A new European Commission is taking shape – What does it mean for older people?


Statement by Ursula von der Leyen to the European Parliament

In July 2019, the European Parliament approved, with a very thin majority, the nomination of Ms Ursula von der Leyen as compromise candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission. Between her surprise nomination by the Council and her hearing in the Parliament, Ms von der Leyen has drawn up her political guidelines, based on input from political groups and the strategic agenda from the European Council. Those guidelines are an important step that will shape the future work programme of the EU.

Prior to the EP vote on Ms von der Leyen’s election, AGE contributed by sharing an open letter with the candidate and leaders of political groups. In our letter we call on the future European Commission to focus on non-discrimination, civil dialogue, sustainable future and intergenerational cooperation as critical priorities to guarantee a future for all generations in an ageing Europe.

Which points have made it into the political programme?

Demographic change as a call for action, but not as an opportunity

In her speech, Ms von der Leyen underlined that ‘we are experiencing demographic change’, speaking about pensioners who have to rely only on online banking and older workers in need for retraining because of shifting skill needs. In her guidelines, the President-elect mentions needs for more life-long learning, services to support reconciliation of work and family life. However, demographic change is, by and large, presented as a challenge causing problems in ‘regions in Europe in which schools, hospitals or companies have to close’ (translated quote from Ms von der Leyen’s speech). Demographic change is hardly presented as an opportunity for Europe. AGE had called for a specific commitment on fostering intergenerational dialogue and solidarity.

Pledge for reinforced action on sustainability and social policies

In order to convince her critics in the social-democratic and green political groups, Ms von der Leyen included a number of demands on an ecological and social transition into her programme. Among those are:

  • Ms von der Leyen wants to propose a ‘European Green Deal’, including by cutting emissions by 50% by 2030 and going towards a climate-neutral EU by 2050, using investment into green technologies and creating a Carbon Border Tax for imports.
  • A commitment to make the Sustainable Development Goals the compass for the European Semester – AGE had called for a follow-up strategy for Europe 2020 to be based on the European Pillar of Social Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. Von der Leyen however committed to working ‘within the Stability and Growth Pact’, while ‘mak[ing] use of all the flexibility’ allowed in the rules – in the past, advancement on social policies has often been blocked by the fiscal rules of this Pact.
  • Various social initiatives, such as a European Unemployment Reinsurance Scheme, a European framework for minimum wage, a Child Guarantee, an initiative to improve labour conditions of platform workers or (under the heading for a green deal) a Just Transition Fund to support regions who might be affected by the green industrial transition. Ms von der Leyen references a plan to ‘fully implement the European Pillar of Social Rights’, which was also a major demand from AGE.
  • Regarding health, while Ms von der Leyen underlined her ambition as a medical doctor, she only made reference to a European plan to fight cancer, rather than mainstreaming health into all policies, as AGE called for.
  • Ms von der Leyen called for the full implementation of the recent directive on work-life balance for parents and carers
  • She made a commitment to propose new anti-discrimination legislation, while AGE had called for pushing forward with the proposed horizontal non-discrimination directive, which is blocked in Council since 2008.
  • Ms von der Leyen made a big point out of gender equality: she wants to adopt a European Gender Strategy with a life-cycle perspective. She wants to establish violence against women in the EU list of crimes and accede to the Istanbul Convention on fighting domestic violence. Few references were made on intersectional discrimination, none on discrimination based on age, disability, sexual orientation or religion or belief, besides a general commitment to a ‘diverse workforce’
  • Regarding digitalisation, Ms von der Leyen has identified some important challenges: she wants to propose legislation on the human and ethical implications of artificial intelligence, and wants to update the Digital Education Action Plan to ensure everyone has access to life-long learning and digital literacy.
  • Ms von der Leyen committed to tripling the budget for the Erasmus+ programme, which includes funding for adult education

Towards a new style of governance?

Finally, the new President-elect committed to introducing a new style of governance for the European Union. She wants to hold a two year-long ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, which should come forwards with proposals on how to improve the EU, including through treaty change if necessary. She wants citizens to be involved in this conference. Furthermore, she committed to tabling legislation if a majority of the European Parliament asks for this through a resolution, giving the Parliament parts of a right of initiative which currently is in the sole hands of the Commission. The Parliament should have a stronger say in the European Semester process, which currently is currently concentrated in the European Council. She also wants to move from unanimity voting in the Council on the areas of climate, energy, social and taxation policies towards co-decision, giving the Parliament more power – this is a current project of the Juncker commission. AGE had called for a commitment to civil dialogue in the legislative process, which is absent from the current political guidelines.

Overall, AGE assesses the political guidelines of the new Commission positively, although many of our important demands have been left out. Some of our demands could be accommodated within this framework set out by the President-elect.

To that end, AGE has sent a letter to Ms von der Leyen congratulating for her election and calling for an EU Strategy on Demographic Change. AGE will also accompany the process of selection of Commissioners by suggesting questions that MEPs could ask candidate Commissioners during her hearing at the European Parliament, together with recommendations for most relevant European policy areas.

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