EU leaders anticipated obstacles in their first 100 days but a pandemic wasnt among them.
No one expected that Day 93 would focus on mobilizing an emergency response to a virus that likely originated in bats in central China, set off an epidemic in northern Italy and now threatens economic havoc worldwide.
Or that Day 94 would be spent traveling by helicopter to crossing points on the Greek-Turkish border, and insisting that international conventions on asylumseekers must take a back seat to securing Fortress Europe.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel and the rest of the EUs leadership never thought their jobs would be easy. But having laid out a host of goals for their first 100 days — which elapse on Monday, March 9 — they quickly discovered just what folly it can be to try to plan anything, and how quickly Brussels can find itself not just plunged into crisis mode, but confronting totally unforeseen developments with no advance script to help manage the mayhem.
“When people make plans, God laughs,” said Giorgos Koumoutsakos, Greeces deputy minister for migration and asylum, who was in Brussels on Wednesday for a meeting of the EUs Justice and Homes Affairs Council, which convened in an emergency atmosphere amid the fast unfolding events on the Turkish border.
Ursula von der Leyen is reflected through the glass of the translators booth as she shares the Commissions new climate proposal with the press on Wednesday | Leon Neal/Getty Images
One veteran diplomat said it was not just the Greece-Turkey situation, or the coronavirus epidemic, that was moving so swiftly, but events generally — making it virtually impossible to gauge how the new leadership is performing.
“Its moving too fast to assess,” the diplomat said.
In that sense, the dual crises may have immunized EU leaders from some criticism that they have not yet accomplished enough.
The most predictable sources of tumult at the outset of their term — Britains departure from the EU (Day 63), and the formal start of a ferocious debate over the EUs next long-term budget (Days 82-83) — have now ended up in the “relatively under control” basket of agenda items.
By contrast, however, the new leaders were clearly blindsided by the U.S. drone strike (Day 34) that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, setting off new chaos and uncertainty in the Middle East and posing an early test for von der Leyens self-proclaimed “geopolitical Commission.”
“In 100 days, you cant accomplish an awful lot of things. The goal is not to come up with 153 legislative proposals. Its not about smashing your targets” — Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who is co-leader of the Greens group in the Parliament
Nor did they anticipate needing to attend a Sunday peace conference in Berlin about Libyas civil war (Day 50), or envision that Angela Merkels chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, would throw in the towel as party leader and decide not seek to become German chancellor (Day 72), casting the EUs richest country into a prolonged period of political uncertainty.
In that overall context, Day 95 — Wednesday — was perhaps reassuringly predictable, as the Commission rolled out its proposed climate law, a centerpiece of the European Green Deal. Though the proposal was greeted by heaps of criticism, it at least represented one more 100-day pledge fulfilled, following on the proposal for a “just transition” financing scheme to help the shift to a low-carbon economy, put forward on Day 45.
And despite the many distractions, the Commission also has kept a focus on digital issues, its second major policy pillar after climate. It published a digital road map for the next five years, a data strategy and a white paper on artificial intelligence.
It remains to be seen if the Commission will succeed in steering these initiatives through the Parliament and the Council and into implementation. Inevitably, the quality of the proposals will be judged in large part by the co-legislators in Brussels, and officials in EU national capitals whose support will be needed in the months ahead.
Eric Mamer the Commissions chief spokesman, said that von der Leyen and her team were wise enough about the nature of public service so as not to be too surprised about facing inevitable surprises in their first 100 days.
“In a world as interconnected as ours, it is to be expected that external events and unforeseen crises impact the agenda from Day 1,” Mamer declared. “The Commission has shown that it steps up to the plate quickly and effectively. And no external event has stopped us from moving forward on our political agenda.”