Written by Clare Ferguson,
Responding to the novel coronavirus outbreak demands flexibility from everyone, and the European Union, and the European Parliament in particular, are no exceptions. However, there is a vital balance to strike between stopping the spread of the virus and maintaining the vital functions of our society. President David Sassoli therefore indicated that Parliament ‘must remain open, because a virus cannot bring down democracy’. As an interim solution, and respecting all necessary quarantine measures, an extraordinary plenary part-session on 26 March, in Brussels, will formally replace the session planned for 1‑2 April. As most Members are unable to travel, those not in Belgium will be able to participate via videoconference, and vote by email under a new procedure decided by Parliaments Bureau to enable this week’s session to go ahead. The agenda focuses on three urgent legislative proposals responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Use of the urgent procedure means that there are no reports on the proposals from the committees responsible, with the Commission’s proposals passing directly to the plenary, however it will be possible to table amendments to the proposals.
The first of the proposals seeks to amend the common rules on allocation of slots at EU airports. The Commission proposes to temporarily suspend rules obliging airlines to use their slots at EU airports, retroactively from 13 March 2020. This will ensure legal certainty for air carriers given the grounding of planes due to the drop in demand for flights and widespread travel restrictions. It will also end unnecessary emissions from near-empty (‘ghost’) flights that carriers might have been tempted to operate to maintain their rights. Under the current regime, known as the ‘use it or lose it’ rule, airlines must use their slots at least 80 % of the time during the period they are allocated, or see the slots, which are a valuable resource, allocated to others.
The second proposal seeks to institute specific measures to mobilise €37 billion from the cohesion funds for investment in Member States’ healthcare systems and to inject much-needed liquidity in other sectors, where businesses need to pay workers and overheads. The Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative will reallocate unused cash reserves available under the European structural and investment funds. The Commission proposes to use unspent 2019 advance payments to Member States to release €8 billion of investment liquidity to kick-start the initiative, with expenditure on crisis-response capacity eligible for funding retrospectively from 1 February 2020.
Finally, Parliament is expected to vote on a proposal to extend the scope of financial assistance already available to Member States and accession candidate countries under the EU Solidarity Fund. The Fund intervenes to help countries hit by major natural disasters. The Commission proposes that EU-level intervention under the Fund should also be justified in the case of a major public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 outbreak. The proposal seeks to speed up disbursement, and raise advance payments to 25 % of the expected EUSF contribution (limited to €100 million) to countries seriously affected by the crisis. However, under EU law, Parliament must agree before countries can receive assistance from the Fund.
Parliament will also hear statements from the Council and Commission on the coordinated European response to the COVID-19 outbreak.