Written by Clare Ferguson.
Parliament is scheduled to open its first plenary session of 2022 in Strasbourg, with a ceremony honouring the memory of President David Sassoli, whose untimely death just a week before he completed his term in office has overshadowed the start of the year in Parliament. His leadership was vital in steering Parliament through the coronavirus crisis, and with the public health situation still difficult, this session will again see Members able to participate remotely, with a hybrid format in place. While the agenda this time is relatively short, it is no less significant for that.
As President Sassoli amply demonstrated, as well as directing the work of the Parliament, the institution’s President plays an important and increasingly visible function both in the EU and internationally, mirroring the influential role of the Parliament in shaping EU policy. Long planned for this session, the main business on Tuesday will be the election of Parliament’s 31st President. The Member elected will hold office for the second half of the current term, up to the next European elections. Elections are also scheduled for the offices of Vice-Presidents and Quaestors. Candidates are nominated by the political groups, with the names announced at the opening of the session. Voting takes place in a maximum of four rounds of secret ballot, with the successful candidates elected by an absolute majority of votes cast (50 % +1).
France took over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 January 2022, and Parliament expects to welcome President Emmanuel Macron for the traditional presentation of the priorities of the Presidency to Parliament. Although France has considerable experience of the role, including during the 2008 financial crisis, this Presidency will have to tackle the continuing Covid‑19 pandemic, the energy crisis and the EU’s relations to the east, as well as the ongoing aftermath of Brexit, all whilst holding a national election. It is expected that priority will also be given to the conclusion – and preparing their follow-up – of the Conference on the Future of Europe, seeking to take stock of citizens’ recommendations in defining the future of the Union.
On Wednesday, Parliament should debate the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) report on the proposed digital services act. The proposal seeks to define digital service provider accountability for ensuring a transparent and safe online environment. The committee endorses the European Commission’s proposal to update the EU regulatory framework and suggests amendments, including more stringent content moderation and stronger transparency and consent requirements for targeted advertising, including better protection of children. The committee wishes to impose additional obligations on very large online platforms and online marketplaces, but also recognises the need to allow waivers for smaller companies. The text adopted in plenary will constitute Parliament’s negotiating position for trilogue discussions with the Council.
Members are also expected to vote on Wednesday on a trilogue agreement reached with the Council on a proposal for a reinforced role for the European Medicines Agency. Once adopted, the new legislation will make it easier for the Agency to act with greater agility and assuredness in emergencies. The report of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) stressed the need for ‘more Europe’ in health, including creating an interoperable digital platform to monitor and report on medicines shortages; addressing the shortcomings that experience with clinical trials revealed during the pandemic; and calling for greater transparency in the steering groups’ work.
The need for a more sustainable model of agriculture is another aspect of tackling both the danger of zoonotic disease like the coronavirus and the impact of climate change – an issue the European Parliamentary Research Service has identified as one of its Top 10 ‘issues to watch’ in 2022.
Parliament has long echoed citizens’ concerns about animal welfare in calling for action to ensure that the high standards demanded by EU law are respected in all EU countries. In 2020, Parliament set up a Committee of Inquiry on the Protection of Animals during Transport (ANIT) to investigate European Commission enforcement and Member State implementation of EU rules. On Thursday, Members are expected to debate the ANIT committee’s concluding report, as well as vote on recommendations to the Council and Commission. The ANIT report looks into alleged contraventions of EU law on animal transport and makes a number of conclusions on measures that could be introduced to ensure transport is less stressful for animals, including acknowledging new scientific evidence. The report notes that, while some Member States actively protect animals during transport, others could be stricter in their interpretation and enforcement of EU law, urging the Commission to present an action plan and for the introduction of a number of specific measures, including promoting a shift from live animal transport to alternatives. The rules on transporting vulnerable animals are a particular concern.
Even though the opinion adopted by the European Parliament on nominations to the Court of Auditors is not legally binding, Parliament holds a public hearing for each candidate, which encourages Member States to propose nominees who meet the competence and impartiality requirements of membership of the Court. Recent hearings led to Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) giving a favourable opinion on two candidates whose mandates would be renewed (Czech nominee Jan Gregor and Latvian nominee Mihails Kozlovs), as well as a new Slovenian nominee, Kristijan Petrovič. However, the committee issued an unfavourable opinion on the renewal of the mandate of the Polish nominee, Marek Opioła. Members are expected to vote on the committee’s recommendations on Wednesday.
Parliament is expected to hear European Council and Commission statements on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 16‑17 December 2021 on Wednesday. With a number of difficult geopolitical issues on the agenda, the meeting mainly reiterated Council’s position in the search for a consensus over the long term, and updated the indicative Leaders’ agenda on issues ranging from Covid‑19 to migration, energy, security and defence. On external relations, EU leaders warned Russia of the consequences of military escalation in Ukraine.
Members are also due to debate the situation in Kazakhstan on Wednesday afternoon. Protests since the beginning of the year, initially triggered by a rise in fuel prices, have led to chaos in the country. The unrest has roots in citizens’ frustration at perceived political inertia in the face of inequalities. While Russia is leading a peacekeeping mission to restore order, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission has called for more inclusive dialogue and for an end to the violence.