As we enter the final year of the current European Parliament’s term, minds will be increasingly focusing on the elections that will take place in May/June 2024 and the appointment of a new Commission. What trends and developments can EU public affairs professionals reasonably expect in 2023-2024 based on what we know today? What concerns are top of mind of EU policymakers? Who is setting the agenda for the next 12 months and what will that agenda look like?

Slava Ukraini!

The number-one item on the agenda of any every College of Commissioners’ weekly gathering, every European Parliament plenary session, and EU Council meeting – from heads-of-government summits to the most technical ministerial gatherings –remains the Russian aggression war against Ukraine and its consequences.

The war has forced the EU to take sides, unambiguously, with the tenaciously resilient and courageous Ukrainians. Whatever vestiges of explanation of president Putin’s invasion of a sovereign country that may have lingered in some European capitals has now completely evaporated. The brutal lawlessness and shocking cruelty of the Russian military and paramilitary aggression has made EU governments line up united behind ever-expanding sanctions, spectacular diversification in energy sourcing away from Russian gas and oil, and increased financial and military support to the Ukrainian government – sometimes despite rear-guard internal opposition. There is no end in sight to the war as long as Putin’s army and mercenaries occupy parts of Ukraine and attack others. This terrible situation will persist well into 2023 and until a definitive military breakthrough occurs or some sort of ceasefire and negotiations start.

Versailles strategy

2023 will see the further rollout of the strategy that the 27 EU heads of state and government outlined in Versailles in March 2022 after the Russian military aggression started the previous month. The Versailles Declaration is a strongly-worded document that continues to steer the EU agenda. Specifically, how the EU can support Ukraine; the changes the war imposes on the EU itself; and how the EU and Ukraine can prepare their post-war future. All EU governments recognise the demand for EU membership by Ukraine. The negotiations and necessary legal and policy changes to prepare Ukraine for joining the EU have started and will no doubt continue for a long time, but momentum is there.

EU leaders unanimously demand the unconditional withdrawal of all Russian troops and equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine. That goes way beyond what some would have said a few weeks before the invasion, when they were still insisting on some ‘accommodation’.

Russia’s brutal aggression has achieved the exact opposite of Putin’s intentions. Rather than dividing the EU, it has brought EU governments closer together. EU leaders are more convinced than ever of the necessity to take responsibility for common security. They are now determined to build an economy that allows for European open strategic sovereignty. In other words, to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on others both militarily and economically. They have drastically reduced dependence on Russian oil and gas. The practical decisions and measures these ambitious goals command will be the main foci for the coming months. ‘Geoeconomics’ is no longer a mere academic term; it is a policy actively pursued by the EU in trade, investment scrutiny, economic and financial sanctions, energy and commodities supply, and essential infrastructure protection.

The pure free-market and free-trade principles that used to dominate policy thinking in the EU institutions are crumbling fast. The survival of the internal market as the engine for prosperity and growth depends on reliable access to energy and raw materials. This means the uninterrupted supply of vital imports – from medicinal ingredients (as the Covid vaccination programme demonstrated) to the microchips ubiquitous in every industrial product – that are sourced from China, and the raw materials required to electrify cars and trucks. Industrial policy, state aid, and protecting essential industry sectors are no longer deemed heretic concepts.

Finalising the legislative work

Meanwhile we are entering the final year of this EU legislative term. Before the European elections of May 2024 a huge amount of proposed legislation requires final adoption.

Keeping the lights on

The war-related energy crisis has exposed Europe’s energy supply weaknesses and dependence on imported fossil fuels. This year the very difficult shift away from fossil dependence towards renewable and green energy sources to achieve both energy independence and climate change goals will have to be consolidated. All member-state governments face the political survival question of responding to public expectations of security and affordability of energy supply.

The fear of energy shortages in harsh winters has so far been averted, but reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas by diversifying supplies has made visible Europe’s infrastructure shortcomings. The east-west orientation of the pipeline grid does not allow for the swift allocation of surplus oil and gas to needy regions. Deliquification of imported LNG is possible in just a few EU harbours where the requisite infrastructure is present. The role of nuclear in the energy mix is being revisited. Initiatives on the table include the overhaul of the EU electricity market, kick-starting the EU hydrogen market, and stimulating the faster rollout of renewables.

The double objective of diversifying away from Russian energy dependence and meeting Fit-for-55 2030 CO2 reduction means a raft of legislation is lined up for adoption. Even if there may be broad consensus on the policy goals – less CO², less dependence on Russia, more domestic green energy production – the devil is in the detail of how to achieve them. Discussions on the technicalities of individual measures will continue throughout this period. No doubt, some of the work will remain unfinished and will be carried over to the next Commission and Parliament for finalisation.

The digital transformation

2022 saw the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), two pioneering and landmark pieces of legislation to regulate the mighty digital gatekeeper giants. 2023 is all about implementing the new rules and their practical consequences from a digital-market competition perspective. Strengthening digital security and the fight against disinformation and digital manipulation also remain priorities for the EU, even more so because of the war in Ukraine. The Chips Act is intended to ensure EU production capacity increases to remedy shortages of essential components. Data and privacy protection remain highly sensitive areas for attention.

Other pressing policy issues

Also on the agenda are anti-money-laundering (AML) initiatives; the further implementation of tax reforms based on OECD BEPS recommendations; the introduction of corporate due diligence reporting for human rights and environmental standards, and the full implementation of foreign investment scrutiny.

The Covid pandemic is still not fully under control. Pandemic preparedness should be high on health ministers’ concerns. No-one in the EU wants to go through another public health crisis that sees healthcare systems overloaded by demand and imposes draconian restrictions on people’s basic freedoms. The developments of real pandemic preparedness plans, including a clear preventative vaccination policy, seems the way to go. But events may quickly overtake this agenda.

The whole healthcare policy area is evolving rapidly. Member states used to be very protective of their national healthcare systems: the European treaty doesn’t allow for harmonising measures in this domain. But with new EU instruments put in place due to Covid, including HERA – the future-looking Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority –  we can expect healthcare policy to be more prominent on the EU agenda. And since the major overhaul of the EU’s pharmaceutical legislation has already been announced, preparatory work is starting, and the proposals are imminent.

‘Brussels has imposed this on us’

This substantial legislative agenda is being finalised before May 2024, the end of the current European Commission and Parliament mandates. Decisions and adoptions happen relatively unnoticed by the public at large, and even by national and regional policymakers, probably more than ever as the war in Ukraine and its consequences dominate European news agendas. The massive legislative activity that goes on out of the limelight, and debates around the pro and cons of new legislation where positions in favour and against are expressed, are largely invisible and unheard to the European public.

This is worrying from a democratic perspective. European law making has never been a popular media topic, rather perceived as something arcane for specialists to follow. Even those who know how important these legislative initiatives are – and how deeply they will alter business models, corporate behaviour, consumer rights and access to energy –seem to have abandoned the ambition of explaining these questions to the general public.

Once the dozens of new EU laws contained in the Green Deal and Digital Transformation packages land in member states for implementation, many will be taken by surprise to see what their governments and MEPs have agreed. In some instances debates on these new rules will start again at the national level, although by then the legislative ship will have sailed. ‘Brussels has imposed this on us’ ministers will decry, ‘and we have no choice but to implement’, conveniently omitting that it was they themselves as Council ministers and MEPs who made these very laws. They should at least have the honesty and integrity to defend their own decisions. The nefarious consequences of unrelentingly blaming Brussels for all national woes is part of the core propaganda of extremist parties.

Shame and scandal in the family

And then there’s the so-called Qatargate scandal on the huge amounts of cash allegedly paid by Qatar and Morocco to influence parliamentary positions. In December 2022 the Belgian and Italian judicial authorities arrested a European Parliament vice-president, a former and a present MEP, some parliament officials, and an NGO secretary-general, and interrogated an international trade union leader and various MEPs with links to these NGOs. The parliament’s president Roberta Metsola said such corruption would not go unpunished. Proposals are expected to strengthen the rules for NGOs and foreign diplomats who wish to engage with MEPs, to bring them in line with those for representatives of economic or other interests. Transparency in public affairs is no longer an option, it is the basis on which organisations must operate. We can expect the scandal to also inspire lobbywatch organisations to broaden the scope of their attention to NGOs and foreign agents, the instruments of corruption in this scandal.

This final year of this Parliament and Commission’s term is jam-packed with issues and legislative work. And as always, we should also expect the unexpected. Public affairs practitioners will not remain idle during the months ahead.