Written by Clare Ferguson,
The agenda for the final European Parliament plenary session of 2018 includes Council and Commission statements on the preparation of the last European Council meeting of the year, scheduled for 13-14 December 2018, a debate with the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, on the Future of Europe, and important interventions on human rights.
This year marks a number of important human rights anniversaries: 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 25 years since the Vienna Declaration, and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations declaration on human rights defenders. On Tuesday evening, Members will debate the Foreign Affairs Committee’s annual report on human rights and democracy in the world for 2017, which this year focuses on the mainstreaming of human rights into EU and Member States’ external action. The report bears witness to the shrinking civil space and increasing restrictions human rights defenders face worldwide, the mushrooming threats to media freedom, and the migration issues that continued to disadvantage the vulnerable throughout 2017. On a more positive note, the report applauds the EU’s signature of the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, as well as the work of the human rights services of the European Commission and the European External Action Service, including the Special Representative for Human Rights.
This session also marks the 30th anniversary of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, one of the actions through which the European Parliament supports human rights, which this year goes to imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Awarded for a specific achievement in human rights, the 2018 Sakharov Prize is recognition of Sentsov’s courageous contribution to the ‘Euromaidan’ resistance against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and as a representative of political prisoners worldwide.
Against the background of continuing Russian aggression in the region, Members will also debate a report on progress on implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement on Tuesday evening. While the report acknowledges the progress the country has made on implementation in very difficult circumstances, it nevertheless expresses dissatisfaction with the continued level of corruption and politicisation in the country’s institutions.
Protesters against inequality throughout the world, such as the recent ‘gilet jaunes‘ movement, increasingly include fair taxation of the digital economy among their demands. A joint debate on a digital services tax is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, where Members will debate a report on two proposals: for an interim digital services tax on revenues from certain digital services, and for corporate taxation of a significant digital presence. The first proposal would broaden the Member States’ tax bases, by making revenue from digital content services – video, audio, games, and the processing and sale of user data – taxable in the short term. The second, for a permanent system, would define the circumstances under which a digital company’s ‘significant digital presence’ in a country would make it liable to pay tax, based on levels of revenue, or numbers of users or contracts. The final rules, however, will be decided by unanimity in the Council.
Although a little less evident in the press recently, terrorist threats have not disappeared from the Parliament’s radar. On Tuesday afternoon, the final report of the Special Committee on Terrorism will be debated, covering its findings and recommendations on the fight against terrorism in the EU. The report highlights that, while each Member State is responsible for its own national security, cooperation is vital to effective counter-terrorism and intelligence. The committee also underlines that an effective fight against terrorism requires, among other things: an appropriate data retention regime; an EU centre of excellence for preventing radicalisation; swift removal of terrorist content posted online; external borders that are well secured through interoperable databases and biometric checks; checks on financial flows; better tracking of suspects; and tighter control of explosives and firearms.
Keeping citizens safe is also the focus of two proposals for debate on Monday evening. Members will return to the often controversial subject of risk assessment in the food chain, where the transparency of decisions taken by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to authorise use of substances such as glyphosate has attracted criticism. Parliament’s Environment, Public Health & Food Safety Committee has agreed a report which supports the European Commission’s proposal to revise the General Food Law, to publish commercial studies used by EFSA, as well as seeking to further limit confidentiality claims to widen public access. Members will vote on the report and decide whether to issue a mandate for negotiations to begin between EU institutions on the changes. Members will also consider a trilogue agreement on proposals that should benefit an estimated 15.6 million EU workers, through greater protection from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work, with a change to the law on exposure limits to certain chemical agents. The new rules would add eight chemicals, including engine oils and diesel engine exhaust emissions, to the scope of the current directive. In addition, in a joint debate on Tuesday night, Parliament will consider trilogue agreements on proposals to revise the statutes of three decentralised EU agencies that support the EU’s wider employment-related objectives: Cedefop, Eurofound and EU-OSHA. Reports from the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs confirm the need to define the agencies’ tasks to avoid overlap between them or with the Commission’s activities. A new governance structure proposed for each agency is expected to include independent representation on behalf of the Parliament on their management boards dealing with strategic and budgetary priorities.
On trade, Parliament is likely to decide to give its consent to the conclusion of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement and the Strategic Partnership Agreement, following a joint debate on Monday evening. The Strategic Partnership Agreement provides the legal framework for future EU-Japan relations, increasing the possibilities for cooperation between the two partners in areas such as combating climate change and cybercrime. Importantly for EU businesses, the Economic Partnership Agreement, the largest-ever bilateral free trade deal, will provide customs-free access to the Japanese markets for EU companies.
Where business agreements do not work out so well, the current number and pace of cross-border civil cases costs the European companies involved dearly, in terms of both time and money. On Wednesday evening, Members will consider a report requesting that the European Commission make a proposal on expedited settlement of cross-border commercial disputes. The report proposes the introduction of a European expedited civil procedure to solve cross-border business disputes, to cut costs and accelerate the process of adjudication to 6-12 months by instigating tight deadlines and ending lengthy appeals on procedural grounds.
Finally, Members will vote on the 2019 EU budget on Wednesday, provided the Committee on Budgets – in its Monday night meeting – endorses the agreement reached with the Council in trilogue on 5 December. This agreement is based on the Commission’s second proposal on a draft 2019 budget, following the failure by Council and Parliament to agree in conciliation on the first proposal. Members will also vote on Wednesday to approve the minor adjustments reflected in the draft amending budget (No 6) to the 2018 EU budget, required due to updates on economic forecasts. These include decreases based on new predictions for EU sustainable fisheries partnerships, and increases to mirror new information on levies, value added tax, and the gross national income bases for Member State contributions, as well as the necessary corrections due to the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.