Written by Clare Ferguson,
Parliament’s second plenary session in October will be the first ever to be held entirely virtually, due to the ongoing pandemic. Despite meeting online, however, Members will nevertheless address a full agenda that features, among other things, the conclusions of the European Council meeting and discussion of the future relationship with the United Kingdom, as well as hearing the European Commission’s plans for its work programme for 2021. Parliament will also announce the laureate of the Sakharov Prize for outstanding achievements in the service of human rights, on Thursday.
The session commences on Monday evening with an important joint debate on efforts to regulate new technologies to ensure that they maximise benefits to people in the EU while also minimising the risks. Parliament has long called for revision of the outdated EU framework for online services, particularly in the light of large discrepancies in application of the rules between EU countries. In advance of the expected Commission proposal on a Digital Services Act package, Parliament’s committees have tabled three reports setting out an initial position on the revision. An Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee legislative-initiative report details the measures necessary to update legislation to reflect new information society services. These should ensure that the rules apply to all goods and services providers, regardless of where they are located, and better protect EU consumers against fraudulent practices, targeted advertising, and automated decisions. The parallel Legal Affairs (JURI) Committee legislative-initiative report recommends standards to which platforms should be held and the application of different approaches to ‘legal ‘and ‘illegal’ online content. The report seeks to balance the requirements to protect both users’ rights and their right to freedom of speech. The Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee own-initiative report echoes the IMCO and JURI concerns and calls for improved cooperation between service providers and national supervisory authorities, as well as the creation of an independent EU body with the power to sanction online operators who do not comply. While the Commission is not obliged to include Parliament’s position in its proposal, its President has pledged to take account of Parliament’s views.
Parliament has also been active in considering the implications – both positive and negative – of harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, for the lives of people in the EU. In the same joint debate on Monday evening, Parliament will also consider three reports from the JURI committee on ethics, civil liability, and intellectual property in artificial intelligence, setting out Parliament’s positions. The first legislative-initiative report deals with the requirements for a framework of ethical principles for the development, deployment and use of AI, robotics and related technologies, which will be vital to ensuring innovation takes a direction that protects people’s rights. A second legislative-initiative report sets out recommendations for a legal framework for civil liability that identifies a hierarchy of risks, and measures to compensate for harm caused by the technology. A third own-initiative report highlights the need to foster the free flow, access, use and sharing of data, while also protecting intellectual property rights and trade secrets.
Tuesday morning will be devoted to another important joint debate, on the Commission’s package of three legislative proposals to overhaul the common agricultural policy (CAP) for 2021‑2027. While Parliament supports modernisation of the CAP, it warns against moves to introduce budget cuts, particularly in view of the challenges facing this vital sector, which needs to restructure to play its part in protecting the environment and rural communities, and to attract younger people to the sector. One of the proposals seeks to combine interventions under two pillars of the CAP (income and market support, and rural development) in a strategic plan for all expenditure. Another concerns the improved financial management of CAP funding, with Member States allocated greater responsibility for conformity and control of agricultural support funding. A further Commission proposal concerns amendments to regulations on agricultural product quality schemes – specifically wine production in the EU’s outermost regions, including controversial issues regarding authorised wine grape varieties and the labelling of plant and dairy-based meat substitutes. Parliament is expected to adopt its position for negotiations with Council following the debate.
Agricultural production – of which the EU is a major importer – is also a major driver of global deforestation. On Wednesday afternoon, Members return to efforts to halt the continued loss of forests, which are so vital to the fight against climate change. An Environment, Public Health & Food Safety (ENVI) Committee legislative-initiative report calls on the European, Commission to take regulatory action to prevent products associated with deforestation or forest degradation from entering the EU market. The ENVI committee proposes an EU framework to protect forests worldwide, guaranteeing that commodities imported into the EU are legal and sustainable, and that safeguards indigenous peoples and local communities’ human rights.
In view of the strategic review of PESCO taking place this year, later on Monday evening, Members will consider the implementation and governance of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the EU’s Treaty-based military and defence cooperation mechanism that aims to boost EU responsibility for its own security in a vastly more challenging geopolitical environment. Under PESCO’s binding commitments, participating Member States aim at achieving a competitive European defence industry through collaborative projects. Parliament has long supported the creation of PESCO. However, it is critical of certain shortcomings, including the lack of coherence between, and strategic justification for, projects to date. Parliament also calls for increased scrutiny powers, including for national parliaments.
Parliament is also expected to vote on recommendations on relations with Belarus on Tuesday afternoon, following a report from the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) on relations with Belarus. While agreeing with the overall EU stance towards Belarus following the disputed August 2020 elections, the AFET committee supports the general EU line of action, recommends that Parliament decline to recognise Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus and calls for a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
With exclusive competence to grant, postpone or ultimately refuse discharge for the execution of the EU budget (once the Council has delivered its recommendation), Parliament returns on Monday evening to the discharge of the 2018 EU general budget for the European Council and Council and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Having postponed a decision in May 2020, Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control (BUDG) has re-examined the files and proposes that Parliament refuse discharge in both cases. Parliament has seen no change in the lack of cooperation from the European Council and Council, specifically on accountability and transparency, which has led Parliament to refuse to grant discharge since 2009. Parliament also considers the EESC has displayed a lack of accountability, budgetary control and good governance of human resources in relation to serious misconduct by one of its senior members.
Finally, the last agenda item on Monday evening concerns a request to mobilise €2 054 400 from the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund to support workers who have lost their jobs as a result of financial difficulties at two shipyards in Galicia (Spain). Parliament’s Committee on Budgets (BUDG) report on the proposal agrees with the proposal to support workers, which will also help them to reskill in what was already a region of low employment before coronavirus struck.