From migration crackdown to Green Deal overhaul: Key takeaways from the EPP manifesto

Germany's Manfred Weber, head of the Group of the European People's Party, speaks during a press conference with Nicolae Ciuca, head of the Liberal Party in Bucharest, Romania
Germany's Manfred Weber, head of the Group of the European People's Party, speaks during a press conference with Nicolae Ciuca, head of the Liberal Party in Bucharest, Romania Copyright Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn Jones in Bucharest
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The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) - which is topping the polls ahead of June’s European elections - is set to approve its manifesto on Wednesday as it kicks off its electoral campaign in Bucharest.

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The document outlines a raft of proposed economic, social and institutional reforms. But at the core of the group’s election bid are three defining issues: migration, climate and defence.

Among the plans floated are the controversial outsourcing of asylum applications to third countries based on the UK-devised ‘Rwanda model’, more financial support for farmers and fishers to adapt to the climate transition, and a dedicated EU defence budget.

The EPP, which harbours Europe’s Christian-democratic, liberal and conservative parties, is set to remain the European Parliament’s biggest faction after June’s vote, with its lead candidate Ursula von der Leyen a firm favourite to be re-elected European Commission president.

But the group is also under increasing scrutiny as it aims to claw back the political ground it is quickly losing to far-right challengers due to the deepening economic downturn and disenchantment with the political elite.

Speculation is now rife that the EPP, which has formed a ‘grand coalition’ with centrist groups in the European Parliament for decades, could instead build bridges with far-right or Eurosceptic counterparts as voters swing to the right.

Euronews breaks down the core tenets of the group’s manifesto.

Bolstering ‘Fortress Europe’

Migration is a pervasive topic in the manifesto, mentioned a total of 18 times. The EPP pitches itself a pragmatic centre-ground, accusing the extreme right of refusing to “engage constructively” and the left of “reluctance” to reduce irregular migration.

With EU asylum applications jumping 18% last year alone, a recent study suggests voters fearing the “disappearance of their nation and cultural identity” due to immigration could have a defining stake in the election result.

In response, the EPP wants to bolster Frontex, the EU’s border agency, by tripling its workforce and increasing its powers and budget. The agency is currently being investigated by the EU Ombudsman for its compliance with human rights obligations.

The manifesto also takes inspiration from radical measures adopted by the United Kingdom, whose conservative government has vowed to “stop the boats” carrying migrants from mainland Europe to British shores.

The text floats emulating the Sunak-led government’s so-called Rwanda plan to deport asylum seekers to “safe third countries” where, if their applications were successful, they would remain, with the EU admitting an annual quota to its territory. Those seeking refuge from Ukraine would not be subject to such quotas.

It features despite the controversial UK plan being deemed in breach of international law by the British Supreme Court.

Italy has recently approved a similar, contentious deal with Albania to process asylum bids on Albanian soil before successful applicants are granted entry into Italy. The arrangement has been lauded by von der Leyen herself.

The manifesto also supports further deals with countries of origin and transit, where EU cash is injected in exchange for stricter migration curbs, based on the blueprint of the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia.

Green Deal still stands

The EPP has recently been accused of a backlash against the European Green Deal, a landmark set of laws to curb rising global temperatures. A cohort of EPP lawmakers came under fire in 2023 for orchestrating a campaign to block the Nature Restoration Law, an EU bill to restore at least 20% of land and sea ecosystems by 2030.

But the group is vowing to open the Green Deal’s “next phase” by prioritising technology ‘made in Europe’ to boost competitiveness vis-à-vis the US and China, and give farmers, fishers and SMEs more financial support to adapt to the transition.

A previously leaked draft of the EPP manifesto proposed revising the EU’s ban on the sale of new CO2-emitting cars from 2035. But the idea has been excluded in last-minute redrafts, with the final text specifying “engineers, not politicians, together with the market should be deciding on the best technology in order to achieve carbon neutrality.”

Signs the EPP could abandon key environmental policies risked creating friction with von der Leyen herself, who crafted the Green Deal, describing it as Europe’s “man on the moon moment” in 2019. The final manifesto text aims to tread a tightrope by vowing to tackle climate action whilst ensuring economic security.

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But von der Leyen has also been criticised for giving in to political pressure and abandoning the progressive Green Deal she championed.

A wave of mass protests amongst farmers in recent months prompted von der Leyen's Commission to hastily review a law aimed at reducing the use of pesticides. It has also introduced measures to shield farmers from cheap Ukrainian imports and to allow them to use land they had previously been required to keep fallow for environmental reasons.

Her Commission has also announced measures to curb rising populations of large carnivores, such as bears and wolves, a key grievance among farmers in highlands from Spain to Romania, who say their flocks are falling prey to the wild animals.

Von der Leyen’s claim that the wolf is a “real danger” to livestock and human life has been blasted as overblown, misled and personally motivated. Von Der Leyen’s own pony, Dolly, was killed by a male wolf in north-eastern Germany in 2022.

“A Europe that can defend itself”

Von Der Leyen has vowed to make defence a centrepiece of her second mandate, in a bid to undo the impacts of decades of defence cuts as war returns to European soil.

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On Tuesday, her executive unveiled a new defence industrial strategy, designed to ramp up EU production and procurement of arms and ammunition. Her group’s manifesto calls for a raft of further measures including a European Commissioner dedicated to security and defence, a mandate on member states to prioritise European purchases of military equipment, and new restrictions on arms exports.

It also calls for a dedicated EU defence pot of money within the bloc’s long-term budget, the Multi-Annual Financial Framework. These measures should eventually lead to a “Single Market for Defence”, the EPP says.

The EU defence industry, which is largely structured along national lines, has been criticised for its sluggish provision of ammunition to Ukraine’s armed forces, with supply shortages leading to recent losses on the frontline.

The prospect of joint debt issuance or defence bonds, which fiscally conservative countries are likely to see as an encroachment on national competence, does not feature in the manifesto.

The text also floats French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European nuclear deterrent.

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Decisions on the EU single market for defence - as well as on sanctions against “totalitarian regimes around the world” should no longer require the unanimous blessing of all EU leaders, the manifesto also says.

Critical EU foreign policy decisions, including on financial support to Ukraine, have in recent months been scuppered due to the veto power of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. With the bloc looking to integrate new members - including Ukraine - in the next years, there is broad consensus that the unanimity vote should be replaced by qualified majority voting to avoid leaders from single-handedly derailing majority-backed solutions.

Correction: This article was updated as it initially erroneously stated that the British plan to outsource asylum applications to Rwanda was ruled unlawful by the ECHR.

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