Written by Clare Ferguson,
The Strasbourg week begins with an emphasis on trade and the economy, with a visit on Monday by Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank. Draghi will be in the Parliament for the presentation of the Economic Affairs Committee report on the ECB’s annual report for 2014. The report describes the continued subdued state of the European economy (which is in part due to uneven growth, falling oil prices and a weak exchange rate), the risks that this entails for economic stability, and details the actions taken to rectify the situation, many of which can be seen reflected in EU policy today. In addition, it covers the Bank’s supervisory activities carried out under the Single Supervisory Mechanism in 2014.
Trade agreements with the EU can only be concluded after the European Parliament has given its consent. This being the case, the Parliament is working together with the Commission and the chief negotiators on the Trade in Services Agreement to ensure that the EU gets the best deal. The EU is the world’s largest importer and exporter of services (and 70% of the EU workforce is employed in the sector) and therefore a sound regulatory basis is crucial to international trade in this area. Under the economic integration agreement, each country will choose how far to open its services markets to foreign competition, and the EU’s initial offer explicitly excludes sensitive sectors such as public utilities, water distribution, education, health and social services. The Committee on International Trade’s report, to be debated in a first reading on Monday, presents recommendations to the European Commission on the negotiations for the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). The report notes that agreement should not lead to regulatory arbitrage and social dumping, and emphasises that European labour and social regulations should be fully respected when doing business in Europe. As rapporteur, Viviane Reding has stated, the EU expects ‘better international regulation, not lower domestic regulation’ and ‘competition by the rules, not for the rules’. The report will be voted on Wednesday, and EPRS have created a short podcast detailing the issues.
European Parliament recommendations on Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) [Plenary Podcast]
Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) has hit the headlines in recent times as an aspect of the discussion on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Growing public demand for more transparency regarding investment treaties and investment protection rules, and state parties’ positions on retaining regulatory capacity, led to Parliament and Commission support for the negotiation of what is known as the ‘Mauritius Convention on Transparency’. This United Nations instrument commits signatories to apply UNCITRAL rules on transparency to investment treaties concluded before 1 April 2014. As a not-inconsiderable body of bilateral European trade agreements (some 1 400) were agreed prior to this date, debate in the Council as to what basis the EU and its Member States can sign the Convention is currently at an impasse.
Whilst European biodiversity may not at first glance appear to be an economic issue, the Commission estimates the socioeconomic cost of missing the current biodiversity headline targets at some €50 billion per year – and that one in six EU jobs depend to some extent on nature and biodiversity. The conservation status of 77% of EU habitat types and 60% of species is now flagged as unfavourable, as EU biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation continues. The European Commission thus concluded, in its mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, that progress has been insufficient. Only one of the biodiversity targets is on track (regarding invasive alien species), a further four show progress, and no significant progress has been made on increasing agriculture and forestry sector contributions to biodiversity protection. Parliament will discuss the continued concern expressed in the Committee on Environment, Public Health & Food Safety’s report about the loss of European biodiversity, and is expected to urge the Commission and Member States to ensure adequate financing and implementation of measures for their protection. Our podcast provides a brief overview.
Mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy [Plenary Podcast]
Discussion on the economic situation continues on Tuesday, this time with a first reading of the Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs proposed establishment of a European Platform against undeclared work, meant to help Member States prevent, deter and fight undeclared work. The aim of the European Platform is to combat all forms of employment abuse, such as bogus self-employment and envelope wages, with a budget of €2.1 million per year to combat all forms of employment abuse, such as bogus self-employment and envelope wages. The ‘undeclared economy‘ is estimated at over 18% of EU GDP and varies from below 8% to over 30% of EU Member States’ GDP. Undeclared work affects both individuals and society: individuals’ health, social & working conditions are put at risk when working clandestinely; as well as presenting unfair competition, and impacting on budgets and social security systems.
A Commission statement is also expected on Tuesday on the Commission’s decision on the Corporate Tax Package. Commissioner Moscovici has stated that 2016 should be the year of corporate tax reform and fiscal transparency, a position on which MEPs from most political groups agree.
Turning to international affairs, two VIPs will be visiting Parliament during this Plenary session. On Tuesday lunchtime, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia will address a formal sitting of the Parliament. On Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria will take his turn before MEPs. Elected in March 2015, in Nigeria’s first handover of power since the country’s transition to democracy in 1999, Buhari has promised to suppress the endemic corruption in Nigerian society. While the country is now Africa’s biggest economy, falling oil prices and multiple internal security threats lead to human rights violations and hamper social progress, in a country with a fast-growing and youthful population.
Wednesday afternoon, the Council and Commission will make statements on progress in the European integration process for Kosovo and Serbia, followed by a vote on motions for resolution from Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Last year’s conclusion of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo has put the country on the road to accession. However, the rule of law in the country remains a concern, particularly in the light of the allegations concerning the EULEX mission. The EU is ready to endorse a visa-free regime for Kosovo, but would like to see progress on parliamentary dialogue, economic inefficiency, crime and corruption, and normalisation of relations with Serbia. The Committee underlines the positive steps taken by Serbia towards EU accession – which opened its first negotiation chapters with the EU in 2015, having successfully demonstrated its commitment to political and economic reform. The EU has commended Serbia’s constructive approach to dialogue with Kosovo, and to the influx of refugees transiting the Western Balkans. The country has work still to do, however, on judicial reform, press freedom and human rights issues.
Debates on human rights issues take up the rest of the agenda on Wednesday, and on Thursday the Parliament turns to regional development policy, with a focus the particular challenges faced by island territories. European islands include some of the EU’s most well-known tourist destinations, and are home to considerable natural and cultural wealth. Island life is not always easy, however, as isolation, lack of resources and of opportunities may require a specific policy response.