Written by Clare Ferguson,
While Parliament and its Members were hopeful that the plenary session would return to Strasbourg this month, the significantly higher Covid‑19 health risks for the local population as well as Members and staff mean that the 14-17 September 2020 session will take place in Brussels. The agenda, however, remains the same, with Members set to debate and vote on a number of files.
The highlight of the session will undoubtedly be on Wednesday morning, when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends plenary to deliver the annual State of the Union address before Parliament. This is an important moment to take stock of the year’s achievements and present priorities for the next 12 months. While the coronavirus pandemic has put paid to the Commission’s ambition to move away from a crisis-management mode, the political priorities outlined in the original six priorities for its mandate have been recalibrated to deliver on promises while also adjusting to the crisis scenario. One of those priorities – upholding fundamental rights and the rule of law – is the subject of a joint debate on Monday evening on Poland and the determination of a clear risk of a serious breach.
However bad the crisis, the EU budget must not exceed its revenues – known as own resources. The magnitude of the funding needed for the coronavirus recovery will therefore require new revenue streams, particularly if, as Parliament insists, common debt issued is repaid fairly, without burdening future generations. The European Council reached political agreement on the 2021‑2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF), next generation EU recovery fund (NGEU) and own resources in July 2020. Only consulted, Parliament has to adopt a legislative opinion on the EU own resources system agreement before Council can adopt that decision. Parliament’s Committee on Budgets (BUDG) has fast-tracked the procedure accordingly, treating it separately from the MFF proposals, and Members will vote on its opinion on Tuesday. The Committee insists that new own resource streams are introduced (from carbon, emissions, plastics, and digital and financial services taxation) to finance at least the entire repayment costs of the recovery instrument, and Parliament has requested a legally binding calendar for their introduction.
At the same time, notwithstanding any move to tax the carbon emissions that contribute significantly to climate change, EU efforts to reduce them continue. On Tuesday evening, Members are expected to vote on Parliament’s position for trilogue negotiations on the proposed establishment of a €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund to help regions that rely on fossil fuel and high-emission industries to invest in clean energy technologies, emissions reduction, site regeneration and reskilling of workers. On Monday, Members will consider an Environment, Public Health & Food Safety Committee (ENVI) report on reducing maritime transport CO2 emissions, where data gathering for monitoring is in need of reform. The committee report seeks to require shipping companies to reduce their annual average CO2 emissions by at least 40 % by 2030, with penalties for non-compliance. Again, the vote should establish the position for negotiations with the Council on the legislative proposal. Parliament will also vote on Monday on an ENVI own-initiative report on the EU’s role in protecting and restoring the world’s forests against deforestation caused by agriculture. Replacement of tropical forests worldwide with commercial crops such as palm oil, soy or beef continues at an alarming rate, threatening an irreplaceable resource crucial for fighting climate change, and EU action could reduce demand for such products.
The Council and Commission will make statements on Tuesday morning on the Covid‑19 situation, as regards EU coordination of health assessments and risk classification and the consequences on Schengen and the single market. Two files on the agenda pertain to the EU response to the coronavirus crisis, both tabled without report under the urgent procedure. On Monday evening, Members will consider Draft Amending Budget No 8/2020, which sets out the funding needed for the Emergency Support Instrument and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus to provide financing for deployment of a vaccine against the disease. It also covers reimbursement to Member States for actions to counter the public health crisis under the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus (CRII+). The same evening, Members will also debate a proposal to support a sustainable rail market in view of the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal would allow, temporarily and at least to the end of the year, measures to assist the rail sector face the effects of Covid‑19, including lower, waived or deferred track access charges. It would also allow Member States to support rail infrastructure managers to cover any financial losses brought about by the new relief measures until the industry can get back to normal operations.
On Tuesday morning, Council and the Commission will make statements on the preparation of the Special European Council, scheduled for 24-25 September 2020, which will focus on the dangerous escalation and the role of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. Alarmingly, since the discovery of offshore natural gas reserves in the region, Turkey continues to challenge its neighbours on the delimitation of their exclusive economic zones. Turkey’s illegal drilling and military interventions, including military force, intimidation and violations of the territorial waters and airspace of its neighbours has destabilised the whole region. A joint debate and statements by the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR) will follow. The VP/HR will also make statements on the worrying developments in Belarus, where the democratic environment has deteriorated sharply since the elections in August. Statements are also expected on the situation in Lebanon, and in Russia, following the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Parliament is expected to vote resolutions on these issues later in the day.
On Thursday, as is customary, the focus is on human rights issues. Before that, however, on Tuesday, Members will discuss a report on EU-African security cooperation in the Sahel region; a particular focus of EU efforts to build peace in a region destabilised by conflict in Mali, which has spilled over into neighbouring countries. The EU’s commitment to stabilisation in the Sahel is part of an overall focus on promoting peace and security in a deteriorating geopolitical environment worldwide.