The Commission defies the ‘unknowns’ to press a bold 2022 agenda

As is the tradition at this time of the year, Brussels is starting to focus on the 12 months ahead. Following Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address on September 16, this week her officials published their Work Programme for 2022, their list of all major European Union initiatives they hope to announce in the coming year.

A short summary of the plans is that the Commission aims to power ahead with its agenda. But before we look at the details, let’s examine the political environment.

These plans are being issued at one of the most uncertain and unpredictable moments in the EU’s history one. Right now, most Europeans are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. Despite the successful vaccine rollout, the onset of winter might lead to yet more restrictions (on October 19, Latvia announced a month-long lockdown after an unprecedented surge in infections).

They are also watching the global supply chain crisis that is affecting energy prices across the EU. There is uncertainty in capitals about how to respond to this, but if fuel prices continue to climb this winter, it could throw some ice on the EU’s Green Deal ambitions – the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France in 2018 were the most serious threat to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency so far.

Within the EU, the debates on the rule of law have escalated, notably with Poland and Hungary. Both countries face sanctions, in particular the withholding of their pandemic recovery aid. But both could also become troublesome, blocking key EU initiatives.

In addition, the coming year will also be affected by the national politics of the EU´s two biggest member states as a new German government takes office, and France heads to Presidential elections.

It again proves that for all the plans that the Commission publishes, reality has a habit of rudely intruding. The key is to adjust to the changing events and to what the late Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘unknown unknowns’.

So, what does the 2022 Work Programme say? The Commission will propose 42 new major initiatives in line with its six priority areas. In numbers, this is around half of the amount that it proposed a year ago. Indeed, when looking at the list of Commission´s ongoing priority files, one can see the list is crammed with the previous proposals on digital and green transition. The fact that the number of new initiatives is going down is a sign that the Commission is shifting the balance bit by bit from new initiatives to ensuring all the key files will be agreed during this mandate.

But there is still a good number of initiatives planned for the coming year. For example, the Green Deal work strand will introduce initiatives on plastics and restricting the use of pesticides. Along with the creation of a certificate system for carbon renewals, and the Fit For 55-package, this should keep environment and climate stakeholders busy for 2022.

When it comes to the digital transition, Europe lags behind its global competitors – and the pandemic has further revealed its shortcomings. To catch up, the Commission will propose a handful of new initiatives, notably a ‘Chips Act’, which aims to make Europe less dependent on other global semiconductor producers and the initiative on digital mobility.

The Commission will also propose communications on partnership with the Gulf, on international ocean governance and a strategy on international energy engagement. Will these raise the EU’s profile as a global actor? Hard to say, but the hopefully passing pandemic and coming French Presidency should give the EU´s efforts a tailwind.

These new planned files will make 2022 a very busy year for actors in Brussels. There was a time – as part of its Better Regulation framework – that the Commission spoke about a ‘one in, one out’ principle to new laws, which meant repealing or withdrawing legislation whenever a new proposal was introduced. But in 2022, repeals and withdrawals total seven pieces of legislation, so the balance has not been found yet. This shows that the EU’s integration continues and the weight of Brussels keeps growing.