EXCLUSIVE: What countries really think of the EU’s strategic agenda

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, listens to a speech at debate on the consequences of Council´s decision to endorse further delay of the UK withdrawal from the EU at the European Parliament. [Patrick Seeger/EPA]

EU member states broadly supported priorities highlighted for the next five years, although they called for a more “positive” vision for the bloc. Despite the demands made by the capitals, the latest version of the blueprint only included small changes, according to the second draft seen by EURACTIV.

The 28 member states’ ambassadors to the EU (COREPER) “broadly welcomed” on Tuesday (11 June) the strategic agenda drafted by European Council President Donald Tusk for the next five-year mandate, according to the minutes of the meeting also seen by EURACTIV.

The first draft, dated 7 June, listed four main priorities: protecting citizens and freedoms; developing a strong and vibrant economic base; building a more climate-friendly, green, fair and inclusive future; and defending European interests and values on the global stage.

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EU leaders want to focus on migration and protection of external borders, or the “integrity of our physical space”, over the next five years, according to a draft of the so-called strategic agenda obtained by EURACTIV. Economy and climate action rank second and third.

“In recent years the world has become increasingly unsettled, complex and subject to rapid change,” the draft text stated in its opening line.

The draft proposal also outlined how to ensure delivery of the listed priorities.

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, praised the “quality” of the document. 

But during the long discussion held by the ambassadors, a significant group noted that the tone of the text was “too negative and defensive”. 

As a result, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and a few others proposed a longer introductory part to describe not only Europe’s challenges but also its ambitions, in order to pass a “bold and positive message”. The UK also supported this call.

A large majority of countries also proposed additions under each of the priorities listed. 

In light of these remarks, Tusk’s team concluded a second version late on Wednesday. But the latest draft failed to meet many of the national governments’ demands.

Although not many changes were expected, “these are in the end pretty small,” admitted an EU official.

The introduction was slightly amended to include a reference to EU’s values and “the strengths  of our model”, and the need to “safeguard our way of life”.

The latest draft, however, did not include a reference to the objective of ensuring a carbon neutral Europe by 2050. France, Slovenia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Finland and the UK requested the inclusion of the date on Tuesday. 

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Tusk’s head of cabinet, Piotr Serafin, had warned that the inclusion of a specific date would be “more challenging”, given the doubts expressed during the discussion by Malta, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Still, Tusk’s team expects to reach an agreement on Thursday during another COREPER meeting on the second draft. If not, the strategic agenda will be finalised by the national governments’ envoys (sherpas) on Monday, before it is due to be approved by EU leaders during the summit on 20-21 June.

Countries’ wish list

The member states’ list of demands included Hungary and Poland’s defence of Christians worldwide; Spain’s call to preserve the EU’s competition policy amid Franco-German pressure to review antitrust rules; and Paris and Berlin’s reference to “digital sovereignty”, prompted by concerns triggered by foreign 5G operators like Huawei.

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Regarding the first priority, ‘Protecting citizens and freedoms’, migration remains the most controversial issue. 

France, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Malta, the UK and Finland criticised wording that refers to the EU deciding on “who sets foot on EU territory”. Those countries said that it was “overly negative and potentially not in line with international law on rescue at sea”.

The revised version said instead member states would decide “who enters the EU”.

Eastern European countries have been the most vocal critics of the European Commission’s migration policy over the past five years. Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are now urging a more consensual decision-making process in this area.

The Hungarian and Slovenian governments also called for the language to return to the “effective” functioning of the Schengen travel zone.

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Social Europe, trade and eurozone budget

In the economic field, many ambassadors were disappointed by the lack of reference to the European Social Pillar (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal). Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Commission also supported more ambition on the social front. 

These calls were largely ignored, just like the digital sovereignty demanded by Paris and Berlin.

France, Finland, Latvia, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal wanted to beef up the economic and monetary union section. In particular, Madrid and Lisbon supported including a mention to the eurozone budget, one of the most controversial outstanding issues, to bolster the currency union.

On trade, ambassadors from Latvia, Spain and Finland, and the Commission, supported a strong defence of the multilateral order, one of Europe’s buzzwords in the ongoing global trade dispute. 

The second draft also took into account the Commission’s suggestion for a more explicit reference to industrial policy, in particular in the context of the single market.

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‘Green’ and inclusive future

In addition to the 2050 climate goal, a reference to the Sustainable Development Goals was supported by Spain, Romania, Cyprus, Denmark and Belgium.

Under the foreign affairs chapter, the European External Action Service, supported by France, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and Belgium, called for a specific mention of Africa.

The inclusion of transatlantic cooperation was requested by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia and the UK; while Portugal, the UK, Greece and the EEAS defended highlighting UN cooperation.

Only the UN reference was finally included in the second draft.

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With enlargement being a “hot potato” for EU institutions, EURACTIV addressed the issue in a debate on Tuesday (5 June). Diplomats and journalists talked freely about the perceived reluctance of some member states, but also about existing real internal obstacles.

Enlargement

France and the Netherlands continue to be big opponents of encouraging EU enlargement, putting them at odds with ambassadors from Estonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Hungary. The text remained untouched in this regard, stating the readiness “to keep the door open for those willing and able to join the family”.

Commission secretary-general Martin Selmayr agreed with the included priorities and the “strategic and focused” approach. But he requested the multiannual financial framework be included in the text, as the agenda would need to be financed.

He was supported by Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden and Slovenia. Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania questioned the demand given that talks on the MFF are still ongoing. 

The latest version added: “The EU must give itself the means to match its ambitions attain its objectives and carry through its policies.”

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Meanwhile, Finland sided with Germany, France and Spain in supporting the inclusion of a Commission proposal to end national vetoes in tax and foreign affairs. Latvia was alone in opposing the introduction of qualified majority voting in these areas during the discussion.

The second draft stated that “each institution should revisit its working methods and reflect on the best way to fulfil its role under the treaties”.

[Edited by Sam Morgan and Benjamin Fox]

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