Written by Clare Ferguson,
With Covid 19 vaccination campaigns in full swing, the 17 to 20 May 2021 plenary session could potentially be one of the last sessions where Members exclusively follow the debates and vote from home. A full agenda features measures to move forward on meeting EU climate ambitions, data protection, and votes on a number of programmes under the 2021 2027 multiannual financial framework, among other issues.
As environmental matters have risen to the top of the EU agenda with the European Green Deal, Members are expected to vote on Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) own-initiative reports on developing EU strategies on hydrogen and on energy system integration following a joint debate (scheduled for Monday evening). The transport, buildings and industry sectors still rely heavily on the use of fossil fuels, a situation that should change if the EU is to reach its climate neutrality ambition. The ITRE committee points out that an EU hydrogen strategy should be based on clean hydrogen and that measures to speed up hydrogen market and value chain development are required. The committee also underlines the need to balance energy systems and to ensure energy accessibility. Crucial energy efficiencies could be achieved through investing in upgraded EU energy infrastructure, storage and interconnections, as well as encouraging consumers to play their part too, for instance by contributing to energy production. The EU’s climate ambitions underlined in the European Green Deal also require far-reaching change in regions currently reliant on production and or use of fossil fuels, and high-emission industry. In recognition of the difficulties this poses for the populations affected, the EU is set to launch its Just Transition Fund, should Parliament agree to formalise the compromise reached with the Council (following another Monday evening debate). Parliament has had considerable input in the final agreement, securing voluntary top-ups from cohesion policy, conditionality on climate neutrality, higher co-financing rates and a new Green Rewarding Mechanism. While Parliament’s ambitions for a larger budget did not prevail, the final agreement nevertheless allocates €17.5 billion to helping workers who lose their jobs in fossil fuel production, as well as the transformation to clean energy technologies. Finally, the issue of access to justice on environmental issues under the Aarhus Convention returns to plenary (on Wednesday evening). Members are expected to debate and vote on an Environment Committee (ENVI) report that should pave the way for negotiations with Council. If finally agreed, the changes would open up the review mechanism to allow qualified members of the public other than NGOs to challenge acts that breach environmental law. Third parties could also be permitted to comment, and court proceeding costs could be limited to ensure full accessibility to legal redress.
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In a joint debate scheduled for Thursday morning, Members will discuss two files concerning the thorny and long-debated issue of international transfers of personal data. A first draft resolution, tabled by Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), concerns the Schrems II ruling, which forbids the transfer of personal data to a non-EU country (the United States in this case) without an equivalent level of data protection. The committee’s draft resolution maintains Parliament’s position that, without reform, surveillance laws in the USA prevent the Commission adopting a new adequacy decision. As the United Kingdom is also now a third country, an interim solution has been found but runs out next month, and the European Commission has drafted a, much-criticised, proposed adequacy decision. The second LIBE draft resolution therefore calls for improvements to the decision in view of the UK’s level of data protection.
Debates are scheduled for Tuesday evening on several programmes where the EU particularly supports young people. Parliament is keen to continue support for the European Union Youth Orchestra and seeks a special focus on the music industry and cinema in the 2021‑2027 continuation of the Creative Europe programme. Parliament is expected to vote at second reading on the proposal, and has already indicated that it is keen to see the €1 842 million (36 % more than the previous programme) budget support cultural projects, in an area hard-hit by the Covid‑19 pandemic. One of the EU’s most known and best-loved programmes, Members are also likely to adopt at second reading the regulation on Erasmus+. While Parliament did not manage to raise the budget for this flagship policy as much as it had hoped, it has secured an extra €1.7 billion and has insisted on ensuring the inclusion of young people with fewer opportunities in the target of 12 million participants. The programme will continue to translate strategy on education, training, youth and sport into opportunities for EU students. Parliament is also expected to debate its adoption at second reading of the proposed revision of the European Solidarity Corps Regulation, where Parliament’s negotiators have secured a number of modifications to focus the programme on volunteering opportunities for young people in solidarity and humanitarian projects, particularly outside their home country, including a 15 % increase on the previous budget.
The European Commission issues regular reports on the situation in EU accession countries. On Tuesday afternoon, Members will debate Parliament resolutions on the European Commission’s latest country reports on Turkey and Montenegro. The 2019 and 2020 reports on Turkey reflect the strained nature of EU relations with the country in the light of backsliding on democratic values and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. While Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) has many concerns regarding Turkey’s commitment to the rule of law, democratic values and women’s rights, it has also pointed out that Turkey is hosting some 4 million refugees. Until relations improve however, accession talks are effectively at a standstill, and prospects for modernisation of the Customs Union remain suspended. A candidate for accession since 2008, the Commission’s reports on Montenegro show progress in accession negotiations and demonstrable respect for democratic standards in recent elections. Nevertheless, the AFET committee is critical of the lack of progress on freedom of expression and media freedom in the country.
With a view to further strengthening cooperation between EU countries on tax issues, a vote on formal adoption of the regulation setting up the Fiscalis programme for 2021‑2027 is also expected, on Wednesday evening. Following Parliament’s successful negotiations of an increased budget (€269 million), mainly earmarked for IT systems to support EU tax policy and cooperation.
Finally, in a little housekeeping under the current year’s finances, Parliament is expected to vote to approve Amending Budget No 2/2021, along with a decision mobilising the EU Solidarity Fund to provide (somewhat overdue) assistance to those hit by natural disasters in France and Greece, and to help 17 Member States and 3 accession countries to face the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Among other issues, the amending budget sets aside financing for the EU Covid‑19 response, including the yet-to-be-agreed ‘digital green certificate’. Parliament’s Committee on Budgets underlines that any decision regarding the amending budget does not mean that this proposal is automatically accepted, and regrets that the Commission has combined so many urgent issues and technical adjustments in a single amending budget.