Written by Clare Ferguson,
European citizens are running out of patience with companies and people who do not pay their fair share of the taxes that support services for everyone. The agenda for Parliament’s second plenary session of March opens with a debate on Monday evening on the report of Parliament’s TAX3 Special Committee on the progress made and the work still to do to tackle financial crimes, tax evasion and tax avoidance. In response to successive scandals highlighting the extent of the issue, the committee proposes greater scrutiny over Member States’ tax systems, including the role of loopholes such as letterbox companies; stronger investigatory capabilities; and greater recourse at national level against money laundering activities.
With a view to reassuring EU citizens that taxpayers’ money is properly managed, all EU institutions are required to present their ‘accounts’ for scrutiny on an annual basis. Parliament then makes its ‘discharge’ decisions based on Budgetary Control (CONT) committee reports on the European Court of Auditors’ annual assessment and the Council’s recommendations. Most of Tuesday afternoon will therefore be taken up with a joint debate and vote on 53 reports recommending whether or not to agree to discharge the 2017 budget for the European Commission and all executive agencies, as well as EU joint undertakings (public-private partnerships) and decentralised agencies and the other EU institutions. This year, CONT proposes to grant discharge to the Commission and to all six executive agencies, as well as to all eight joint undertakings – subject to some improvements in financial management. The committee recommends granting discharge to all but one of the 32 agencies – the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) – in the light of irregularities uncovered by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
While the focus on economic, single market and climate change, external relations and disinformation had to make way for further discussion on Brexit at the European Council meeting of 21 and 22 March 2019, (Members are due to hear European Council and Commission statements on the conclusions on Wednesday morning), Parliament will debate a number of salient issues during this session.
One of these, possibly bringing two years of negotiation to a close, concerns a debate on a compromise agreement on copyright in the digital single market on Tuesday morning. This highly contentious file deals with the opportunities and drawbacks of creating, producing, distributing and exploiting content online, and the balance to be struck between remunerating creators and publishers, and protecting consumers. Between them, proposed Article 11 on the status of hyperlinks (press publishers’ rights) and Article 13 on the value gap (best known for the controversy over memes) have generated quite a few headlines. Although a text has been agreed, some EU Member States continue to oppose the compromise on the proposed new directive.
Members are also due to debate three sensitive files relating to overhauling the current legislation on road transport on Wednesday morning. Parliament had previously referred the three reports, on driving times, posting and cabotage, back to the Transport committee. However, the committee could only reach agreement on the cabotage file, which seeks to clarify the rules for international haulage operations, particularly on minimum turn-around times. Nevertheless, political groups will be able to table amendments to the proposals on social and market rules that seek to level the playing field between posted and local drivers and improve working conditions.
In a joint debate on Monday evening, Members debate compromise agreements on four proposals for new rules regarding the internal market for electricity. Squeezed between the necessity to respond to climate change and the need to guarantee affordable fuel supplies for citizens and businesses, the electricity market faces multiple challenges. The proposed changes to the rules would give consumers stronger rights when dealing with electricity suppliers, and provide extra protection for vulnerable consumers. Still on consumer rights, Parliament will also consider proposals to harmonise the EU rules on representative actions for the protection of the collective interests of consumers later on Monday evening. Although the proposed rules do not provide for the type of class action seen in the USA, they seek to make it easier for groups of consumers whose rights are violated to launch a collective action for redress, and to obtain compensation if successful. Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee is keen to ensure that the qualified representative entities that would be authorised to mount such actions (rather than lawyers) are required to disclose publicly how they are financed, organised and managed.
On Wednesday afternoon, Members return to the legislative proposals on reducing the impact of plastic products on the environment, particularly plastic marine litter. An agreement reached with Council extends bans on products beyond cutlery, plates, and straws to include oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene packaging. The proposals also set out annual collection rates for recycling plastic fishing gear, among other measures, which could ultimately become binding. Members are also likely to vote to formally adopt an agreement on a Commission proposal to transpose recommendations from the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean into EU law on Tuesday. The measures, supported in a Fisheries committee report, aim to encourage fish stock recovery and protect vulnerable habitats in the Adriatic, Alboran and Black Seas.
In another initiative to deter harmful effects on the environment on Wednesday afternoon, Members will debate an agreed text on CE-marked fertilising products. While inorganic fertilisers increase crop yields, they can also contain harmful chemicals, such as cadmium. The agreement proposes gradual reduction of the heavy metal content in fertilisers, with a longer transition, and to extend legislation to cover organic or recycled waste alternatives, ensuring a high level of protection of human, animal, and plant health, safety and the environment. Parliament will also vote on formal adoption of the next in a series of proposals to amend the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive to protect workers against exposure to a further number of cancer- or mutation-causing chemical agents on Wednesday. The five priority chemical agents include formaldehyde, cadmium and arsenic, among others, and the measures seek to provide clarity in the workplace for workers and employers alike.
As it becomes more common for investors to consider the environmental sustainability of their economic activity, Members will debate the establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment on Thursday morning. A joint report from Parliament’s Economic Affairs and Environment committees agrees that gradual harmonisation of what ‘environmentally sustainable’ actually means will help investors throughout the EU to ensure that their investments take account of the environmental impact over the entire value chain and the life-cycle of technologies. However, the committees’ report also warns against creating unnecessary administrative burden.
Finally, central counterparties provide guarantees on financial performance. In the light of the financial crisis, Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs wishes to ensure that this important role is fully supported with effective recovery plans. On Wednesday Members are to vote on proposals that central counterparty recovery and resolution include comprehensive stress-testing to avoid that central counterparties themselves become a systemic risk.