Written by Clare Ferguson.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate the international headlines, Members of the European Parliament return to Strasbourg for the first plenary session in May. Members are expected to debate the implications of the war for cybersecurity and on transport in Europe, as well as on reinforcing the EU’s capacity to act to mitigate the social and economic consequences. Nevertheless, the need for an urgent European Union response to the war has not delayed (and indeed has sometimes accelerated) action on a number of other files on the agenda. A key debate is scheduled with Mario Draghi, Prime Minister of Italy, in the first of a series with Heads of State or Government. The European Commission is expected to make a statement on the ongoing hearings regarding threats to common European values in Poland and Hungary. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has been invited to participate in this session’s revived ‘question time’.
As every year, Members are set to carry out their democratic oversight of spending under the EU budget in a joint debate on Wednesday, when they consider 53 reports examining whether EU institutions, agencies and other bodies complied with the rules and the principles of sound financial management in their 2020 expenditure. Firstly, the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) recommends that Parliament grant discharge to the European Commission and to all six executive agencies, which are responsible for the bulk of EU budget spending. It also recommends granting separate discharge for the European development funds. The committee insists that the Commission act to end violations of the rule of law and to use the tools it has to make payment of EU funding conditional on respect for EU values. It also highlights the risk of a continuing gap between the high level of commitments and the amount of payments made. It makes recommendations concerning monitoring of expenditure and detection of fraud. On discharge for the other EU institutions, the CONT committee recommends postponing the decision on granting discharge for the European Council and Council, the Court of Auditors and the Economic and Social Committee, and indicates it would table new reports within six months. The committee decries the European Council and Council’s refusal to disclose how it has spent EU taxpayers’ money, a situation that persists since 2009. It also criticises the European Council’s interference in the legislative process, when it has no legislative role. The committee demands clarification of payment of allowances at the Court of Auditors, following media reports of misuse. It also criticises the re-appointment of a member investigated for harassment to the Economic and Social Committee. The committee further proposes that Parliament grant discharge to 9 joint undertakings and 31 of the 32 EU decentralised agencies, where action has largely been taken to remedy previous shortcomings. It wishes to postpone the decision on the European Border and Coast Guard Agency until the agency has addressed the findings of an EU Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) investigation regarding harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks, and has shared the outcome with Parliament.
On Monday evening, Parliament is scheduled to consider a proposal which would strengthen limits on the use of certain harmful chemicals. The Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety proposes stricter limits than in the Commission’s proposal for persistent organic pollutants (carbon-based chemicals that get into our bodies through the food chain) in waste. The committee proposes stronger restrictions on chemicals found in incinerated waste, pesticides, water and fireproofing, aiming for a toxic-free environment. The vote in plenary would set Parliament’s position for negotiations with the Council on the proposal.
Balancing the need to protect citizens and to encourage innovation in the digital era is tricky. Looking to the future, Parliament set up its Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age (AIDA) in 2020, to investigate the challenges of deploying AI technologies and to analyse their impact on the EU economy. The committee has now completed its work and, on Tuesday morning, Members are expected to consider its final report on the potential opportunities and risks as well as measures to ensure the EU becomes a global leader in AI. The report concludes with an urgent call for action to promote a human-centric, trustworthy and inclusive approach to AI, based on fundamental rights, that manages risks while taking full advantage of the benefits.
New technologies are also altering the security domain, providing both an opportunity to enhance EU action to counter serious crime and terrorism and a challenge to protecting personal data. On Tuesday afternoon, Parliament is set to vote on the provisional agreement resulting from interinstitutional negotiations on the proposal to strengthen Europol‘s mandate. While Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee supports the proposal, it calls for stronger safeguards, democratic oversight and accountability. If agreed, the proposal will reinforce cooperation with private parties and third countries, encourage research and innovation at Europol, and improve the rules on how the law enforcement agency deals with both data analysis and protection.
Finally, on Monday evening, Members are expected to debate a Committee on Constitutional Affairs report proposing to further harmonise the national rules on European elections. While the rules on eligibility and accessibility are not the same in every EU country at present, revising them would also offer an opportunity to create a Union-wide constituency. This would give citizens two votes (one national, one Union-wide), electing 28 Members to the European Parliament – under strict requirements – through transnational electoral lists and a uniform electoral system. Once the Parliament has adopted its formal proposal, that is transmitted to the Council, which would adopt the new rules, following the Parliament’s consent on the final text. Once adopted, the new regulation would also need to be ratified by each Member State before it can come into force.