Written by Clare Ferguson,
Pursuing its efforts to uphold vital democratic functions during this critical time, the European Parliament is again holding an extraordinary plenary session on 16 and 17 April 2020, using the temporary alternative voting procedure first used in March, and with a large amount of voting time on the agenda. Under Parliament’s rules, the urgent procedure (Rule 163) has been requested for a number of legislative and budgetary files concerning EU action in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the procedure, Members will first have to vote, on Thursday, to accept the use of urgent procedure, and would then go on to vote on the substance of the legislative and budgetary proposals, including on any amendments tabled, the following day.
Parliament will hear Council and Commission statements on EU coordinated action to combat the pandemic and its consequences on Thursday morning. This is likely to include news on progress towards SURE, the proposed temporary instrument to protect workers from unemployment and loss of income, complementing national efforts with up to €100 billion in support for ‘short-time work’ schemes and other measures. As Council may adopt measures to provide Union financial assistance to Member States who face severe difficulties outside their control, Parliament is not involved in this legislative procedure. However, should the Commission propose the creation of a permanent unemployment reinsurance scheme to strengthen the EU economy against such shocks in future, it is likely that Parliament will be fully involved.
Of course, the virus itself recognises no borders, and the EU’s international action will also be debated during the session. Even though international travel has been severely curtailed during the current lockdown, a global response is essential to prevent resurgence of the pandemic. The EU has already committed to a ‘Team Europe’ approach, using funding from the EU, Member States and financial institutions to prepare a €15.6 billion funding package to help EU neighbourhood countries and beyond tackle the health crisis and, further down the line, address health and preparedness capacity, aimed at reducing the risk of destabilisation in the face of worldwide crisis.
Members will undoubtedly focus on the measures to address the effects of coronavirus on which Parliament has to vote. Parliament’s Regional Development Committee has requested the urgent procedure for votes to take place on one of a second set of measures to tackle the crisis caused by the pandemic, the use of specific flexibility measures for European structural and investment (ESI) funds. Members are likely to vote on a proposal that would temporarily allow programmes dealing with the impact of the crisis to be financed up to 100 % from the EU budget between July 2020 and June 2021, as well as greater simplification and flexibility in the rules under which the resources are allocated.
Measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as restaurant closures and travel bans, have hit the fisheries and aquaculture sector particularly hard. Parliament’s Fisheries Committee have requested that additional proposals to support the industry are considered under the urgent procedure. Should Members agree, they would vote on a package of measures to supplement those already agreed under the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative. These would include support for a temporary end to fishing activities, including for aquaculture farmers, for storage costs and for greater flexibility and simplified procedures in allocating the funding.
In addition to those specific legislative measures, Members are expected to vote on a series of budgetary measures, including changes to the 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework (MFF) regulation and two amending budgets, to re-orientate current financing towards tackling the pandemic. The European Commission has proposed to amend this year’s EU budget to use three flexibility and last resort mechanisms (the Global Margin for commitments, the Flexibility Instrument and the Contingency Margin) to release €3 billion in emergency support for the healthcare sector. Complemented by €1.53 billion in payments for the reinforced Union Civil Protection Mechanism (rescEU), funding under the Emergency Support Instrument will be used for production, procurement, stockpiling and distribution of medical equipment, including testing kits, and construction of field medical facilities. However, lifting the existing restrictions on the scope of this flexibility first requires amendment to heading 3 ‘Security and citizenship’ of the 2014-2020 MFF regulation, for which European Parliament consent is required. This consent vote is thus expected to be held on Thursday, enabling the amending budget to be voted the following day. The move is not without precedent, as the ESI was extended to cover migration issues – however not without criticism of its ad hoc nature, as well as the lack of Parliamentary oversight of such measures that, conversely, a regulation would provide. A second proposal to amend the 2020 EU budget is also expected to be put to the vote, aimed at mobilising the Contingency Margin to alleviate the increased migratory pressure in Greece and earthquake recovery in Albania.
The procedure for voting during the session will follow that of the March II session, with Members voting by email.