Tracking key coronavirus restrictions on movement and social life

Written by Costica Dumbrava,

© Oleksandr Kotenko / Adobe Stock

All the EU Member States adopted emergency measures in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus. These measures restricted a number of fundamental freedoms, including movement across and within national borders, access to education, freedom of association and, more broadly, freedom to engage in social and economic activities. Following a decrease in the number of coronavirus cases, most Member States have gradually begun to lift or ease these restrictions.

This briefing presents an overview of 10 key measures taken by the Member States in response to the pandemic. They relate to cross-border travel (controls at internal EU borders, entry bans affecting EU and non-EU citizens, and exit bans); movement and association (restrictions of movement in the country and bans on social gatherings); education and social activities (closure of educational institutions, shops and restaurants); and contact tracing.

This briefing tracks these key measures from 1 March to 30 June 2020 and presents their evolution in relation to the general evolution of the pandemic in each Member State, represented by the cumulative number of reported Covid-19 cases per 100 000 population in the previous 14 days.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Tracking key coronavirus restrictions on movement and social life‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Lifting coronavirus restrictions: The role of therapeutics, testing, and contact-tracing apps

Written by Costica Dumbrava,

© Liliya / Adobe Stock

The key to tackling the coronavirus pandemic is a combination of safe and readily available vaccines that provide everyone with immunity, as well as effective treatments that work to cure the disease in all infected people. Short of this, the ongoing public health crisis requires a mix of non-pharmaceutical measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, including identifying and isolating cases, testing, contact tracing and broader containment measures.

With the number of Covid-19 cases in the EU falling steadily since the beginning of May, most Member States have begun to ease restrictions on free movement and social gatherings. However, lifting restrictions in the absence of vaccines and treatments requires enhanced monitoring measures, such as an expanded testing capacity and improved contact tracing, including through the use of appropriate digital technologies.

There is the hope that the impressive mobilisation of resources and expertise will soon lead to breakthroughs in the quest for safe vaccines and effective treatments for Covid-19. However, it may take a while before such therapeutics are made available to everyone that needs them. Beyond dealing with challenges relating to scientific knowledge and a cumbersome development process, there is a need to address questions regarding mass manufacturing and fair distribution. Given the uncertainties and challenges associated with Covid-19 therapeutics, it may be wise to moderate expectations in order to foster resilience and preserve public trust.

Expanding testing capacity and updating testing strategies to support disease monitoring at population level is crucial for minimising the risk of new outbreaks in the context of relaxing containment measures. Using antibody tests to monitor the disease is a promising avenue, though more evidence is needed to demonstrate the reliability of these tests, in particular given current knowledge gaps regarding people’s immunity to the virus. Moreover, linking antibody testing to relaxing restrictions for individuals, as suggested by the idea of establishing ‘immunity passports’, raises additional concerns about non-discrimination, fairness and mass surveillance.

Together with identifying and isolating new cases (through testing), the rapid and efficient tracing of people who have recently been in contact with infected people is essential for reducing the spread of the virus. Automating, at least partially, the laborious task of contact tracing with the help of contact-tracing apps has been advocated as a key measure to enable the gradual lifting of restrictions. The ongoing debate on contact-tracing apps in the EU seems to be converging towards a preference for voluntary contact-tracing apps that rely on proximity/bluetooth data (as opposed to location data) and comply with EU rules on data protection and privacy. The debate continues on the specific technical design of such apps (e.g. centralised versus decentralised systems), though the majority of initiatives in Member States seem to rely on decentralised systems. There are nevertheless a number of open questions regarding contact-tracing apps, in particular on their reliability, usability, data protection and privacy, epidemiological value and broader social implications.

There are very few certainties regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, but perhaps one certainty is that no isolated measure or silver-bullet solution is likely to solve all aspects of the crisis. A flexible and integrated strategy, in terms of complementary tools and measures, as well as a coordinated approach across the EU, will be crucial in enabling the gradual lifting of restrictions and a return to the (new) normal.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Lifting coronavirus restrictions: The role of therapeutics, testing, and contact-tracing apps‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Mapping the AI ethics initiatives terrain

Written by Mihalis Kritikos,

The ethics of artificial intelligence Issues and initiatives

© Shutterstock

While artificial intelligence (AI) applications are numerous, AI creates novel ethical challenges that threaten both users and non-users of the technology, including exacerbating existing inequalities and generating discrimination and bias. As AI ethics has become a point of discussion and analysis at local and international levels, policy-makers and AI developers are facing a series of questions: What can be done to minimise harm while maximising the benefits of AI solutions? How can we develop and use AI in a human-centric and trustworthy manner? How can we make sure that there is sufficient transparency and accountability in the way algorithms function and AI is used? Are traditional ethical frameworks and human rights legal instruments sufficient to address AI-specific challenges? Governments and intergovernmental organisations are responding to these questions by drafting AI-specific ethical standards and adopting ethical guidelines and principles.

Within this frame, STOA launched a study to map the ethical terrain in the field of AI, in terms of both ethical concerns and initiatives, and analyse the current body of principles and guidelines on ethical AI. ‘The ethics of artificial intelligence: Issues and initiatives’ was published in March 2020, was carried out by Eleanor Bird, Jasmin Fox-Skelly, Nicola Jenner, Ruth Larbey, Emma Weitkamp and Alan Winfield from the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England. The STOA Panel requested the study, following a proposal by STOA Chair, Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece). It examines the ethical implications, dilemmas, tensions and moral questions surrounding the development and deployment of AI and maps the full spectrum of ethical standards, guidelines and strategies produced by state and non-state actors worldwide.

The study begins by mapping the main ethical dilemmas and moral questions associated with the deployment of AI. Special focus is placed on the effects of AI on citizens’ fundamental human rights within society. It explores the potential impact of AI on the labour market and economy, sheds light on how different demographic groups might be affected, and addresses questions of inequality and the risk that AI will further concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few. The study addresses issues related to privacy, human rights and dignity, as well as risks that AI will perpetuate the biases, intended or otherwise, of existing social systems or their creators. The analysis further explores the psychological impacts of AI related to dependency and deception. It also considers the potential impacts of AI on financial and legal systems – including civil and criminal law – including risks of manipulation and collusion, and questions relating to the use of AI in criminal activities. Large-scale deployment of AI could also have both positive and negative impacts on the environment.

Τhe study then performs a scoping review, by outlining all major ethical initiatives, summarising their focus and, where possible, identifying funding sources and the harms and concerns tackled by these initiatives. By examining a wide range of initiatives, the study’s analysis reveals a growing consensus around the principles of AI accountability and auditability. Within the initiatives covered, a global convergence is emerging on the acknowledgment of the need for new standards that would detail measurable and testable levels of transparency so that systems can be objectively assessed for compliance. Particularly in situations where AI replaces human decision-making initiatives, the majority of the ethical statements adopted tend to agree that AI must be safe, trustworthy and reliable, and act with integrity. Throughout the ethical initiatives, there is also a general recognition of the need for greater public engagement and education with regard to the potential harms of AI. The initiatives suggest a range of ways in which this could be achieved. Such initiatives also pay particular attention to autonomous weapons systems, given their potential to seriously harm society.

Through the analysis of three case studies in the domains of healthcare robots, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the use of AI in warfare and the potential for AI to be used in weapons, the authors highlight particular ethical risks associated with AI at various stages. Their analysis enriches the current ethical AI discourse through a comprehensive appraisal of the actual ethical challenges and moral dilemmas that emerge during the process of the development and deployment of AI applications. The study further discusses emerging AI ethics standards and regulations and examines all major national and international policy strategies on AI. It highlights not only the diversity and complexity of the ethical concerns arising from the development of AI, but also the variety of approaches to and understandings of ethics. The authors identify notable gaps in the context of the current AI ethics framework, including: the consideration of environmental impacts; mechanisms of fair benefit sharing; exploitation of workers; energy demands in the context of environmental and climate change; and the potential for AI-assisted financial crime.

Based on this analysis, the authors put forward a series of policy options that centre on the need for cost-benefit studies and life-cycle analyses, which include environmental externalities, for minimum acceptable reporting requirements and new retraining programmes, and for social and financial support for displaced workers. Of particular importance are suggestions: to declare that AI is not a private good, but instead should be available for the benefit of all; to focus on those most at risk of being left behind; to make worker inputs more transparent in the end-product; and to develop appropriate support structures and working conditions for precarious workers. The authors propose the development of new forms of technology assessment, placement of the burden of proof on the developer to demonstrate safety and public benefits, and creation of a single regulatory body providing prescriptive guidance to national regulators, which could help to eliminate incoherent and conflicting sets of standards and guidance.

Overall, the study provides a useful starting point for understanding the inherent diversity of current principles and guidelines for ethical AI and outlines the challenges ahead for the global community. By shedding light on under-represented ethical principles and detailing the most important similarities and differences found across the various ethical initiatives, the study can potentially help policy-makers to establish a common ground amidst a fragmented AI ethics landscape.

Read the full study and accompanying STOA Options Brief to find out more.

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Digital contact tracing: Call for a stronger EU-wide approach

Written by Mihalis Kritikos,

There is no trade-off between privacy and health in the context of contact tracing applications as, without citizens’ trust, no technology can deliver the expected outcomes. That was the main conclusion reached in the frame of the online high-level roundtable organised by the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on 7 July 2020. The last STOA event before the summer break brought together technology experts, privacy advocates, digital rights activists and representatives of the European Commission, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT Digital) in a debate on ensuring the effective deployment of this technology without compromising our values. As several EU Member States have recently deployed tracing apps designed to prevent a second wave of infections, questions arise about the efficiency, accuracy and privacy-friendly character of this technology.

The event was a timely occasion to discuss whether digital contact tracing has the potential to become a critical component of our efforts to control the spread of Covid‑19. It was also an opportunity to devise informed strategies to exit lockdown restrictions safely, coming only a few days after Member States, with the support of the Commission, agreed on a set of technical specifications to ensure safe exchange of information between national contact tracing apps based on a decentralised architecture.

There was a consensus among the panellists that, although hundreds of coronavirus contact tracing mobile applications are under development worldwide and are beginning to be deployed in Europe, there is currently limited evidence to evaluate their effectiveness and impact. Additionally, their implementation raises privacy and stigmatisation concerns and questions about their accessibility, inclusivity, accuracy and security that need to be addressed in a proactive and step-wise manner. This means putting the necessary safeguards and standards in place that would ensure that European citizens trust this technology. The panellists also agreed that digital contact tracing provides policy-makers with a unique opportunity to deploy a technology that could be socially beneficial and valuable in epidemiological terms, if designed in an inclusive way and implemented under specific legal and ethical conditions. Participants agreed that it is the first time that privacy is a recognised design feature of a technology gradually being deployed across Europe.

The event was opened by STOA Chair and moderator of the event, Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), who argued that contact tracing apps must respect users’ privacy, work across devices and operating systems, and add value to the epidemiological monitoring of the pandemic without creating risks of exclusion. A presentation followed of the European Commission’s initiatives in the field of digital contact tracing by Marco Marsella, Head of the ‘eHealth, Well-being, and Ageing’ Unit in the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT) of the European Commission. Marsella highlighted that the Commission and the Member States cooperated on the technical and legal aspects of these apps from the very beginning, which was crucial for the shaping of an effective response and the development of a common EU toolbox. Diego Ciulli, public policy manager at Google, explained the Exposure Notifications System that Google and Apple created jointly to fight the pandemic through contact tracing. He emphasised that technology is only one tool to fight Covid‑19 and these apps can only complement manual contact tracing by guaranteeing safety and privacy in order to earn citizens’ trust. Professor Michael Backes, founding Director and CEO of the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security, emphasised that Germany’s decentralised Corona Warn App, already downloaded by more than 15 million Germans, will clearly not on its own provide a panacea for the pandemic. However, it can enable earlier identification of new infections, helping to isolate infected people before they become contagious themselves. He argued in favour of privacy-by-design, and the interoperable and voluntary nature of these apps as key to their uptake and success. Christof Tchohl, Research Director at Research Institute/Red Cross Austria described the lessons learned in the deployment of Europe’s first contact tracing app. According to Tchohl, the Austrian Stopp Corona-App, launched in March 2020, faced a series of legal and technical challenges that led to its reprogramming to a more decentralised and privacy-friendly system. Leonardo Cervera Navas, Director of the Office of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) advocated an interoperable, pan-European approach towards contact tracing, which should empower citizens in this pandemic crisis rather than stigmatise them. He further emphasised that data protection should be considered part of the solution as it can render the transparency and accountability necessary for trustworthiness. Privacy and ease of use are crucial for the success of any contact tracing technology, according to Willem Jonker, CEO of EIT Digital. He presented the contact tracing system using physical tokens that EIT Digital is currently developing as an alternative technical option for virus tracing, and which is independent of apps and mobile platforms.

Following the experts’ presentations, Eva Kaili emphasised the need to enhance the interoperability and epidemiological value of these apps to help millions of Europeans travel more easily this summer by removing barriers and grounding safety protocols on solid data. She further argued for the need to talk about contact alerts and contact safety instead of contact tracing, as the latter may suggest tracking people’s movements and undermining the right of privacy. In her closing remarks, Petra De Sutter (Greens/European Free Alliance, Belgium), Member of the STOA Panel, thanked the participants and argued in favour of the need to render all contact tracing apps compatible at least within the EU. Finally, she urged for a stronger EU-wide approach in the design of the terms of deployment of this technology, as well as in the sharing and comparability of the data collected.

If you missed out this time, you can watch the webstream.

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Negotiations on the next MFF and the EU recovery instrument: Key issues ahead of the July European Council

Written by Alessandro D’Alfonso, Marianna Pari, Magdalena Sapała,

© European Union 2020: EC – Audiovisual Service; Claudio Centonze

The current multiannual financial framework (MFF), also known as the EU’s long-term budget, comes to an end this year. While the European Commission put forward a proposal for the next MFF and its financing in May 2018, agreement has so far proved elusive under legislative procedures that give a veto power to each Member State. In recent months, the unfinished negotiations have become intertwined with the debate on the creation of a common EU tool to counter the severe socio-economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. In May 2020, the Commission tabled revised proposals for a 2021-2027 MFF worth €1 100 billion and the EU own resources system, together with a proposal for a €750 billion recovery instrument, Next Generation EU (NGEU). The latter would be financed with funds borrowed on the capital markets to reinforce EU budgetary instruments in the 2021-2024 period. In addition, an amendment to the current MFF would provide a bridging solution to fund some recovery objectives this year already. The complex negotiations, which involve many different legislative procedures, are now entering a key phase. Issues expected to be under the spotlight include: the size of the MFF and of the NGEU and their interaction; reform of the financing system with the possible creation of new EU own resources; the breakdown of allocations (between policies and Member States); the contribution to the green transition; conditionalities (such as rules linking EU spending to the rule of law or to challenges identified in the European Semester); flexibility provisions to react to unforeseen events; the mix of grants and loans in the recovery instrument; and the repayment of funds borrowed under NGEU. European Council President Charles Michel has prepared a compromise package ahead of the July European Council meeting. If the Heads of State or Government find a political agreement, the next step will involve negotiations between Parliament and Council, since the former’s consent is required in order for the MFF Regulation to be adopted. Parliament, which has been ready to negotiate on the basis of a detailed position since November 2018, is a strong advocate of a robust MFF and an ambitious recovery plan. It has stressed that it will not give its consent if the package does not include reform of the EU financing system, introducing new EU own resources.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Negotiations on the next MFF and the EU recovery instrument: Key issues ahead of the July European Council‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Jacques Delors: Architect of the modern European Union

Written by Wilhelm Lehmann and Christian Salm,

© Communautés européennes 1985, 1990 – EP

The consensus among most historians of European integration and political scientists is that Jacques Delors, who served as President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, was the most successful holder of that post to date. His agenda and accomplishments include the EU single market, the Single European Act, Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the rapid integration of the former German Democratic Republic into the European Community. His combination of coherent agenda-setting and strong negotiating skills, acquired through long experience of trade union bargaining and years of ministerial responsibilities in turbulent times, puts Delors above other Commission Presidents, whether in terms of institutional innovation or the development of new Europe-wide policies. He also showed himself able to react swiftly to external events, notably the collapse of the Soviet bloc, whilst building Europe’s credibility on the international stage.

This Briefing records Delors’ life across its crucial stages, from trade union activist, senior civil servant, French politician, and Member of the European Parliament, to the helm of the European Commission, where he left the greatest individual impact on European integration history to date. It also traces the most important ideas that guided Delors in his national and European roles. Finally, it describes the political events and key actors which made Delors’ decade in office a time of important decisions and progress in the process of European integration and, in doing so, it draws on recent academic literature and on speeches Delors gave in the European Parliament.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Jacques Delors: Architect of the modern European Union‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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A crossroads of disciplines: How nanotechnology is revolutionising medicine

Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Sara Suna Lipp

How nanotechnology is revolutionising medicineNanotechnology, making it possible to manipulate matter on a ‘nano’ scale, emerged in the early 1980s. More recently, nanotechnology has become the intersection at which several scientific disciplines converge. The convergence of physics with biology has led to many scientific discoveries and nanotechnology applications, transforming the future of biology, and providing new solutions for medicine and healthcare. These include nano-sized artificial motors, built using biological molecules; while nanomedicine targets cancer cells, delivers drugs and battles antibiotic resistance bacteria. The recent coronavirus crisis demonstrated nanotechnology applications’ importance to finding fast and innovative solutions, such as for the detection and identification of viruses.

The online STOA workshop ‘The big future of nanotechnology in medicine‘, proposed and chaired by Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, Spain) and STOA Panel member, was held on 25 June 2020. The workshop highlighted recent developments in nanotechnology and nanomedicine and provided a view of consumer perception and ethics in the field, as well as responsible research and innovation. Lina Gálvez Muñoz introduced the event, emphasising that the discussion on nanotechnology is even more relevant in the light of the recent coronavirus crisis. She welcomed the expert speakers: Sonia Contera, Professor at the Oxford Physics Department and author of Nano Comes to Life; Laura M. Lechuga, Professor at ICN2 and head of the CONVAT project; Maurizio Salvi, Senior Policy Analyst in the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) Unit, European Commission; and Roxanne Van Giesen, Senior researcher in consumer research at CentERdata.


Keynote speaker Sonia Contera provided a historical perspective of developments in nanotechnology. She mentioned that, based on consumer and public responses, nanotechnology was one of the first technological sectors in the EU with a formal agenda for ethics and responsible innovation, pioneering this approach in the world. She explained that a new kind of nanotechnology is bringing together synthetic biology with computer sciences and physics, thus embracing biological complexity to create novel materials, drugs and future applications. In this context, she reviewed recent developments such as new antibacterials, cancer immunotherapies and vaccines, 3D-printed organs or organs-on-a-chip. Sonia Contera concluded by stating that the approach of science and technology is changing by adapting to the complexity of nature and highlighted the importance of diversity and multidisciplinarity in science to face the challenges of the 21st century.

The coronavirus crisis has shown that novel diagnostic tools for rapid, sensitive and specific testing and population screening are essential to tackling infectious outbreaks. Laura M. Lechuga, head of the CONVAT project (one of the first projects funded by the Horizon 2020 European Union framework programme to fight Covid‑19), explained that there are currently three different Covid‑19 diagnostic strategies. These are: (i) detection of the virus RNA genetic material by nucleic acid tests; (ii) detection of the intact virus by antigen detection tests; and (iii) detection of antibodies by serological tests. She described the limitations of each test; and highlighted the aim of the CONVAT project: to create point-of-care nanobiosensors that can provide fast, sensitive, massive and quantitative diagnostics. She concluded that the distinctive feature of nanophotonic biosensors, where light interacts with viral particles to produce a specific and quantitative signal, ranks them as a highly competitive technology. These tools will also make it possible to monitor animal reservoirs for the detection of new emerging viruses.


Maurizio Salvi, argued that nanotechnology is one of the most successful examples of ethical, legal and societal issues being strongly reflected in the innovation strategy in the field. He explained that, from the very beginning, nanomedicine has addressed issues such as safety, informed consent, non-discrimination in terms of accessibility, and the precautionary principle from an ethical viewpoint. He pointed out that different nanomedicine applications are evaluated separately. Governance of the nanotechnology sector at the European level shows an effort to embed the complexity of implications into a global strategy, however no unique solution addresses these ethical, legal or societal issues, and debates on national and local level are highly important.

Consumer perception significantly influences the development of technologies, as society can either accept or reject a new technology, and nanotechnology is no exception. Roxanne Van Giesen, a senior researcher on consumer perception, explained that such opinions are based on affect or cognition. She noted that applications more closely linked to the body, such as food or water, are more likely to raise societal concern, and rely more on emotions than knowledge. Interestingly, however, her data on nanomedicine showed similar acceptance levels as for conventional medicine. This underlined the fact that people more readily accept technologies when they are used in health/life-saving applications. The acceptance and success of this technology, she concluded, greatly depends on communication and increasing factual knowledge by building on existing knowledge of the target audience.


In the subsequent discussion, the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity in science emerged as a key message. Public trust and consumer perception can only be influenced in a positive way if discussions are inclusive. Furthermore, the success of a nanotechnology application depends on the full synergy of different disciplines from the beginning of research and development to the end product.

In her concluding remarks, Petra De Sutter (Greens/EFA, Belgium) and STOA Panel member underlined the many ethical and policy-making challenges linked to nanotechnology. She pointed out that, as with artificial intelligence, policy-making in the nanotechnology field should follow a risk-based approach dependent on applications. She highlighted the importance of regulatory frameworks that are evidence-based and promote public trust. Petra De Sutter concluded the workshop by pointing out that the legislative sector also needs to move from reductionism to acknowledging complexity and interdisciplinarity in order to address complex technologies such as nanotechnology.

The full recording of the meeting is available here.


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Towards a revision of the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive

Written by Jaan Soone,

Power supply connect to electric vehicle for charge to the battery. Charging technology industry transport which are the futuristic of the Automobile. EV fuel Plug in hybrid car.

© Buffaloboy / Adobe Stock

In the December 2019 European Green Deal communication, which aims to reboot the EU’s efforts to tackle challenges related to climate change and the environment, the European Commission proposed to review the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive.

The Directive was adopted in 2014 to encourage the development of alternative fuel filling stations and charging points in EU countries, and required Member States to put in place development plans for alternative fuels infrastructure. However, according to a 2017 Commission evaluation, the plans did not provide sufficient certainty for fully developing the alternative fuels infrastructure network, and development has been uneven across the EU.

Car-makers and alternative fuels producers, clean energy campaigners and the European Parliament have called for the revision of the Directive, to ensure that sufficient infrastructure is in place in line with efforts to reduce emissions in the transport sector and to help meet the climate and environment goals set out in the Paris Agreement and the Green Deal.

On 27 May 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Commission proposed the recovery plan for Europe in which it puts even greater focus on developing alternative fuel infrastructure, electric vehicles, hydrogen technology and renewable energy, repeating its intention to review the 2014 Directive.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Towards a revision of the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Outlook for the special European Council meeting of 17-18 July 2020

Written by Ralf Drachenberg,

© Shutterstock

Based on an updated ‘negotiating box’ presented by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on 10 July, the special meeting of the European Council on 17-18 July will aim at finding a political agreement on the EU recovery fund, entitled ‘Next Generation EU’, and the multiannual financial framework (MFF) for the 2021-27 seven-year financing period. It will be the first meeting of EU Heads of State or Government to take place in person since the coronavirus outbreak. The last such physical meeting of the European Council – held on 20-21 February, prior to the crisis –failed to reach a political agreement on the EU’s long-term budget. The revised negotiating box, taking into account the Commission’s updated MFF proposals – adopted alongside, and linked to, its recovery fund proposals – envisages a reduced MFF amounting to €1.074 trillion. Furthermore, Charles Michel’s proposals maintain the balance between loans and grants for the recovery fund proposed by the Commission. While a lot of pressure is being applied to find an agreement urgently, it remains to be seen whether EU leaders will agree a deal at this meeting or whether yet another meeting will be needed. In any case, the current MFF negotiations have already taken much longer than was originally intended, potentially jeopardising the timely launch of the EU’s new spending programmes.

1. Consultations aiming at a compromise on the 2021-27 MFF and the recovery plan

Following the video-conference meeting on 19 June – which was the first occasion for Heads of State or Government to discuss and obtain clarifications on the proposals put on the table by the Commission on a revised MFF and on the recovery fund – Charles Michel launched a series of consultations with all the Member States, thus opening the negotiation phase.

When presenting the results of the 19 June meeting, Mr Michel also expressed awareness of the need to swiftly reach political agreement on the long-term budget. As the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, recalled when addressing that meeting, a political agreement in the European Council, once reached, does not end the negotiations, which can only be concluded with an agreement between the Parliament and the Council. A further delay in the adoption of the next MFF regulation could indeed negatively impact the timely launch of new EU programmes, and thereby the recovery of the EU economy.

2. Charles Michel’s new ‘negotiating box’

Based on the consultations held over recent weeks, on 10 July, Charles Michel presented his updated ‘negotiating box’ – a document aimed at facilitating the gradual completion of negotiations to prepare the final deliberation in the European Council. This replaces the earlier one he had presented on 14 February 2020, which was unable to generate the necessary consensus.

As stressed during his press conference, the latest Michel proposals are firmly ‘grounded in the political priorities of the European Union, climate transformation, digital agenda, European values and a stronger Europe in the world’, as outlined in 2019-24 EU Strategic Agenda. They aim at ensuring recovery following the coronavirus crisis and at mitigating the economic and social consequences thereof. Thus, the current proposals are built around three broad objectives: ‘first convergence, second resilience and (then) transformation. Concretely, this means: repairing the damage caused by Covid‑19, reforming our economies and remodelling our societies.’

The revised negotiation package addresses six issues: i) the size of the MFF, ii) the size of the recovery fund, iii) the existence and size of rebates, iv) the balance between grants and loans, v) the allocation criteria for funding, and vi) the link between the recovery fund, its governance and the role of different institutions as well as national reforms.

1) Overall size of the MFF: President Michel’s current compromise proposal envisages a reduced MFF of €1.074 trillion, in comparison to the Commission’s proposal of €1.1 trillion. It remains very close to the figure presented by the European Council President at the special European Council meeting in February. However, the proposed size of the long-term budget falls far short of the European Parliament’s ambitions for the Union for the next seven years. As underlined in a joint letter to the European Council from five of the seven political groups in the European Parliament ahead of the 19 June meeting, ‘the Union must meet its objectives and tackle the challenges thrown at it by the 21st century. The only way forward is to adopt a robust MFF for 2021-2027. [However,] the revised Commission proposals on the next MFF fall short [on] a number of commitments and ambitions. We will continue to defend Parliament’s position in the upcoming negotiations and we will not compromise on the future of the European Union’. Speaking to EU leaders at that meeting, President Sassoli stressed that the Parliament considered the Commission’s ambitious proposal as a starting-point and ‘will accept no retreat from this initial position, but rather seek to improve it’.

2) Overall size of the recovery instrument: According to Charles Michel, the recovery fund would remain at €750 billion, as proposed by the Commission.

3) Rebates: The negotiating box also envisages the continuation of the rebates or ‘budget correction mechanisms as lump sums’ for Austria, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. The European Commission proposed to phase out the current rebates over time, whilst the European Parliament has called for ‘the abolition of all rebates and corrections’.

4) The balance between loans and grants: The revised negotiating box aims to maintain the balance between loans and grants as proposed by the European Commission, i.e. €500 billion in grants and €250 billion in loans. As the grants include sub-categories relating to budgetary guarantees, in practice this translates into a three-way split of 58 % grants, 33 % loans, and 9 % budgetary guarantees (see EPRS Briefing on Next Generation Europe). As emphasised by the leaders of five political groups in the above-mentioned joint letter to the European Council, ‘we believe that [€]500 billion in grants is the bare minimum to provide a credible European response to such a huge crisis. We oppose any reduction’.

5) The allocation criteria for the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF): Charles Michel has reiterated that the objective is to ‘establish a real link between the Recovery Plan and the crisis’, and that funding should primarily go to countries and sectors most affected by the crisis. Therefore, 70 % of the RRF will be committed in 2021 and 2022 in accordance with the Commission’s allocation criteria. The remaining 30 % will be committed in 2023, taking into account the drop in GDP in 2020 and 2021. The total envelope should be disbursed by 2026.

6) Governance/conditionality: The last element of the revised negotiation package has three components:

  • The reform and resilience national plans: Based on the Commission’s country-specific recommendations, Member States will be required to prepare national recovery and resilience plans for 2021-23, in line with the European Semester. The plans will be reviewed in 2022, and the assessment of these plans will be approved by the Council by qualified majority vote (QMV), on a proposal by the Commission. The European Council President’s proposal would give a stronger role to the Council throughout the process, with a view to ensuring better implementation and a greater sense of ownership. This clearly implies limited involvement of the European Parliament in the process, and a lack of parliamentary oversight of implementation. As stressed by the five main political groups in the European Parliament, ‘we … will continue to strive for the full involvement of Parliament in the establishment and delivery of the Recovery Instrument with the aim of increasing its transparency and democratic accountability. We will use all means at our disposal to achieve this objective’.
  • Climate change: In order to reach the EU objective of climate neutrality by 2050, Charles Michel proposes to earmark 30 % of funding for climate-related projects. It is worth recalling that the topic of climate change was, prior to the pandemic, due to be discussed at the June 2020 European Council meeting, but that the point was absent from the video-conference discussions. This thus postponed to an unspecified point in time the debate on the end of the temporary exemption granted to Poland in December 2019, when the country announced that it could not commit to ‘the objective of achieving a climate neutral economy by 2050’. Securing the green envelope in the form proposed by the European Commission in May 2020 might enable Poland to commit to the 2050 climate objective, since the country would be among the top three beneficiaries of the Just Transition Fund.
  • Rule of law and European values: President Michel proposes to establish a strong link between funding and respect for governance and rule of law, thus maintaining his proposal from February on a new budget conditionality, which would allow the Council to adopt sanctions in the form of withdrawal of funding by QMV. However, this new budget conditionality has been substantially weakened in comparison to the Commission proposal, which envisaged that a recommendation on measures to be applied to a failing Member State would be subject to reverse qualified majority in the Council (i.e. a qualified majority would be needed to block the proposal, rather than to approve it). In this context, Mr Michel also proposed to ‘increase the funding for Rule of Law and values projects, through additional financing for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Justice, Rights and Values Programme, with a special focus on disinformation and to promote media plurality’. He stressed that the framework would result in ‘a system of permanent rule of law monitoring’.

Other elements of the negotiating box

  • Repayments and own resources: Charles Michel proposes that repayments should start earlier, in 2026 rather than in 2028 as proposed by the Commission. In his view, this would enhance the pressure to introduce new own resources. He suggests that such own resources be introduced in three priority areas: plastic waste, a carbon adjustment mechanism and the digital levy. Subsequently, the Commission should come back with a revised proposal on the emissions trading system (ETS) and work would continue on a financial transaction mechanism. The introduction of new own resources is a crucial point for the European Parliament: as stressed in the joint letter from five political groups, ‘the Parliament would only give its consent to the next MFF if a basket of new own resources were to be introduced’.
  • New Brexit reserve: The negotiating box also includes a new Brexit reserve of €5 billion to counter unforeseen consequences in the most affected Member States and sectors.
  • Health: Funds for RescEU and health would increase in line with the Commission proposal, in order to respond to coronavirus and its consequences of.
  • Cohesion funding: Charles Michel has also stated that, whilst his revised MFF proposal was lower than the Commission proposal, the allocations for cohesion money should remain at the same level. Thus, his negotiating box also includes cuts and scaling back of policy areas such as Horizon Europe (the research programme) and Erasmus+. This approach goes against some important priorities of the Parliament, and notably announcements made by President Sassoli after the June 2020 meeting, with ‘the Parliament aiming to increase the allocation for the Erasmus+ programme.

3. Recent developments

On 8 July, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, invited the Presidents of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, the European Council, Charles Michel, and the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, President-in-Office of the Council of the EU, to an Article 324 TFEU meeting, to discuss the state of play in the negotiations on the next MFF and Next Generation EU. The four Presidents stressed that it would be essential for EU Heads of State or Government to reach an agreement at the upcoming European Council meeting, in order to allow the inter-institutional negotiations to start. They agreed to stay in close contact throughout the coming weeks and months. A similar Article 324 TFEU meeting took place on 27 June 2013, during the negotiations on the 2014-20 MFF. Two significant differences ought to be pointed out. First, the earlier meeting only included the presidents of three institutions (Martin Schulz for the Parliament, Enda Kenny for the Council and José Manuel Barroso for the Commission) and did not include the President of the European Council (then Herman Van Rompuy). Indeed, the Treaty does not mention the European Council with respect to the MFF, and provides for discussion within the institutional triangle. Second, the earlier meeting took place after a political agreement had been found in the European Council meeting of 7-8 February 2013.

On the same day as that four-way meeting, Charles Michel also outlined the conclusions of the 19 June 2020 European Council meeting during the plenary session of the European Parliament, and discussed with MEPs the preparation of the European Council meeting of 17-18 July. During the debate, MEPs emphasised the crucial importance of adequate financing for the long-term budget, and the critical need to introduce new own resources for the EU budget, without which the Parliament would not give its consent. President Sassoli reiterated that ‘for the European Parliament, the proposal of the European Commission is not a point of arrival, but the minimum basis from which to start. We cannot and must not go backwards. We will fight for the success of this proposal with all the means at our disposal.’ MEPs reminded Mr Michel that ‘a deal in the Council is not the final deal’, as the Parliament will have a final vote before the 2021-27 MFF can enter into force.

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Plenary round-up – Brussels, July 2020

Written by Katarzyna Sochacka and Clare Ferguson,

Plenary session - Presentation of the programme of activities of the German Presidency - First round of Political group leaders - MEPs Debate

© European Union 2020 – Source : EP/Laurie DIEFFEMBACQ

The July 2020 plenary session was the fifth conducted with Members participating remotely, using the alternative voting procedure put in place in March by Parliament’s Bureau, although a majority were present in Brussels. During this session a number of Council and European Commission statements were debated, with the presentation of the programme of activities of the German Presidency a highlight. Members also debated the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 19 June and preparation of the meeting of 17-18 July 2020. Members heard Council and Commission statements on Union policy on preventing money laundering and terrorist financing, on the state of play of Council negotiations on the proposed regulation on the protection of the Union’s budget in case of generalised deficiencies as regards the rule of law in the Member States, and on cultural recovery in Europe. Parliament also debated a Commission statement commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Members debated statements from the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, on stability and security in the Mediterranean and the negative role of Turkey, and on the situation in Belarus. Parliament voted on a number of legislative proposals and resolutions including on the European citizens’ initiative, a resolution on the humanitarian situation in Venezuela, and a chemicals strategy for sustainability.

EU post-coronavirus public health strategy

Members heard statements from the Council and Commission on the post-coronavirus public health strategy, which were followed by a debate on the measures required to reorganise EU assistance for various specific sectors following the pandemic and in light of its expected economic consequences. Parliament adopted, by a large majority (526 votes to 105 and 50 abstentions), a resolution in favour of stronger health cooperation and creation of a European Health Union. In learning lessons from the coronavirus crisis, Parliament underlined the need for common minimum standards and equal access to healthcare. To prepare for possible resurgence of the pandemic, Members called for a European Health Response Mechanism. Parliament also welcomed the newly proposed EU4Health programme.

Cohesion policy role in the coronavirus pandemic recovery

The Commission responded to an oral question on the role of cohesion policy in tackling the socio-economic fallout from Covid-19, agreeing with Parliament that a decision on the legislation regulating cohesion spending and the revised EU budget proposals is urgent.

Road transport: Social and market rules

Parliament adopted at second reading three important files on social and market legislation aimed at ending distortion of competition in the road transport sector and providing better rest conditions for drivers. The ‘Mobility Package’ now becomes law, ensuring better working conditions for freight drivers, fairer competition and measures to tackle illegal practices, as well as clear rules on posting of drivers to ensure equal pay.

Amending Budget No 5/2020: Continuing refugee and host community support

By a large majority (557 votes to 72 and 59 abstentions), Parliament approved draft amending budget (No 5) to the 2020 EU general budget, seeking to extend the humanitarian support currently provided for refugees and host communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as a result of the Syrian crisis. Following this amendment, €485 million will maintain funding of the EU’s humanitarian support in Turkey, and €100 million will be used to fund projects assisting refugees in Jordan and Lebanon through mobilisation of the contingency margin in 2020.

Annual report on the European Investment Bank’s financial activities

Members adopted a resolution based on the Committee on Budgets’ report on the 2019 annual report on the European Investment Bank’s financial activities. The report welcomes the EIB’s reinforced focus on the EU priorities of green investment and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, but underlines that the bank can still do more in this direction. The report also expresses concern regarding continued exceptions for gas projects, the geographical coverage of EIB lending, the use and control of intermediaries to disburse external lending, as well as transparency towards other EU institutions.

Annual report on control of the EIB’s financial activities

The EIB’s move towards greening the EIB’s investment policy is also a focus of the Budgetary Control (CONT) Committee’s annual report on control of the EIB’s financial activities in 2018. Members adopted a resolution based on the report, which covers the activities of the EIB and the types of transactions and relationships it deals with in detail. The need to ensure funding for climate sensitive projects, and to ensure that ethics, integrity, transparency and accountability are key in all EIB activities was highlighted in the report.

2018 report on protection of the EU’s financial interests – Combating fraud

Members also adopted (421 votes to 167 and 93 abstentions) a resolution the 2018 report on protection of the EU’s financial interests and the fight against fraudulent use of EU funding, where a 25 % fall in the number of irregularities compared to the previous year is counterbalanced by the amounts involved having nevertheless risen by 183 %, necessitating continued vigilance and action by the EU Member States.

Boosting Roma inclusion process in Europe for the next decade

Members also heard and debated a Council and Commission statement on plans to adopt a new EU policy framework to tackle socio-economic exclusion and discrimination against Roma peoples. Parliament has already drawn attention to the need for stronger measures and will be making recommendations for the new EU framework for the equality and inclusion of Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

Annual human rights report 2019

Members held a joint debate on statements by the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, on the 2019 annual report on human rights and democracy. The report provides an overview of EU actions to promote human rights worldwide, using development instruments, trade conditionality, external policies and diplomacy. The debate is just the first stage in a process under which Parliament will prepare its own report later in the year, providing indications for future measures, in advance of the adoption of a new EU action plan on human rights.

Opening of trilogue negotiations

Members confirmed (without a vote) two Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE) mandates on a European Institute of Innovation and Technology and on the strategic innovation agenda of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. They also confirmed an International Trade Committee (INTA) decision to open negotiations on Union rights for the application and enforcement of international trade rules, and an Employment & Social Affairs Committee (EMPL) decision on enhanced cooperation between public employment services.

Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Plenary round-up – Brussels, July 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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