Written by Clare Ferguson,
Now that both the new Parliament and the new European Commission are in place and making their positions clear on a number of fronts, Members return to a full agenda for the February plenary session in Strasbourg.
This year’s European Union (EU) budget is the last under the 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework (MFF). Time is therefore pressing to finalise negotiations on the MFF for 2021-2027. However, negotiations on the proposals put forward by the previous Commission are proving rather complicated, not least due to the withdrawal of a major net contributor, the United Kingdom, from the EU. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, has called an Extraordinary European Council Meeting on the MFF, scheduled for 20 February 2020, to attempt to finalise an agreement on the proposed new structure for EU finances, which aims to shift the priority for spending towards a climate-resilient economy. Members are due to hear statements from the European Council and Commission on Wednesday morning on the preparation of that meeting. Parliament will also hear Council and Commission statements on the previous morning, on the negotiating mandate for the negotiations for a new partnership with the UK. Members are expected to vote on a resolution on the subject on Wednesday.
Parliament will also hear a statement by the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, on the EU response to the United States Middle East plan proposed by US President Donald Trump and referred to as the White House plan. While Parliament will not vote a resolution on the subject, the EU position and its strong commitment to a two-state solution that respects international law is already well established.
An important aspect of relations with non-EU countries, Members will continue on the theme of international trade in a joint debate on Tuesday morning. Parliament is then set to vote (on Wednesday lunchtime) on whether to consent to two trade agreements with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The agreements (a Free Trade Agreement covering exclusive EU competences, including customs and competition rules, and an Investment Protection Agreement based on competences, such as agriculture and environment, that are shared with EU Member States), could see exports to Vietnam rise by almost 30 %. Although there is some concern regarding the human rights situation in the country, Parliament’s committees scrutinising the proposed agreements have concluded that engaging with Vietnam is the best way to encourage improvement. The agreements must subsequently be ratified by Vietnam (as well as EU Member States in the case of the IPA), before entering into force.
With so much focus in the news on the effects of globalisation and giant multinationals, it may be easy to forget that companies with fewer than 250 employees account for 99.8 % of non-financial firms in the EU, and create 85 % of new jobs. The Commission has not forgotten, and uses its ‘SME Test’ to look at the impact of new legislation on such companies. Parliament is a staunch supporter of a business-friendly EU where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and innovators benefit from a level playing field, and promotes the use of impact assessment to gauge the effects of new legislation on SMEs in particular. The Commission will make a statement to plenary on Monday evening on the progress made with minimising the impact of EU legislation on SMEs through the better regulation initiative. It may also give an indication of what to expect in the new industrial strategy for Europe, expected in March 2020 and its communication on better regulation, expected sometime afterwards.
Christine Lagarde will attend the plenary session on Tuesday afternoon for the first time in her capacity as President of the European Central Bank (ECB), for the presentation of an Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee report on the ECB’s annual report for 2018. Reflecting on the rather mixed economic results of the period, the committee points out the need for a review of ECB monetary policy, with full Parliament involvement, as well as public consultation. It also underlines the ECB’s responsibility to consider the impact of policy on the environment, and urges the ECB to continue to improve transparency and communications with citizens. The report also calls for better gender balance on the ECB Executive Board and Governing Council.
Progress towards gender equality more generally has stalled, and the current Parliament has lost no time in demanding a robust EU gender equality strategy. The Commission will make a statement on Wednesday afternoon on its proposals for a new gender equality strategy, the preparation of which involved informal input from the Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). Following a related plenary debate on 18 December 2019, Members are also due to vote on a motion for resolution on Wednesday lunchtime on the EU strategy to put an end to female genital mutilation around the world. Parliament has long been active in raising awareness of the need to act to end the practice, which it considers a form of persecution, as part of its combat against all forms of violence against women and girls.
For the strengthened European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG – formerly Frontex) to carry out its work in support of EU countries’ border and migration management, it needs to be able to verify the documents presented by people wishing to cross the EU’s external borders. However, the proliferation of both authentic and fake documentation makes the agency’s work that much harder. On Wednesday evening, Members will debate the details of a provisional agreement with the Council (and vote the following day) on the online system collecting False and Authentic Documents Online (FADO). Under the agreed text, the EBCG will take over management of the system, which stores details of travel, identity, residence and civil status documents, driving and vehicle licences issued by Member States or the EU. Personal data will be kept to the minimum necessary for operations and availability filtered according to status, such as authorities involved in document fraud, or the general public.
Finally, the Council and Commission will also make statements on the ongoing threat to the Rule of law in Poland on Tuesday evening.