound changes to competition rules in the digital sector. And by the end of 2020, it will publish the cybersecurity package, containing the new strategy and the proposed revision of the NIS Directive.

HEALTH – Some of the most important initiatives on the health policy front are expected by the end of the year. In early November, the Commission will unveil its plans to build a European Health Union (EHU) – which could include a proposal to discuss during the Conference on the Future of Europe the revision of the Union’s health competences as defined by the Treaties – and propose to strengthen the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The new pharmaceutical strategy and the Beating Cancer Plan are also expected to be presented by the end of the year. Two key future initiatives will come at the end of 2021. These are the proposal to establish the European Agency for Advanced Biomedical Research and Development, modelled on the US BARDA, and the launch of the European Health Data Space. Finally, the industrial policy file remains across the areas with the Commission presenting an update of the strategy put forward last March, which will consider the reflections on the objective of “strategic autonomy” formulated in recent months and will incorporate the proposals drawn up by the Council and Parliament.

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