Written by Clare Ferguson,
Members of the European Parliament certainly have their work cut out for them this month with a very full agenda, featuring budgetary discharge in respect of EU financial management in 2019, spending plans for a number of EU programmes in 2021‑2027, and a number of other legislative proposals, including on the proposed digital green certificate. The session will kick off with European Council and Commission statements on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 25 and 26 March 2021 and on the outcome of the high-level meeting between the EU and Turkey on 7 April 2021, overshadowed by protocol issues. A key point on the agenda will be the vote on Parliament’s consent to the Council decision concluding the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (which has been provisionally applied since 1 January, and could thus come fully into force on 1 May). Members will also debate a number of foreign affairs topics with the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, in particular the latest developments with Russia, not least the build-up of troops on the border with Ukraine. Members will then debate recommendations on EU-India relations, ahead of the May EU-India summit.
In a joint debate scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, Members will consider granting discharge for the 2019 EU budget. This annual exercise is carried out through 52 separate discharge decisions. The first batch concerns the European Commission, executive agencies and the European Development Funds, where Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) recommends discharge is granted. However, not without sounding the alarm regarding a deteriorating level of errors in spending and increasing incidences of fraud, particularly in agriculture and cohesion funding. The second set concerns EU institutions other than the European Commission, where, as every year since 2009, the CONT committee proposes to postpone the decision for the European Council and the Council, due to Council’s continued lack of cooperation. The committee recommends granting discharge for the expenditure of all other institutions, including the European Economic and Social Committee – although for the latter, observations are made regarding past cases of harassment. Finally, while various shortcomings are noted, the CONT committee recommends discharge is granted for a total of 31 of the 32 decentralised EU agencies subject to discharge. The committee proposes to postpone the decision in respect of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), due to issues with financial management and recruitment, as well as allegations of violations of fundamental rights.
Moving on to a number of proposals for EU funding for programmes in the 2021‑2027 financial period, Parliament is due to vote on the proposed regulation to tackle such fraud against EU finances on Thursday morning. The Union anti-fraud programme would build on the Hercules III programme. Parliament has negotiated a rise in the overall budget to €181.2 million, as well as to set the maximum rates for co-financing for grants at 80 % of the eligible costs.
On Tuesday afternoon, Parliament will debate and vote on funding for a new justice programme, specifically aimed at upholding EU values. Parliament is naturally a keen defender of citizens’ rights and core EU values and has fought hard for adequate funding for the measures. These include further development of a European area of justice based on the rule of law, mutual recognition and mutual trust, promoting justice for all and gender equality and LGBTQI rights in particular – issues that are not the subject of universal accord among the Member States. Members are also expected to vote on an agreement on a new citizens, equality, rights and values programme on Tuesday afternoon, complementing the justice programme and specifically aimed at funding the fight against inequality and discrimination in the EU.
Parliament is expected to debate and vote on the final agreement on the Union Civil Protection Mechanism on Monday evening. Here, Covid‑19 has highlighted the limits of what Member States can do alone, especially in situations that cross borders, and consequently the need for better EU preparedness to tackle natural and manmade disasters. Parliament has ensured that, of the €3.319 billion allocated, civil protection, prevention, preparedness and response to disaster measures are prioritised. The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund intervenes when employees are made redundant, often due to companies relocating their operations outside Europe. With such emergency solidarity funding likely to be under pressure due to the pandemic, Parliament is expected to vote on Tuesday afternoon on formal adoption of a proposal widening eligibility to include victims of restructuring and the Covid‑19 crisis and speeding up allocation of funds. With a maximum annual allocation of €186 million (outside the MFF), the fund will be renamed the European Fund for Transition.
The crisis has also galvanised moves towards greater strategic autonomy. On Thursday afternoon, Members are due to vote on Parliament’s second-reading position on a proposal aimed at ensuring that the EU is not left behind by big players, such as the United States and China, in the crucial strategic area of digital capacity. The proposed digital Europe programme is intended to fund investment in large-scale digital capacities in five key areas (advanced computing and data, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced digital skills), with a focus on technology such as supercomputers that would otherwise be too expensive for single Member States. Regulation of the digital space has been somewhat overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic recently, however posting of hate, violence and terrorist propaganda online has nonetheless continued. As existing self-regulatory measures appear to have failed, Members are expected to vote on an agreement for a new regulation addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online on Wednesday evening. The ambitious proposal seeks to remove content that seeks to radicalise, recruit or incite to violence within one hour of it appearing online. However, Parliament has insisted on striking a balance between removing such content and the need to protect fundamental rights, including the freedom of speech.
On Thursday afternoon, Members are expected to vote on a proposed new regulation on the LIFE programme, dedicated to environmental and climate objectives. Although, given the EU’s current ‘green’ priorities, Parliament initially called for €7 billion, the final proposal nevertheless allocates €5.45 billion for environmental initiatives, including a high number of biodiversity and ecosystem protection projects. Meanwhile, for anyone wishing to improve their personal carbon footprint by travelling long distance by train instead of by air, the issue of missed connections has proved a deterrent. This should improve with changes to the legislation on rail passengers’ rights and obligations. Parliament is due to vote on an agreement on Wednesday evening that strengthens passenger rights while reducing the burden on rail companies.
On Monday afternoon, Members will hold a joint debate on research and innovation in the EU. The Horizon Europe programme will have a budget of over €95.5 billion for the seven years, to support research and innovation addressing the Union’s key challenges such as climate change and digitalisation. Members are to vote on the agreed texts of the programme itself and on the specific implementing programme, which sets out more detailed provisions on the programme’s planned elements. They are then expected to vote on the final text of two proposals concerning the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Budapest, a key part of Horizon Europe. The proposals for a revised EIT regulation and a decision on the EIT strategic innovation agenda (SIA) reflect new funding priorities and the increased need to encourage economic growth and job creation through the EIT-led knowledge innovation communities. While Parliament proposed a €4.8 billion budget, protracted MFF negotiations led to a more constrained overall Horizon Europe budget, with a lower share for EIT of only €2.965 billion.
On Thursday morning, Parliament will vote on its second-reading position on establishment of the European Defence Fund. The proposals aim at reducing costly duplication of military procurement and research and technology activities. Tested under the previous EU financial framework, if the Fund is approved, €7 billion will be allocated to the first-ever multiannual financial programme supporting EU defence research and development.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, Members are expected to vote on a proposal to improve competitiveness. The single market, competitiveness of enterprises and European statistics programme aims at tackling existing and new barriers to competition and boosting consumer protection. The programme will allocate a budget of €4.2 billion according to six specific objectives, including improvements to EU law, market surveillance, sustainability and product safety, all underpinned by the availability of high-quality European statistics.