Written by Clare Ferguson,
This month’s European Parliament plenary agenda sees MEPs back in Strasbourg, with the major focus of this month’s session on Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s address on the State of the Union, to be held at 09:00 on Wednesday morning. The speech is likely to look back at the reflections and scenarios proposed in the white paper on the future of Europe, presented by Juncker in March 2017, and signpost the direction the EU will take from today. Aiming to open a debate on the way forward, the Commission published further reflection papers on the prospects for deepening economic and monetary union and the future of EU finances, as well as consideration of the perspectives of greater protection of EU citizens through EU defence. Further papers cover boosting the social dimension of the EU and harnessing globalisation to the greater benefit of all EU citizens.
Two EU investment schemes, falling under Point 4 of Juncker’s 10 priorities (a deeper and fairer internal market with a strengthened industrial base), the European Venture Capital Funds and European Social Entrepreneurship Funds, were created to boost EU businesses by offering a new and simplified way to raise and invest capital in small European companies. Although the venture capital scheme has been a success, the rules applied led to a poor take-up of the funding scheme for social entrepreneurship. The EU now proposes to revise the schemes to make them more attractive, by removing limitations on managers, decreasing costs and widening the field of assets eligible for investment. Debate is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
A specific initiative to boost the EU’s social dimension is the first item on the agenda on Tuesday morning, which begins with a first reading of an initiative, approved by Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee, to promote internet connectivity in local communities, known as WIFI4EU. Access to fast fixed and wireless internet in the EU is somewhat uneven, and the Commission proposes to fund improvements over a period of three years to bring the EU up to the same standards as countries such as Japan and South Korea. The idea is to offer free wifi access in public places, such as libraries and hospitals, whilst also protecting citizens from data mining for commercial use, as well as advertisements.
Aiming to ensure that the 70 million people who live with disabilities in the EU can participate in European society without hindrance, Members will discuss proposed legislation on accessibility requirements for products and services (the European Accessibility Act), on Wednesday afternoon. With an ageing population, social cohesion measures are increasingly important to ensure the legal rights of disabled people to live independently. Parliament is likely to support the proposals, which seek to establish ‘accessibility principles’, rather than technical rules, for products and services such as computers, telephones, televisions, transport, and banking services.
Members are expected to vote to ensure solidarity through new rules on security of gas supply during this session, which will also be debated on Tuesday morning. To ensure that Member States have measures in place to guarantee the supply of gas to consumers in the event of a disruption to supplies or infrastructure failure, the EU wants countries to have well-defined contingency plans in place. These include regional solidarity plans that allow affected countries to purchase gas supplies from their neighbours, and a uniform list of customers for whom gas supply should be guaranteed in an emergency – which includes all households.
The EU’s values include combatting the clear violation of human rights that is violence against women. Monday’s session will debate an interim report on EU accession to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention – to which Parliament must give its consent. The Convention provides a framework for legally binding measures to prevent violence against women, and sets standards for a response to such acts, experienced by a staggering 33 % of European women. Parliament’s report raises some concern regarding the scope of the EU’s accession, as well as the lack of progress on ratification.
The EU is the second largest exporter of major conventional weapons in the world, with 26 % of total global exports in 2012-2016. Human rights concerns are also behind Parliament’s position that an embargo should be placed on EU arms exports to Saudi Arabia – currently the main destination (along with Egypt and Qatar) of EU arms export licences – in breach of the EU Common Position on control of arms exports. Members will vote on Tuesday afternoon on a resolution concerning implementation of the Common Position. The EU’s Common Position has encouraged transparency between Member States, but a report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee points to the need for a supervisory body to monitor implementation of the agreement, as well as increased possibilities for sanctions and continued transparency and information-sharing.
EU values are also customarily included in trade agreements with third countries, and this is equally the case concerning trade with Chile. While the EU’s political relations with Latin America will be discussed on Tuesday afternoon, Members are also due to take part in a joint debate on EU-Chile trade. The debate on Wednesday evening will explore possibilities to modernise EU-Chile trade relations, governed since 2002 by the EU-Chile Association Agreement. Seeking to reverse a relative fall in bilateral trade, Parliament is recommending an ambitious upgrade to the agreement, including further liberalisation of services. The proposals include an emphasis on retaining public service regulation in the hands of governments, and focuses on social, environmental and political values, as well as human rights. Parliament is also likely to give its consent to the ground-breaking EU-Chile agreement on trade in organic products, under which Chile and the EU agree mutual recognition of rules on organic food production.
The session closes on Thursday with the customary debates on cases of breaches of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.