The European Council’s Strategic Agenda 2024-2029

Two defining events for the European Union take place in the next eight weeks:  the European Parliament elections take place on 6-9 June and will determine the balance of power between the various political groups with differing priorities for the future of Europe; and the European Council meeting on 27-28 June will adopt the EU’s Strategic Agenda 2024-29 as well as attempt to agree on nominees for the EU’s top jobs, including the President of the European Commission. The climate organisation E3G has produced a very nice graphic that illustrates the key steps in the political timeline for the rest of this year .

Source: E3G.

In this post, I focus on the preparation of the Strategic Agenda for the period 2024-29, a process that takes place every five years. It is easy to be cynical about this process. The European Council has a history of producing conclusions with high-sounding principles and commitments that on closer inspection turn out to be rather vague and woolly. The Strategic Agenda can be interpreted as part of an inter-institutional battle over who gets to set the agenda for the EU’s priorities. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council is required to “provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development” and to “define the general political direction”.  But what its practical consequences are can be hard to determine, particularly after the Lisbon Treaty gave increased powers to the European Parliament. An EIU analysis of the previous Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 concluded that it covered nearly all areas of policy but lacked any clear timeline for action.

A more positive assessment here argues that the process of developing the Strategic Agenda is more important than the final product itself. Since the Strategic Agenda is a high-level, consensus document, we should not expect it to contain precise and concrete policy outcomes. While the vagueness and broad objectives may be a precondition to ensure that all Member States can see themselves in the final document, the priorities highlighted nonetheless do reflect a common understanding of what the key issues are.

Member State representatives have been actively involved in the process of drafting the 2024-2029 Strategic Agenda for the past year following the European Council President’s invitation letter in June 2023. In that letter, Charles Michel identified four major areas: “consolidating our economic and social base (the green and digital transitions, competitiveness, innovation, health); tackling the energy challenge; strengthening our security and defence capabilities; and deepening our engagement with the rest of the world. We must also strengthen our overall approach on migration”.

In October 2023, the European Council had a first discussion of the future priorities for the Strategic Agenda at an informal meeting in Granada. The Granada Declaration identified key priorities as security and defence, resilience and competitiveness, energy, migration, global engagement, and enlargement. Subsequently, President Michel launched two rounds of consultations on policies, financing and decision-making with Heads of State and Government in November 2023 and April 2024. The final document will be presented, as noted above, at the European Council meeting end June 2024.

A leaked version of an apparent early draft of priorities in bullet-point format was published on the Greenpeace website on 10 April but, as is always the case with leaked documents of this kind, its precise status cannot be established and the final document may look quite different. Nonetheless, even with this caveat, there are interesting pointers to what to expect.

Compared to the current 2019-2024 Strategic Agenda which made no mention of enlargement or institutional reform (apart from a vague reference to “upholding the European perspective for European states able and willing to join the EU”), the leaked draft has a full section on a well-prepared enlargement including the need to “undertake the necessary internal reforms of EU policies, financing and capacity to act”. This reflects the conclusions of the European Council summit in December 2023 that agreed to address internal reforms at its upcoming meetings with a view to adopting by summer 2024 conclusions on a roadmap for future work.

In the current 2019-2024 Strategic Agenda, one of the four sections was entitled “building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe”. This recognised that the EU must step up action to manage the existential threat of climate change and set out a series of priorities: ensuring that EU policies are consistent with the Paris Agreement; accelerating the transition to renewables and increasing energy efficiency; reducing dependence on outside sources, diversifying supplies and investing in solutions for the mobility of the future; improving the quality of our air and waters; promoting sustainable agriculture, implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights at EU and member state level; and calling on all EU countries to move forward and step up their climate action. We see here a clear precursor of the European Green Deal initiative subsequently elaborated in the incoming Commission President’s political guidelines when seeking support for her nomination by the European Parliament.

There is a very different emphasis in the leaked set of bullet points. The Green Deal priorities are seen solely through the lens of industrial policy (“decreasing strategic dependencies and increase resilience by developing a more circular and resource-efficient economy” and “support the industrial development of digital and clean technologies”). While there is a reference to “prepare for new realities stemming from climate change”, there is no mention of reaching an ambitious agreement on the 2040 EU climate target, of reversing biodiversity loss or of improving environmental quality. The reference to “promoting sustainable agriculture’ is replaced by a reference to “ensuring our food security through a vibrant agriculture sector”.

While it is important to underline again that there is no way of knowing how close the leaked working document might be to the final document, it is consistent with recent decisions in the Council that have sought to slow down or prevent environmental legislation particularly related to the farm sector. It is clear there is now a critical mass of businesses in the energy, transport, and construction sectors that have a clear commercial interest in moving ahead with the green transition in the areas of energy and decarbonisation, meaning the link between these priorities and industrial policy is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to understand why a similar change in mindset has yet to fully permeate through to the food and agriculture sector.

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

Picture credit: Plannthat, CC BY-NC 4.0 Deed.

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