Written by Clare Ferguson,
The European Parliament returns to Strasbourg this month (though still in a hybrid format), for the first time since February 2020. This welcome sign that life is returning to a form of normality in Europe means that many Members who travel to Strasbourg will have direct experience of the issues addressed by an important point on their agenda – the Digital Covid Certificate. As we enter the second summer under coronavirus restrictions, many people in the EU are hoping to be able to travel at last, to visit loved ones or for a holiday. Parliament agreed to an accelerated procedure to consider the proposals for a digital Covid certificate, with the aim of allowing EU countries to open their borders without worsening the coronavirus situation. The co-legislators have agreed to a compromise on this proposal, now named the ‘EU Digital Covid Certificate’, and the system should be in operation by 1 July 2021. Parliament has ensured that the testing required is more affordable and accessible, through the allocation of around €100 million for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. If necessary, EU countries may still impose duly justified additional restrictions with 48 hours advance notice. A second proposal covers travel for third-country nationals within the EU. Members are expected to debate the final adoption of the texts on Tuesday morning.
Over 60 % of European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which employ 100 million people, have reported a fall in turnover in 2020. Members will take part in a joint debate on the State of the SMEs Union on Monday evening and have already called for the EU strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe to take the impact of Covid‑19 into account. A new SME strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe is proposed, aimed at supporting SMEs in becoming more sustainable and digital, and at improving access to markets and financing. Parliament has requested that the European Commission set ambitious targets for the reduction of the administrative burden on SMEs by June of this year, and would also like to see better assessment of the costs and benefits for SMEs of proposed EU legislation in future.
In light of these impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) 2021‑2027 budget for social inclusion will be greatly needed, to provide resources to improve youth employability and equal opportunities for children at risk of poverty. On Tuesday afternoon, Members are expected to debate the adoption at second reading of the text, a compromise reached with the co-legislators after some disagreement, on an €88 billion EU budget for employment, education and social inclusion measures (almost 8 % less than under the previous multiannual financial framework, MFF).
When it comes to tackling the diverse challenges outside the EU, a multi-instrument funding architecture with many and various priorities and management structures is not ideal for the kind of effective and flexible action needed to help other countries cope with the pandemic and other issues. Members will debate Parliament’s consent to an interinstitutional agreement on the proposed regulation establishing a Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument 2021‑2027 on Tuesday afternoon. If agreed, the proposal would allocate €70.8 billion (in 2018 prices) under the 2021‑2027 MFF and bring together the 10 previous funds for external action along with the European Development Fund. The agreement enhances Parliament’s oversight of the strategic direction of the funding, including ending assistance to countries that do not respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
External affairs are also scheduled for Wednesday morning, where Members will hear Council and Commission statements on the preparation of the G7 summit of 11‑13 June and the forthcoming EU‑US Summit, which will provide an opportunity for a closer examination of the emerging contours of President Biden’s foreign policy.
A country’s resilience to hybrid threats such as cyber-attack is now considered to be an important indicator of stability, as public administrations become more reliant on digital technologies. Members are expected to hear Council and Commission statements on Wednesday afternoon on recent cyber-attacks on EU and national public and private institutions, particularly in light of the EU digitalisation agenda, as part of a joint debate, including an oral question on the future EU cybersecurity strategy. The 230 000 daily new malware infections detected by the ENISA cybersecurity agency between January 2019 and April 2020, give an idea of the scale of the issue. Parliament is also expected to decide on formal adoption at second reading of a provisional agreement on establishing the instrument for financial support for customs control equipment, on Monday evening. The instrument will be used to purchase, maintain and upgrade detection equipment for customs, border and security controls at external EU borders. Parliament has succeeded in amending the proposal to ensure the equipment has optimal cybersecurity and safety standards. Once adopted, the regulation should come into effect retroactively, as of 1 January 2021.
Meanwhile, a majority of Europeans think that more should be done to improve animal welfare. Many Members of the European Parliament agree, and have been supporting the European citizens’ initiative, ‘End the cage age‘. With nearly 1.4 million signatures, this popular initiative has gained sufficient support to oblige the European Commission to propose legislation to ban the use of the remaining cages, farrowing crates, stalls and pens still authorised in the EU for a range of livestock. Members are scheduled to debate the initiative on Thursday morning, along with an Agriculture & Rural Development Committee motion for a resolution proposing to phase out cages in farming, possibly by 2027. A debate on protecting biodiversity against habitat loss, where trade policy has a clear role to play, is also scheduled for Monday afternoon.
Following 2019 proposals to update the EU Ombudsman’s Statute, to align it with the Lisbon Treaty and strengthen the role of this guardian of institutional accountability and transparency, Members are expected to debate a new European Parliament regulation governing the Ombudsman’s duties on Wednesday afternoon, in the presence of Emily O’Reilly, the current European Ombudsman. Parliament’s proposals include possible extension of the deadline for institutions to reply to the Ombudsman’s findings, and allowing the Ombudsman to carry out own-initiative inquiries. However, other proposals were not retained following discussions with the other institutions. Mention of sexual harassment is less specific and the proposed two-year extension of the deadline for filing complaints was discarded. Although the Council has already informally indicated its agreement with the proposal, its formal consent as well as an opinion from the European Commission will be required before the new statute can be formally adopted in a future plenary session. For Parliament to exercise its own oversight role regarding the EU’s executive in full, a majority in Parliament may set up a temporary committee of inquiry to investigate alleged contraventions or maladministration in the implementation of Union law. However, current legislation restricts Parliament’s investigative powers. Accordingly, such a committee would have no power to summon witnesses, and cannot formally require witnesses to testify under oath, or impose sanctions. As far back as 2012, Parliament proposed to revise the regulation of its right of inquiry, where it has the right of initiative. However, adoption of the regulation is subject to a special legislative procedure requiring Council and Commission consent, which has not been forthcoming to date. Seeking to break the deadlock on strengthening Parliament’s right of inquiry, the AFCO committee has put questions to both the Commission and the Council for oral answer on the plenary agenda for Tuesday evening, seeking assurances that they will engage in good-faith political dialogue with the Parliament to reach agreement.