Following a request for assistance from North Macedonia and Mongolia, Czechia and France are sending personal protective equipment to help in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Czechia sent 126,000 masks and 5,000 overalls to North Macedonia, while France sent 400 oxygen masks, 200 nasal cannulas, generators and other related items to Mongolia. The requests for assistance came through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said: ”The coronavirus continues to be a challenge around the globe. The EU supports those who need help because we can only beat this pandemic by cooperating with and supporting our neighbours. I am grateful to the Member States who continue to put EU solidarity into action.” Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, 29 countries have received assistance in the form of medical or personal protective equipment, through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. In addition to its coordination role, the EU finances up to 75% of the transport costs for the assistance dispatched.
EU institution news
The European Commission has found a €12 billion German umbrella scheme (final part of the Novemberhilfe package) to compensate companies for damages suffered due to restrictive measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak to be in line with EU State aid rules.
Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “The second wave of the coronavirus has hit many businesses very hard. This €12 billion scheme will enable Germany to compensate businesses of all sectors for the damages suffered due to restrictive measures taken to contain the coronavirus outbreak. It complements already approved schemes enabling support of up to €4 million per company as part of the Novemberhilfe package. We continue to work closely with Member States to find effective solutions to support companies in these difficult times, in line with EU rules.”
Under the scheme, companies from all sectors will be entitled to compensation for damages suffered during the lockdown periods imposed by the German government in March/April and November/December 2020 to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The compensation, in the form of direct grants, covers either up to 100% of the actual damage incurred during the lockdown periods, or 75 % of the turnover in the reference months of November and December 2019, whichever amount is lower.
The Commission assessed the measure under Article 107(2)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which enables the Commission to approve State aid measures granted by Member States to compensate specific companies or sectors (in the form of schemes) for damage directly caused by exceptional occurrences.
The Commission considers that the coronavirus outbreak qualifies as such an exceptional occurrence, as it is an extraordinary, unforeseeable event having a significant economic impact. As a result, exceptional interventions by the Member States to compensate for the damages directly linked to the outbreak are justified.
The Commission found that the German aid scheme will compensate damages that are directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak. It also found that the measure is proportionate, as the envisaged compensation does not exceed what is necessary to make good the damage.
The Commission therefore concluded that the scheme is in line with EU State aid rules.
The German authorities are implementing the “Novemberhilfe” based on three umbrella schemes: (i) up to €1 million per undertaking under an umbrella scheme on small grants (of up to €800,000 initially) approved by the Commission on 24 March 2020 (SA.56790 and its amendments), combined with de minimis support of up to €200,000 (in line with applicable State aid de minimis regulation); (ii) the “Novemberhilfe plus” for an additional €3 million per undertaking approved by the Commission in a uncovered fixed costs compensation umbrella scheme on 23 November 2020 (SA.59289); and (iii) the scheme approved in today’s decision.
Financial support from EU or national funds granted to health services or other public services to tackle the coronavirus situation falls outside the scope of State aid control. The same applies to any public financial support given directly to citizens. Similarly, public support measures that are available to all companies such as for example wage subsidies and suspension of payments of corporate and value added taxes or social contributions do not fall under State aid control and do not require the Commission’s approval under EU State aid rules. In all these cases, Member States can act immediately.
When State aid rules are applicable, Member States can design ample aid measures to support specific companies or sectors suffering from the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak in line with the existing EU State aid framework. On 13 March 2020, the Commission adopted a Communication on a Coordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak setting out these possibilities.
In this respect, for example:
- Member States can compensate specific companies or specific sectors (in the form of schemes) for the damage suffered due and directly caused by exceptional occurrences, such as those caused by the coronavirus outbreak. This is foreseen by Article 107(2)(b)TFEU.
- State aid rules based on Article 107(3)(c) TFEU enable Member States to help companies cope with liquidity shortages and needing urgent rescue aid.
- This can be complemented by a variety of additional measures, such as under the de minimis Regulation and the General Block Exemption Regulation, which can also be put in place by Member States immediately, without involvement of the Commission.
In case of particularly severe economic situations, such as the one currently faced by all Member States and the UK due the coronavirus outbreak, EU State aid rules allow Member States to grant support to remedy a serious disturbance to their economy. This is foreseen by Article 107(3)(b) TFEU of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
On 19 March 2020, the Commission adopted a State aid Temporary Framework based on Article 107(3)(b) TFEU to enable Member States to use the full flexibility foreseen under State aid rules to support the economy in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The Temporary Framework, as amended on 3 April, 8 May, 29 June and 13 October 2020, provides for the following types of aid, which can be granted by Member States: (i) Direct grants, equity injections, selective tax advantages and advance payments; (ii) State guarantees for loans taken by companies; (iii) Subsidised public loans to companies, including subordinated loans; (iv) Safeguards for banks that channel State aid to the real economy; (v) Public short-term export credit insurance;(vi) Support for coronavirus related research and development (R&D); (vii) Support for the construction and upscaling of testing facilities; (viii) Support for the production of products relevant to tackle the coronavirus outbreak; (ix) Targeted support in the form of deferral of tax payments and/or suspensions of social security contributions; (x) Targeted support in the form of wage subsidies for employees; (xi) Targeted support in the form of equity and/or hybrid capital instruments; (xii) Support for uncovered fixed costs for companies facing a decline in turnover in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Temporary Framework will be in place until the end of June 2021. As solvency issues may materialise only at a later stage as this crisis evolves, for recapitalisation measures only the Commission has extended this period until the end of September 2021. The Commission is currently consulting Member States on a draft proposal to prolong until 31 December 2021 and further adjust the scope of the State aid Temporary Framework. OR With a view to ensuring legal certainty, the Commission will assess before those dates if it needs to be extended.
The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.60045 in the State aid case register on the Commission’s competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the State Aid Weekly e-News.
More information on the Temporary Framework and other action the Commission has taken to address the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic can be found here.
Following the inauguration of President Biden, the EU is immediately engaging with the new U.S. Administration on tackling the climate crisis. In a bilateral videoconference this afternoon, Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, will discuss the preparation of the COP26 climate summit with the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. Executive Vice-President Timmermans and High-Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell issued yesterday a Joint Statement, welcoming the decision by President Biden for the United States to re-join the Paris Agreement: “We are looking forward to having the United States again at our side in leading global efforts to combat the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and it can only be tackled by combining all our forces. Climate action is our collective global responsibility. COP26 in Glasgow this November will be a crucial moment to increase global ambition, and we will use the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings to build towards this. We are convinced that if all countries join a global race to zero emissions, the whole planet will win.” The EU submitted a new Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC Secretariat in December 2020, as part of its implementation of the Paris Agreement. The EU has committed to a 55% net reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, as a stepping stone to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. The Joint Statement is available online here.
EU must champion rules-based international order
Call to abolish unanimity in some foreign affairs areas
EU must intensify its efforts to become more strategically independent
MEPs strongly condemn the mob assault on US Congress incited by Donald Trump
The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for Europe, which needs a stronger, more united and more assertive foreign and security policy, MEPs highlighted on Wednesday.
The EU has to be able to defend its interests and values, and champion a rules-based international order that guarantees multilateralism, democracy and human rights, MEPs stress in their annual report on the implementation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Strategic cooperation with third countries
Europe needs to work closely with its allies and establish more strategic cooperation with third countries based on trust and mutual benefit, they say, adding that transatlantic cooperation remains crucial in EU foreign policy. MEPs condemn in the strongest terms the “mob assault” on the US Congress by rioters, which was “incited by President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories and baseless claims that the presidential election of 3 November 2020 was rigged”, adding that they are alarmed by the rise of populism and extremism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Europe also has to work more closely with the UN and NATO, and jointly tackle regional and global security challenges such as conflict situations, health crises, hybrid threats, cyberattacks and disinformation. To increase the effectiveness of the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, MEPs call on member states to urgently consider whether decisions should be taken by majority and not unanimity, at least on human rights issues and sanctions.
Rapporteur David McAllister (EPP, DE) said: “The EU has untapped potential regarding its Common Foreign and Security Policy. We can only step up our leadership on the international stage as the preferred ‘partner of choice’ for third parties if we are united and work together.”
The report was adopted by 340 votes for, 100 against and 245 abstentions.
A more robust defence policy
In their annual report on the implementation of the Common Security and Defence Policy, adopted by 387 votes for, 180 against and 119 abstentions, MEPs underline the vital need to intensify the EU’s efforts to be more strategically autonomous.
MEPs stress that the EU can actively contribute to overcoming and settling conflicts around the world through CSDP missions and operations, in particular in the EU’s neighbourhood. They urge the Commission to present and implement an ambitious strategic work programme for the European Defence Fund designed to strengthen collaborative actions and cross-border cooperation throughout the EU as well as for military mobility. Finally, recalling that effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation regimes are a cornerstone of global and European security and stability, they point to a worrying trend of non-compliance with, withdrawal from, or the non-extension of, global arms control treaties.
Rapporteur Sven Mikser (S&D, ET) said: “We are committed to strengthening a rules-based international order and effective multilateralism. The EU must take on a stronger role in providing security and prosperity in its neighbourhood. It will only be able to do so if the member states contribute the necessary assets and forces to Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations. The EU has to continue developing its autonomous capacity, as well as strengthening its resilience to hybrid and cyber threats.”
Parliament is deeply concerned that many authoritarian regimes around the world have used the pandemic to repress civil society and critical voices.
In their annual report assessing the human rights situation in the world, adopted on Wednesday, MEPs highlight that several authoritarian regimes have used the pandemic to justify exacerbated measures aimed at weakening democratic principles and fundamental freedoms, severely undermining human rights, repressing dissent and limiting space for civil society.
Growing aspirations and mobilisation of citizens
While noting that many negative trends persist and are on the increase, they also welcome citizens’ growing aspirations. Younger generations in particular are mobilising to bring about political and societal change in support for human rights, democratic governance, equality and social justice, more ambitious climate action and better protection of the environment.
Strengthening democratic institutions
The report asks the EU and its member states to continue supporting the strengthening of democratic institutions, transparent and credible electoral processes worldwide, to fight against impunity, to ensure that civil society organisations can continue to work and to combat inequalities.
It also urges them to develop an explicit strategy to counter increasing state withdrawal and pushback against the international human rights framework.
EU human rights sanctions mechanism
MEPs finally push for the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime to be implemented urgently, as an essential part of the EU’s existing human rights and foreign policy toolbox. Such a mechanism should serve to strengthen the EU’s role as a global human rights actor, they say, allowing for targeted sanctions against individuals and state or non-state actors and other entities responsible for or complicit in serious human rights violations around the world.
The text was approved by 459 votes in favour, 62 against and 163 abstentions.
“As MEPs, it is our duty to speak out, loudly and clearly, when it comes to human rights and the need to protect and recognise all those who work tirelessly and in difficult situations to uphold them. To achieve true credibility as the European Union, it is vital that we act and speak with a strong and unified voice on human rights. We should not fail those who look towards Europe with hope”, said rapporteur Isabel Santos (S&D, PT).
Number of people at risk of poverty increasing
Additional funds for food and basic needs available in 2021 and 2022
No co-financing by member states needed
Parliament voted today to continue making additional resources available in 2021 and 2022 in order to provide food and basic assistance to the most deprived.
With 649 votes in favour, 7 against and 31 abstentions, Parliament approved the agreement to adapt the FEAD regulation that was reached with the member states in December last year.
The adapted regulation allows member states to continue to use the additional funds made available for post-COVID-19 recovery under the REACT-EU initiative in 2021 and 2022. Member states can choose to increase the resources provided in the FEAD regulation for food aid and other basic assistance for those most in need. In order to alleviate the current burden on public budgets, the additional resources will not be co-financed by member states and the Commission will provide pre-financing to further expedite delivery.
“This pandemic has had far-reaching consequences on people’s quality of life, especially on those who were vulnerable to begin with. More than 20% of all Europeans have seen their situation deteriorate. This fund will be the instrument to support them in finding their way out of poverty and back into society”, says rapporteur Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová on the agreement.
The Council must also approve the text formally. Once it has done so, the adopted measures will enter into force after publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.
The 3.8 billion EUR Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) was introduced in 2014 as an EU action to alleviate the worst forms of poverty and foster social cohesion in Europe. Around 13 million people benefit from the Fund each year, including approximately four million children. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have exacerbated the situation of more than 20% of the EU population who are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, deepened social divisions, and increased job losses, unemployment rates and inequalities.
AI can replace neither human decision-making nor human contact
EU strategy prohibiting lethal autonomous weapon systems needed
Call for a ban on “highly intrusive social scoring applications” by public authorities; concerns over “deepfakes”
Artificial Intelligence must be subject to human control, allowing humans to correct or disable it in case of unforeseen behaviour, say MEPs.
The report, adopted on Wednesday with 364 votes in favour, 274 against, 52 abstentions, calls for an EU legal framework on AI with definitions and ethical principles, including its military use. It also calls on the EU and its member states to ensure AI and related technologies are human-centred (i.e. intended for the service of humanity and the common good).
Military use and human oversight
MEPs stress that human dignity and human rights must be respected in all EU defence-related activities. AI-enabled systems must allow humans to exert meaningful control, so they can assume responsibility and accountability for their use.
The use of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) raises fundamental ethical and legal questions on human control, say MEPs, reiterating their call for an EU strategy to prohibit them as well as a ban on so-called “killer robots”. The decision to select a target and take lethal action using an autonomous weapon system must always be made by a human exercising meaningful control and judgement, in line with the principles of proportionality and necessity.
The text calls on the EU to take a leading role in creating and promoting a global framework governing the military use of AI, alongside the UN and the international community.
AI in the public sector
The increased use of AI systems in public services, especially healthcare and justice, should not replace human contact or lead to discrimination, MEPs assert. People should always be informed if they are subject to a decision based on AI and be given the option to appeal it.
When AI is used in matters of public health, (e.g. robot-assisted surgery, smart prostheses, predictive medicine), patients’ personal data must be protected and the principle of equal treatment upheld. While the use of AI technologies in the justice sector can help speed up proceedings and take more rational decisions, final court decisions must be taken by humans, be strictly verified by a person and be subject to due process.
Mass surveillance and deepfakes
MEPs also warn of threats to fundamental human rights and state sovereignty arising from the use of AI technologies in mass civil and military surveillance. They call for public authorities to be banned from using “highly intrusive social scoring applications” (for monitoring and rating citizens). The report also raises concerns over “deepfake technologies” that have the potential to “destabilise countries, spread disinformation and influence elections”. Creators should be obliged to label such material as “not original” and more research should be done into technology to counter this phenomenon.
Rapporteur Gilles Lebreton (ID, FR) said: “Faced with the multiple challenges posed by the development of AI, we need legal responses. To prepare the Commission’s legislative proposal on this subject, this report aims to put in place a framework which essentially recalls that, in any area, especially in the military field and in those managed by the state such as justice and health, AI must always remain a tool used only to assist decision-making or help when taking action. It must never replace or relieve humans of their responsibility”.
The Commission has launched a public consultation to gather opinions on the proposed policy options for revising the directives on blood and on tissues and cells. The current legislation, adopted in 2002 and 2004, significantly improved the safety and quality of these substances. However, it is now outdated and does not adequately address new scientific and technical developments that have taken place in recent years, as documented in a 2019 evaluation. Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “An evaluation of the EU legislation on blood, tissues and cells has shown that we need to update this framework as part of our effort to establish a strong European Health Union. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that need even more given our strong reliance on third countries for plasma. Medicines made from donated plasma are critical for the treatment of a large number of patients. I am looking forward the results of this consultation which should help us to keep transfusion, transplantation and assisted reproduction safe and effective well into the future.” The consultation launched today will be a key step in the process of updating the legislation, with a view to putting in place a more flexible framework that is fit for purpose and future-proof. This will require alignment with scientific and technological developments, tackling the emergence and re-emergence of communicable diseases and protecting donors and patients in a sector with increasing commercialisation and globalisation. The process will take into account a number of lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. A proposal could be tabled by the end of this year.