New EU Commission work programme a thumb in the eye for Euroscepticism

If you’re a Eurosceptic, then the formal adoption this week of the European Commission’s new work programme will have been both good and bad for you. Good in the sense that it substantially paired down the Commission’s priorities for the coming year. Bad because it gives less of a reason to point to the creeping power of Europe.

The work programme set out the priorities for the first year of Jean-Claude Juncker’s presidency. Mr Juncker is of course no stranger to controversy, or indeed criticism within sections of the UK media. And his work programme likely prompted some surprise amongst his critics, who might have expected an expansive document.

What they got was quite different. Mr Juncker stressed that his Commission will interfere less in people’s daily lives and will focus its energies on “the big economic and social challenges, such as fighting unemployment and improving competitiveness.” The new minimalist EU now boasts a Commission work programme with 23 new initiatives for 2015. The previous Commission’s work programme used to cover 130 a year.

The programme fits with the themes Mr Juncker has been repeating since the summer, with a much narrower focus for the first year geared towards economic recovery and job creation. But it also represents a recognition amongst EU policymakers of public opinion and Euroscepticism evident in the hostile reaction to the work programme by elements of the EU Parliament. The new work programme is ambitious but constrained. It aims high but appears less interventionist. And it is in keeping with public mood – not only in being less interventionist but in focusing on the two issues that probably mean more to Europeans than any others, namely economic growth and jobs.

The next year will be a litmus test for the Commission, both in terms of this approach and also of the skill of commissioners who will have to navigate what will continue to be hostile and Eurosceptical waters. Whether they can do that remains to be seen, but this work programme is a first step in challenging the critics.