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European Parliament Plenary Session – December 2021

European Parliament Strasbourg seat

European Union, EP

Written by Clare Ferguson.

Members of the European Parliament meet again in hybrid format for the last plenary session of the year, with expectations that Parliament will finalise its position on several important files on the agenda, including the digital markets act and measures to combat gender-based cyber-violence. As every December, the accent is on human rights and the rule of law, with the Sakharov Prize ceremony taking place on Wednesday. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo‑Addo, President of Ghana will make a formal address to Parliament on Tuesday.

Parliament is expected to adopt its position on an Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) report on the proposed digital markets act (DMA), which seeks to regulate big digital platforms in the EU on Tuesday morning. Once approved, the text would form Parliament’s position for the DMA negotiations with EU governments. The committee’s report proposes to extend the scope of the DMA to include web browsers, virtual assistants and connected televisions, and to increase the threshold for a company to be considered a ‘gatekeeper’. The committee also seeks stronger obligations on companies that act as internet gatekeepers, to ensure messaging and social media is interoperable and to make it easier to unsubscribe, as well as strengthening the rules on advertising and fair access. If Parliament and the other institutions agree, the European Commission will enforce the terms of the DMA, with fines for non-compliance ranging from 4‑20 % of a company’s total worldwide turnover.

The award of the annual Sakharov Prize, which honours the work of brave human rights defenders in the name of Soviet-era dissident Andrey Sakharov, is a key annual highlight in the European Parliament’s regular defence of human rights. This year, Parliament will award the prize to Alexey Navalny, in a ceremony on Wednesday at noon (although the Russian opposition activist is expected to be represented by his daughter, Daria Navalnaya, as he is currently imprisoned in Russia). The EU responded to the attempt to assassinate Navalny by adopting chemical weapons sanctions against Russian officials, and Parliament has repeatedly expressed concern about Navalny’s situation, calling for his immediate release. With this prize, Parliament underlines its position on Russia’s systematic silencing of dissident voices and its failure to uphold its international commitments to human rights.

The rule of law is also a major focus of EU enlargement policy and Parliament is due to debate an own-initiative report on cooperation in the fight against organised crime in the Western Balkans on Tuesday afternoon. The Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) stresses that criminal activities, such as human trafficking and migrant smuggling, carried out by transnational organised crime groups in the Western Balkans are detrimental to victims, citizens of the region and the EU alike. Although cooperation with the EU and its agencies is already under way, the committee underlines that accelerating reforms in the fight against transnational organised crime in the region, in line with the demands of the EU integration process, would greatly improve the situation, as well as trust in democracy in the region.

Turning to democracy closer to home – in our workplaces – on Tuesday afternoon, Members are expected to consider an own-initiative report prepared by the Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) Committee proposing to revise the framework of EU laws that supports EU countries’ efforts to promote democracy at work. While the current EU laws to promote employee participation and representation rights have proved somewhat contradictory, new social, economic and pandemic-related challenges for workers mean that it is more important than ever that employees themselves have a say in the changes to come. The EMPL committee therefore underlines the need for a new EU framework on information, consultation and board-level employee representation, including revamped European works councils, to reinforce employees’ rights.

The coronavirus pandemic has also had terrible consequences for young people, with their lives and education completely disrupted by successive lock-downs. The European Commission has therefore proposed to concentrate efforts to improve their situation, by making 2022 the European Year of Youth. Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) has called for additional efforts to include disadvantaged young people, and successfully negotiated an additional €8 million funding for the Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps programmes. Parliament is expected to consider an agreement reached between the co-legislators on the proposals on Tuesday morning, so that the arrangements can be put in place in time for 1 January 2022.

The successful and swift roll-out of coronavirus vaccine programmes in Europe have underlined the benefits of swifter assessment of innovative health solutions. On Monday evening, Parliament will debate a provisional agreement on the proposal for stronger EU cooperation on health technology assessment. While EU countries are responsible for their healthcare policies, the EU could help make it swifter and easier to introduce new medicines and medical devices, by introducing EU-wide cooperation on research to assess the value of new health technologies. Parliament has insisted that there is full transparency in the way the proposed coordination groups would work, to ensure that there is no conflict of interest in their consultations with experts, patient representatives and industry stakeholders.

The issue of cyber-violence has grown increasingly critical with the rise in the use of the internet and social media, exacerbated by the anonymity available to perpetrators. The effects of such violence are considerable, with 92 % of respondents to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey reporting that the violence they had experienced or witnessed had harmed their wellbeing. As no EU legislation currently specifically addresses gender-based violence, including cyber-violence, Parliament is keen to see these issues tackled in the European Commission’s proposal, expected early in 2022, on combating online violence. On Monday evening, in advance of this proposal, Members will consider a legislative-initiative report tabled by Parliament’s committees on Women’s Rights & Gender Equality (FEMM) and Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (LIBE), on combating gender-based cyber-violence. The committees would like to see the new legislation include measures that set out a legal definition of gender-based cyber-violence, EU-wide sanctions and improved support for victims.

Finally, with some 274 million people expected to need humanitarian aid in 2022, Parliament has called for action to follow up on the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, which sets out why, how and when the EU acts in response to humanitarian crises. On Tuesday afternoon, Members are expected to debate a Committee on Development (DEVE) own-initiative report on the European Commission’s proposed new guidelines for EU humanitarian action. Together, the EU and its Member States already contribute more than one third of global humanitarian assistance, but the DEVE committee would like to see swift action supported by more predictable and flexible funding, as well as sanctions for those who commit violations of international humanitarian law.

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