Members' Research Service By / September 9, 2016

Summer’s over – September Plenary Session

The Parliament resumes work after the summer break this year with a number of high-profile issues on the agenda.

© European Union 2015 - European Parliament

Written by Clare Ferguson,

Sunset outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg
© European Union 2015 – European Parliament

The Parliament resumes work after the summer break this year with a number of high-profile issues on the agenda, not least of which is employment policy, which remains an issue of close concern for European citizens. Each year, the European Commission proposes common priorities and targets for employment policies, taking economic policy into account, which are then approved by Member States and adopted after consultation with Parliament. In 2016, however, the Council maintained the 2015 employment guidelines. The European Parliament is critical of this approach, considering the guidelines insufficiently aligned with the Europe 2020 strategy targets to raise employment, encourage education, and guarantee decent working conditions. With 120 million EU citizens currently at risk of poverty and social exclusion, Members will debate a report by the Employment and Social Affairs Committee on the guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States, which calls for urgent measures to ensure a fair standard of living conditions for European citizens.

One area where the Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee wishes to see both workers and consumers adequately protected is the postal services sector. With the advent of the internet and shopping online, almost everything in postal services has changed – parcel delivery has all but supplanted that of letters. Parliament will assess the effects of these developments on the EU postal services market on Wednesday evening, in particular looking at the effectiveness of the EU’s 2008 Postal Services Directive.

Terms like ‘multinational enterprise’, ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘aggressive tax planning’ have become in some ways the antithesis to moves to fight poverty and create a fairer society. Members will therefore hear a Commission statement on Wednesday afternoon on the Apple state aid decision with much interest. The investigation into tax rulings made by Ireland goes back to 1991, and joins decisions taken against Starbucks, Fiat and a pending investigation into consumer goods giant Amazon. It is certain that this will not be the last time the subject of tax regimes is debated in plenary.

SOTEU 2016

The Commission’s ruling is sure to figure prominently in the key debate of the September Plenary session, scheduled for Wednesday morning, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will give his State of the Union address to Parliament. The speech provides an opportunity to assess the Commission’s progress against the ten priorities set by Juncker in 2014, particularly in view of the continued gap between EU aims and citizens’ expectations. Contrary to last year’s agenda-setting speech, the President’s 2016 State of the Union will have to tackle a rather sombre catalogue of challenges, from continued economic difficulties, through the migratory crisis, to the United Kingdom decision to leave the EU. Regarding the latter, the Civil Liberties Committee will hear the Commissioner-designate for Security Union, Sir Julian King, the United Kingdom’s replacement for Lord Hill, in a meeting on Monday evening. Under the EU Treaties, the Council appoints new Members of the European Commission in agreement with the President of the Commission, after consulting Parliament. The Committee has submitted questions to Sir Julian on matters of general competence and European commitment, as well as the management of the Security Union portfolio and cooperation with Parliament. An interinstitutional agreement requires that the Commission President consider Parliament’s opinion regarding any appointment. A vote on the Committee’s recommendation following the hearing could then take place on Thursday, in plenary.

Listen to podcast: State of the Union [Plenary podcast]

Following the joint debate on energy on Monday evening, MEPs will devote the rest of the evening’s debate to EU cohesion policy. First in line is a debate on a Regional Development Committee report on boosting SME competitiveness using EU structural and investment funds. The term ‘small and medium-sized enterprise’ describes 99% of all businesses in the EU, which employ around 90 million people. These businesses face challenges in finding customers, and skilled staff, among others, and the Committee proposes that local and regional authorities join efforts to strengthen their competitiveness, to reduce the administrative burden on small businesses and enhance the possibilities for them to obtain financing. EU support already allocated to support SMEs during the 2014-2020 period equals nearly €64 billion. A joint debate on SMEs will also be held on Wednesday evening, with reports on access to finance and harnessing their job creation potential.

The importance of taking a regional approach is also highlighted in an own-initiative report from Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso, for debate on Monday evening, encouraging the development of research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation. Countries and regions taking a smart specialisation approach blend different policy areas, such as industry and innovation, to focus on a limited selection of priorities for investment. Over €40 billion is available to regions to fund their economic, social and territorial development under the European Regional Development Fund; however, allocation of the funds is dependent on their having a smart specialisation strategy in place.

One of the effects of the migratory crisis and the recent spate of terrorist attacks has been the partial temporary reintroduction of border controls in some EU Member States, prompting memories of times when crossing borders to work, make a delivery, or for a holiday, was less straightforward. As European territorial cooperation is one of the main priorities of EU cohesion policy, Members will debate a report on the use of Interreg programmes to tackle the negative effects of the current crisis in border areas. Calling for the Commission and the Member States to boost the profile of, and the budget for, European territorial cooperation within cohesion policy post-2020, questions nevertheless remain as to whether this will be sufficient to allow the Interreg programme to respond flexibly to new priorities.

Remaining then on the subject of migration, while the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will make a statement on the UN High-level Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on Tuesday, Wednesday afternoon sees the Parliament return to the subject of the continuing migration crisis. Members will debate the first-reading compromise negotiated with the Council on proposals for a more efficient and harmonised travel document for migrants who remain in a country illegally, often discarding their identification papers to avoid return to a non-EU country. It is widely considered that effective return of third-country nationals will help to discourage irregular migrants from travelling to Europe. However, whilst readmission of nationals is an obligation under international customary law with which all states are required to comply, the current European travel document used is criticised by third countries for its vulnerability to fraud and abuse, thus holding up the return of migrants to their country of origin.

Listen to podcast: European travel document for illegally staying migrants [Plenary podcast]

A large proportion of migrants come from the African continent, the geographical focus of this week’s plenary session, with a debate scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on EU relations with Tunisia in the current regional context, in which violence in Libya has resulted in over 1.8 million people seeking refuge in the country. The country has recently seen a new government formed; and while the EU has been supportive of Tunisia’s efforts since the ‘Jasmine Revolution’, and indeed it has fared better than other countries in the region, some concerns over human rights remain. To complement the IMF’s US$2.9 billion programme to promote stronger growth in Tunisia, in July the EU committed to grant a further €500 million in macrofinancial assistance to assist the country in its progress towards democracy. Remaining on the subject of Africa, Parliament will discuss whether to give consent to the conclusion of an Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and the SADC EPA Group of southern African countries, including South Africa, which establishes an asymmetric free trade area aiming to shield local African markets from competition with developed EU countries. With sustainable development a top priority, the agreement seeks to help southern African nations to industrialise, while protecting sensitive sectors from surges in trade. This year the CITES CoP17 world wildlife conference will be held in Johannesburg. The plenary session will include oral questions and a motion for resolution on the key objectives for the conference. The problem of wildlife trafficking has, in particular, reached unprecedented levels, leading to the recent EU action plan against wildlife trafficking calling for stronger law enforcement to counter the heavy depletion of populations of certain species.

September also marks the halfway mark for the Parliament’s special Committee of Inquiry into Emission Measurements in the Automotive Sector – the moment at which the Committee is due to produce its interim report. Although, pending the ongoing investigations, the interim report does not draw any conclusions; the Committee will detail an overview of its activities to date on Tuesday morning, including some criticism of the European Commission’s cooperation in the investigation to date.

On Tuesday afternoon, attention will turn to Council and Commission statements on the recent political developments in Poland and the consequences for fundamental rights in the country, as laid down in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. A European Added Value Assessment, prepared earlier this year to accompany the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee’s report on fundamental rights, concluded that a gap indeed exists between the proclamation of fundamental rights by EU institutions and Member States and the actual situation regarding respect of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Could an interinstitutional pact on monitoring and enforcement bridge the gap?

Finally, Members will vote on Wednesday on a second reading of the proposal to harmonise the technical requirements for granting navigation certificates to inland waterway vessels. The proposal aims to boost navigation safety on Europe’s canals and rivers by establishing a single certification process.

A list of all material prepared for this Plenary Session:
European travel document for illegally staying migrants (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Application of the Postal Services Directive (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Inquiry into emission measurements in the automotive sector (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Technical requirements for inland waterway vessels (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Employment policy guidelines for 2016 (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Smart specialisation and EU cohesion policy (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)
Boosting the competitiveness of SMEs through the Structural and Investment Funds (available in DE – EN- ES – FR – IT – PL)

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