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Plenary round-up – Strasbourg, February 2020

Written by Katarzyna Sochacka and Clare Ferguson,

© European Union 2020 – Source : EP / Michel CHRISTEN

Highlights of the February session included debates on a review of economic governance; the revised enlargement methodology proposed by the Commission; a breach of Council Decision 2017/2074 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Venezuela; the current situation in Syria; on fighting against antisemitism, racism and hatred across Europe; as well as on the ongoing threat to the rule of law in Poland. Members also adopted a resolution on the illegal trade in companion animals. They debated the state of play in the EU’s fight against money laundering (in light of the Luanda Leaks); the humanitarian situation of refugees at EU external borders; and the coronavirus outbreak. Members also voted on a resolution on EU priorities for the 64th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Preparation of the extraordinary European Council Meeting on the MFF

Members called for an ambitious compromise on the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027, hoping for early European Council agreement. 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 in the UK. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, has called an extraordinary European Council Meeting on the MFF, scheduled to start on 20 February 2020, to attempt to finalise an agreement on the proposed new structure for EU finances, which aims at shifting the priority for spending towards a climate-resilient economy.

Mandate for negotiations for a new partnership with the UK

Members discussed statements from the Council and Commission statements on the negotiating mandate for the negotiations for a new partnership with the UK. By a very large majority, Parliament adopted its position on the EU-27’s priorities for negotiations, due to open in March, between the EU and the UK on a post-Brexit cooperation agreement, including trade. Parliament reiterated the well-known EU-27 principles: that a non-Member State must not have the same rights and benefits as a Member State; the single market’s four fundamental freedoms of movement are indivisible; the EU legal order and the role of the Court of Justice must be preserved; a level playing field must be ensured through guaranteed equivalent standards in social, environmental, employment, competitive, and State aid matters; and the EU’s financial stability must be underpinned by a balance of rights and obligations with proportionate financial contributions where appropriate.

Ongoing threat to the rule of law in Poland

A large majority of Members reiterated their concerns about the controversial reform of the Polish judicial system and, more broadly, about the state of the rule of law in Poland, underlining the continuing threat to the rule of law in Poland and the urgency of action.

SMEs and better regulation

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. Members debated a Commission statement on the progress made with minimising the impact of EU legislation on SMEs through the better regulation initiative. The Commission gave 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.

United States Middle East Plan: EU response in line with international law

Parliament also debated 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 US Middle East plan proposed by US President Trump (‘the White House plan’). While there was no vote on the subject, the EU and Parliament are strongly committed to a two-state solution that respects international law.

Gender equality strategy

Progress towards gender equality has stalled, and the current Parliament has lost no time in demanding a robust EU gender equality strategy. The Commission made a statement 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 adopted a resolution 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.

Free Trade and Investment Protection Agreements with Vietnam

Parliament gave its consent to the EU’s conclusion of two trade agreements with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The agreements (a Free Trade Agreement covering exclusive EU competences, and an Investment Protection Agreement based on competences 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.

European Central Bank – annual report 2018

Christine Lagarde attended the plenary session for the first time in her capacity as President of the European Central Bank (ECB), for the debate on an Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee report on the ECB’s annual report for 2018. Reflecting on the rather mixed economic results over that year, the committee pointed out the need for a review of ECB monetary policy, with full Parliament involvement, as well as public consultation. It also underlined the ECB’s responsibility for considering the impact of policy on the environment, and urged the ECB to continue to improve transparency and communication with citizens. The adopted report also calls for better gender balance on the ECB Executive Board and Governing Council.

False and authentic documents online (FADO)

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, and border guards more generally, 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. Members debated and voted by a large majority to approve the upgrading of the False and Authentic Documents Online (FADO) system. 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.

Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Plenary round-up – Strasbourg, FebruaryI 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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