EU institution news

The Week Ahead 25 – 31 January 2021 | EU Parliament Press

COVID-19 vaccines. European Medicine Agency (EMA) Director Emer Cooke will be quizzed by members of the Environment, Public Health and Food Security Committee on vaccine authorisation, availability and deployment (Tuesday).


Migration/Greek islands.
 The situation of migrants and refugees on the Greek islands will be debated by the Civil Liberties Committee with the Commission and NGO representatives. The Commission will present a pilot project to MEPs that involves the EU Asylum Office (EASO), FRONTEX, Europol, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) as well as the Greek government, to establish and operate a new reception and identification centre on Lesvos (Wednesday).


Eurozone. 
The Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee will hold two separate debates, first with Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe and then with ECOFIN Chair and Portuguese Minister of State for Finance João Leão. During the meetings, MEPs are likely to discuss economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact, as well as the priorities of the Portuguese presidency (Monday).


Circular economy. 
The Environment, Public Health and Food Security Committee will vote on its response to the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. It aims to increase the production of sustainable goods in order to reduce waste and ensure that the EU has a well-functioning internal market for high-quality secondary raw materials. Currently, the production of materials we use every day is responsible for 45% of CO2 emissions (Wednesday).


Corporate due diligence
. Ahead of legislative proposals on new due diligence and corporate accountability rules for EU firms arriving later this year, the Legal Affairs Committee will vote on a draft resolution calling for mandatory requirements to address and remedy human rights, environmental and governance failures. Calls to strengthen supply chain traceability are also included in the draft text (Wednesday).


Farm to Fork Strategy. 
The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee together with the Environment, Public Health and Food Security Committee will hold a first joint debate on the EU ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy that aims to offer healthy, sustainable, high-quality and affordable diets to European consumers (Monday).


Portuguese Presidency.
 In a first set of meetings, ministers will present Portuguese priorities in specific policy areas, in a series of parliamentary committee hearings. Portugal will hold the Presidency of the Council until July 2021 (Monday to Thursday).


President’s diary.
 On Tuesday, EP President David Sassoli will deliver the opening speech at the “Article 17 TFEU” seminar on “Children in Migration: The situation of unaccompanied minors”. The EP President will open the ceremony for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and have a video meeting with Austria’s Parliament Speaker Wolfgang Sobotka. On Thursday, President Sassoli will deliver a speech at the “High Level Interdisciplinary Conference on the Future of Europe”, at the College of Europe in Bruges.

Oral conclusions drawn by President Charles Michel following the video conference of the members of the European Council on 21 January 2021 | EU Council Press

Sanitary situation

  1. Leaders noted the seriousness of the situation especially in the light of the new variants. They are determined to limit the spread of the virus by adopting similar measures among the Member states. In this context, increasing our sequencing capacity is key.
  2. Borders need to stay open to ensure the functioning of the Single market, including the flow of essential goods and services. No indiscriminate travel bans should be imposed.

    However, measures restricting non-essential travel in the EU may be needed to contain the spread of the virus.

    While upholding its principles, the Council may need to review its recommendations on intra-EU travel and non-essential travels into the EU in light of the risks posed by the new virus variants.

  3. On testing, leaders welcomed the work achieved so far and the agreement on rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of test results.

Vaccination

  1. Leaders want vaccination to be accelerated. In this respect, commitments on deliveries made by companies must be respected.  Leaders reaffirmed that vaccines should be distributed at the same time and must be on a pro rata/population basis. Leaders reaffirmed the need to have a close follow-up of the vaccination process.

    All possible means will be examined to ensure rapid supply, including early distribution to avoid delays.

  2. Leaders agreed to work on a standardised and inter-operable form of proof of vaccination for medical purposes. Leaders will determine at a later stage in what circumstances these certificates could be used.
  3. Leaders reaffirmed their solidarity with third countries. Effective support should be delivered as soon as possible.

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Council agrees on strengthening the use of rapid antigen tests and on the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results | EU Council Press

Member states have unanimously agreed today, by written procedure, on a Council recommendation setting a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results across the EU. This is a central tool to help mitigate the spread of the virus and contribute to the smooth functioning of the internal market; the mutual recognition of test results for SARS-CoV2 infection carried by certified health bodies is essential in order to facilitate cross-border movement, cross-border contact tracing and treatment.

Key components of this recommendation include the validation and mutual recognition of rapid antigen tests and RT-PCR tests among member states, the sharing of a standardised set of data (through a digital platform), the development of a common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, the prioritisation of situations for the use of such tests (e.g. contacts of confirmed cases, outbreak clusters) and more. The recommendation also includes future-proof provisions to address the challenges of the evolving pandemic: the common list of appropriate COVID-19 rapid antigen tests should be flexible enough for addition or removal of those tests whose efficacy is impacted by COVID-19 mutations.

Background

European leaders invited in December 2020 the Commission to present a proposal for a Council recommendation on a common framework for rapid antigen tests and for the mutual recognition of test results. The Commission presented its proposal on 18 December 2020. This recommendation was negotiated in the relevant bodies of the Council and adopted under the Portuguese Presidency. The Council Recommendation is not legally binding; it sets out best practices, which member states are encouraged to follow.

EU tax haven blacklist is not catching the worst offenders | EU Parliament Press

  • Criterion to judge if a country’s tax system is fair or not needs to be widened
  • Countries should not be removed from the blacklist if they only make symbolic tweaks
  • A 0% tax rate policy should automatically lead to being placed on the blacklist
  • List has to be formalised through a legally binding instrument by end 2021

MEPs adopted a resolution pushing for the system used to draw up the EU list of tax havens to be changed, as it is currently “confusing and ineffective”.

The EU’s list of tax havens, set up in 2017, has had a “positive impact” so far but has failed to “live up to its full potential, [with] jurisdictions currently on the list covering less than 2% of worldwide tax revenue losses”, MEPs said. The resolution, adopted in plenary on Thursday by 587 votes in favour, 50 against and 46 abstentions, calls the current system “confusing and ineffective”. It rounds up the debate held on Wednesday evening with the Council Presidency and the Commission.

MEPs propose changes that would make the process of listing or delisting a country more transparent, consistent and impartial. Criteria should be added to ensure that more countries are considered a tax haven and to prevent countries from being removed from the blacklist too hastily, they say. EU member states should also be screened to see if they display any characteristics of a tax haven, and those falling foul should be regarded as tax havens too (PARA 9).


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After the vote, the Chair of the Subcommittee on Tax Matters, Paul Tang (S&D, NL) said:
“By calling the EU list of tax havens “confusing and inefficient”, the Parliament tells it like it is. While the list can be a good tool, member states forgot something when composing it: actual tax havens. The truth is, the list is not getting better, it’s getting worse. Guernsey, the Bahamas and now the Cayman Islands are only some of the well-known tax havens that member states have taken off the list. In refusing to properly address tax avoidance, national governments are failing their citizens to the tune of over €140 billion. Especially in the current context, this is unacceptable.

That is why the parliament strongly condemns the recent delisting of the Cayman Islands and calls for more transparency and stricter listing criteria. However, if we focus on others, we also need to look ourselves in the mirror. The picture is not pretty. EU countries are responsible for 36% of tax havens.


Widen the scope

Parliament says that the criterion for judging if a country’s tax system is fair or not needs to be widened to include more practices and not only preferential tax rates. The fact that the Cayman Islands has just been removed from the black list, while running a 0% tax rate policy, is proof enough of this, MEPs say. Among other measures proposed, the resolution therefore says that all jurisdictions with a 0% corporate tax rate or with no taxes on companies’ profits should be automatically placed on the blacklist.

Tougher requirements

Being removed from the blacklist should not be the result of only token tweaks to that jurisdiction’s tax system, MEPs say, arguing that for example the Cayman Islands and Bermuda were delisted after “very minimal” changes and “weak enforcement measures”. The resolution therefore calls for screening criteria to be more stringent.

Fairness and transparency

All third countries need to be treated and screened fairly using the same criteria, MEPs say, stressing that the current list indicates that this is not the case. The lack of transparency with which it is drawn up and updated adds to these misgivings. They call for the process of establishing the list to be formalised through a legally binding instrument by the end of 2021 and question whether an informal body such as the Code of Conduct Group is able or suitable to update the blacklist.

Commission proposes to amend the EU’s 2021 budget to accommodate the Brexit Adjustment Reserve | EU Commission Press

Following the proposal for a Brexit Adjustment Reserve the Commission put forward on 25 December, the Commission has today proposed a €4.24 billion increase (equal to €4 billion in 2018 prices) of the EU’s 2021 budget. This will ensure sufficient resources are available this year to support EU countries in addressing the immediate effects of Brexit. The total amount for the Brexit Adjustment Reserve is €5 billion in 2018 prices, or €5.37 billion in current prices for the MFF 2021-27. This would bring the budget to €168.5 billion in commitments and €170.3 billion in payments. Commenting on the decision, Commissioner Hahn said: “The EU budget has always been and continues to be a tool to deliver on EU’s political commitments. The Brexit Adjustment Reserve is yet another example of European solidarity. The Commission will now work with the European Parliament and the Council to ensure that money becomes available to businesses and companies, regions and local communities as soon as possible.” Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, added: “Our motto in Cohesion policy is to leave no one behind. The Brexit Adjustment Reserve will come in support to those most impacted by Brexit. European unity was key throughout the negotiations and European solidarity will be crucial to deal with the outcome.” The Brexit Adjustment Reserve will be rapidly available and flexible, and will cover expenditure to counter adverse consequences of Brexit in all Member States over a period of 30 months. The vast majority will be allocated through pre-financing already in 2021, calculated on the basis of the expected impact of the end of the transition period on each Member State’s economy, taking into account the relative degree of economic integration with the UK. This includes trade in goods and services, and the negative implications on the EU fisheries sector. An initial breakdown per Member State is available online here. The remaining €1 billion in 2018 prices will be paid in 2024, after the Member States have notified the Commission about the actual expenditures incurred. This will allow to respond to unforeseen events, and ensure that the support from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve is concentrated on the Members States and sectors most affected by the withdrawal. For more information on the Brexit Adjustment Reserve, see here and here.

MEPs: Access to adequate housing should be a fundamental European right | EU Parliament Press

  • Adequate housing to include high-quality drinking water and sanitation
  • Call for an EU-wide goal to end homelessness by 2030
  • Housing costs should be kept affordable by law

MEPs call on the EU to recognise access to decent and affordable housing as an enforceable human right and to push for measures to eradicate homelessness.

The resolution – adopted by352 votes in favour, 179 against and 152 abstentions on Thursday – states that decent housing includes access to clean and high-quality drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, as well as connection to sewage and water networks. The right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right that should be enshrined in national and European law, say MEPs.

Minimum mandatory requirements for habitable homes should be introduced at EU level that include healthy indoor air quality and are aligned with WHO guidelines, MEPs urge. They also call on the Commission and member states to prioritise the reduction of emissions and to boost energy efficiency through housing renovation.

Eradicating homelessness by 2030

In many EU countries, rates of homelessness have increased over the last decade due to rising housing costs and social programmes and benefits being cut and suspended. The resolution reiterates Parliament’s earlier call for an EU-wide goal to end homelessness by 2030. In addition, exceptional measures to prevent homelessness and protect homeless people in the COVID-19 crisis should be maintained – particularly moratoria on evictions and on disconnection from energy supplies as well as the provision of temporary housing.

Keeping housing affordable

MEPs also call on member states and regional and local authorities to put in place legal provisions to protect the rights of tenants and owner-occupiers. Housing is considered affordable if the occupant’s remaining budget is at least sufficient to cover other essential expenditure. While this threshold is currently set at 40%, more than a quarter of European tenants in commercial housing spend a higher percentage of their income on rent, with average rents constantly increasing.

Finally, MEPs point out that the expansive growth of short-term holiday rental is removing housing from the market and driving prices up, which can make living in urban and tourist centres significantly more difficult.

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Rapporteur Kim VAN SPARRENTAK said: “European rules are often better at protecting profit generated by the housing market than protecting people who need a roof over their heads. We need the EU to step up its game and use all the tools available to do its part, together with the member states. The report offers concrete solutions for all levels to take action. We can solve the housing crisis if we want to, and we can end homelessness by 2030.”

Background

According to research by Eurofound, inadequate housing costs EU economies 195 billion EUR every year. A growing number of people living in the EU find housing difficult to afford and spend a disproportionate amount on housing. In particular, single parents, large families and young people entering the labour market find that their income is insufficient to afford market rents but too high for them to be eligible for social housing.

‘Right to disconnect’ should be an EU-wide fundamental right, MEPs say | EU Parliament Press

  • ‘Always on’ culture leads to increased risk of depression, anxiety and burnout
  • EU law to define minimum requirements for remote working
  • No repercussions for workers who exercise their ‘right to disconnect’
Always on’ culture poses serious risks, MEPs say ©Deagreez/Adobe Stock   Always on’ culture poses serious risks, MEPs say ©Deagreez/Adobe Stock 

 

Parliament calls for an EU law that grants workers the right to digitally disconnect from work without facing negative repercussions.

In their legislative initiative that passed with 472 votes in favour, 126 against and 83 abstentions, MEPs call on the Commission to propose a law that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours. It should also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods.

The increase in digital resources being used for work purposes has resulted in an ‘always on’ culture, which has a negative impact on the work-life balance of employees, MEPs say. Although working from home has been instrumental in helping safeguard employment and business during the COVID-19 crisis, the combination of long working hours and higher demands also leads to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.

MEPs consider the right to disconnect a fundamental right that allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks – such as phone calls, emails and other digital communication – outside working hours. This includes holidays and other forms of leave. Member states are encouraged to take all necessary measures to allow workers to exercise this right, including via collective agreements between social partners. They should ensure that workers will not be subjected to discrimination, criticism, dismissal, or other adverse actions by employers.

“We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always ‘on’ and overly long working hours. Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age”, rapporteur Alex Agius Saliba (S&D, MT) said after the vote.

Background

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has increased by almost 30%. This figure is expected to remain high or even increase. Research by Eurofound shows that people who work regularly from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week, compared to those working on their employer’s premises. Almost 30% of those working from home report working in their free time every day or several times a week, compared to less than 5% of office workers.

EU help for Croatia after devastating earthquakes | EU Parliament Press

  • Minimise administrative burden in providing help
  • Fear that affected areas may face irreversible decline in population
  • Reconstruction must comply with earthquake-resistant requirements

MEPs call for financial and other assistance to be distributed swiftly to enable a quick recovery in areas affected by the earthquake in Croatia last December.

The European Commission, together with other European and Croatian institutions, should minimise the administrative requirements to access help and support for people on the ground, MEPs say in the resolution on mitigating the consequences of the earthquakes in Croatia. They warn that Croatian authorities are under considerable financial pressure and that the extremely serious situation in affected areas may lead to an irreversible decline in population with devastating social and economic consequences.

Start reconstruction as soon as possible

MEPs welcome the solidarity shown by member states, EU institutions and the international community through mutual assistance in emergency situations. They stress the importance of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism in fostering cooperation among national civil protection authorities across Europe.

They state that together with Commission experts, Croatian authorities should now swiftly assess the overall damage in Sisak-Moslavina County and begin reconstruction as soon as conditions allow. MEPs encourage authorities to ensure the works comply with requirements for earthquake-resistant buildings and infrastructure, and to employ best professional practices and expertise from other member states

Finally, MEPs emphasise that recovery from severe earthquakes – such as those in Croatia –takes considerable time. This should be taken into account when revising the European Solidarity Fund (EUSF) to ensure that there is sufficient time for funds to be absorbed beyond the current application deadlines.

The resolution was adopted on Thursday, by 677 vote for, five against, and one abstention.

Background

On 29 December 2020, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck central Croatia, killing several people and causing extensive damage to numerous homes and infrastructure around the town of Petrinja. Through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, 15 countries sent immediate assistance, including housing containers, winter tents, sleeping bags, beds, and electric heaters. Croatia had already been hit by a strong earthquake in the Zagreb area in March 2020 that caused over 11.5 billion EUR of damage. One person died and at least 27 others were injured. To help the country deal with the devastating effects of that earthquake, Parliament made 683.7 million EUR available from the European Union Solidarity Fund (EUSF).

MEPs: Juan Guaidó is the legitimate interim President of Venezuela | EU Parliament Press

  • National Assembly established on 5 January 2021 is not legitimate
  • More than 350 political prisoners must be unconditionally and immediately released
  • Venezuela needs urgent support as agreed by the Donors Conference

MEPs call on the Council to unequivocally recognise Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim President of Venezuela, and welcome the recent extension of EU sanctions.

In a resolution adopted on Thursday by 391 votes for, 114 against and 177 abstentions, MEPs state that they do not recognise the legitimacy or legality of the “fraudulent National Assembly established on 5th January, 2021 on the basis of (…) non-democratic elections”. MEPs call on the Council and EU member states to unequivocally recognise the constitutional continuation of the 2015 legitimate National Assembly of Venezuela and the legitimate interim President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.


Free and fair elections are the only way forward

The only solution to the multidimensional Venezuelan crisis, which has an impact on the whole region, is a political, peaceful and democratic way forward, by way of credible, inclusive, free, fair and transparent presidential, parliamentary, regional and local elections, stress MEPs. They request the unconditional and immediate release of more than 350 political prisoners and reiterate that the respect and protection of human rights in Venezuela must be fully guaranteed.

Condemning the most recent crackdown on freedom of expression and the closure of newspapers and media outlets that are not politically aligned with the Maduro regime, Parliament welcomes the recent extension of the targeted EU sanctions against 11 individuals, which do not harm the Venezuelan population.

MEPs call on the international community to disburse the amounts committed to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, as agreed by the Donors Conference.

The Commission authorises eight genetically modified crops for use as food and feed | EU Commission Press

Today, the Commission has authorised five genetically modified crops (3 maize and 2 soybeans) and renewed the authorisation for three maize crops used for food and feed. All of these GMOs have gone through a comprehensive and stringent authorisation procedure, including a favourable scientific assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The authorisation decisions do not cover cultivation. Member States did not reach a qualified majority either in favour or against at the Standing Committee and at the subsequent Appeal Committee. The European Commission has therefore the legal duty to proceed with the authorisations. The authorisations are valid for 10 years, and any product produced from these GMOs will be subject to the EU’s strict labelling and traceability rules. For more information on GMOs in the EU see here