Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz.News team
It is great to be European – democracy, freedom, equality and some of the best fundamental rights in the world – and whilst it is accepted that life is Europe is not perfect, there are many worse places in the world. The promotion of the European way of life has drawn much envy from others and hence Europe is now a destination of choice not only for holidays and work opportunities, but for a new, more prosperous life. Social security, minimum living standards, decent work opportunities, free education and healthcare have resulted in thousands, if not millions, of people attempting to reach European shores each year, risking their own lives as part of that mission.
In recognition of the multiple crises faced by the European Union over recent years, in the face of rising migrant numbers, terrorism attacks and the unstoppable pandemic, ‘promoting our European way of life’ has become the fifth priority of the European Commission for this mandate. The priority covers issues such as migration, asylum and internal security policies, as well as education, integration and health.
Ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, Europe was heavily criticised internally for being unable to control migration and asylum, it was even cited as one of the main reasons for Brexit. That challenge remains today with thousands having already arrived by boat in both Spain and Italy over the last weeks. With this in mind the European Commission proposed a new pact on migration and asylum. The new pact sets out a comprehensive approach, bringing together various EU policies on migration, asylum and borders, as well as external cooperation on migration. The pact conceptualises robust management of external borders, including identity, health and security checks; fair and efficient asylum rules, streamlining procedures on asylum and return; a new solidarity mechanism for situations of search and rescue; stronger foresight, crisis preparedness and response; and an effective return policy with an EU-coordinated approach to returns. The first package includes five legislative proposals: three new regulations, on asylum and migration management, screening and crisis and force majeure, and two amended proposals revising the Asylum Procedures Regulation and the Eurodac Regulation.
The pact presents a way forward to conclude negotiations on pending asylum and return reforms. In line with the political guidelines, the pact envisages developing sustainable legal pathways not only for those in need of protection but also to attract talent to the EU. To protect free movement within the EU, which has been of great concern in recent years, the Commission plans to adopt a ‘Schengen package’, including a strategy on the future of Schengen, a revision of the Schengen borders code, and a revision of the Schengen evaluation mechanism.
Schengen and migration have raised serious and justified terrorism and security concerns in almost all member states. This prompted the European Commission to consider a new EU security union strategy, which was adopted in July 2020. The strategy builds on four main priorities: achieving a future-proof security environment, tackling evolving threats, protecting Europeans from terrorism and organised crime, and building a strong European security ecosystem. The strategy adopts an integrated approach, aimed at ensuring security in both the physical and digital environments and takes into account the interconnection between internal and external security.
As digitalisation became part of lockdowns, the pandemic has exposed some of the main threats posed from online access, including the increased digitalisation of crime. Hence, the Commission intensified its work on combating child sexual abuse online, and on the EU counter-terrorism agenda, focusing on better anticipating threats, countering radicalisation, promoting security by design in public spaces, enhancing police cooperation, and better protecting victims. The Commission simultaneously strengthened Europol’s mandate with an ‘EU police cooperation code’, and a non-legislative instruments on organised crime and trafficking in human beings planned for later in 2021.
Probably much earlier than originally foreseen, and undoubtedly forced, the coronavirus pandemic pushed the European health agenda forward. With many members states already having a health crisis due to demographic ageing, the European Commission quickly stepped in to coordinate efforts to produce and procure Europe’s vaccine and to launch long-term initiatives to make the EU more resilient in the future.
The EU4Health programme was announced in May 2020 as part of the Next Generation EU recovery instrument, with a budget of €5.1 billion. In November 2020, the European Commission presented its first package of measures to enhance the EU’s health security framework, including three legislative proposals: proposal for a regulation on serious cross-border threats to health, proposals to broaden the mandates of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). A Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) was also initiated to look at biomedical advanced research and development, alongside a pharmaceutical strategy for Europe which will specifically consider the affordability of medicines for patients. In February 2021, the Commission also launched Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.
In her political guidelines, Europe’s Commission president committed to making a European education area a reality by 2025, emphasising the need to improve access to quality education and learning mobility. The European education area has six dimensions: quality education; inclusion and gender equality; education and training policies and investments geared to the digital and green transitions; well supported, highly competent and motivated educators; closer and deeper cooperation between higher education institutions; and cooperation in education as part of external policies. A European skills agenda was adopted in July 2020 and the ever successful Erasmus+ programme was endorsed and reinforced for 2021-2027. The Coronavirus pandemic highlighted significant failings of Europe’s digital agenda and the EU institutions have been quick to insist that education and training systems will be fit for the digital age. The Commission responded by launching its updated Digital education action plan 2021-2027. It envisages inclusive education and training from early childhood to higher education, improved employment opportunities and skills recognition, better access to health services and to adequate and affordable housing.
It can often be heard said in Brussels that “education and health are not a competence of the EU Commission”. Ignoring the vaccine fiasco, the fifth priority of the Commission appears to be one of the most productive priorities to date. Especially in relation to existing migration, health and the consequences of the pandemic on the education of millions of school children, the EU institutions must maintain this momentum for the citizens to continue to advocate for a European way of life.