EU Matters - Issue 7/2015

EUROPEAN COMMISSION NEWS

In his first ‘State of the Union’ speech on 9 September to the European Parliament, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled plans to relocate asylum seekers across EU Member States using mandatory quotas as well as the creation of a permanent resettlement mechanism. He also announced better joint enforcement of external EU borders, a common EU asylum policy, a trust fund to address causes of displacement in Africa and elsewhere and the creation of list of ‘safe’ countries to which failed asylum seekers can be returned. He called for a Eurozone treasury to work with the European Stability Mechanism. He also reported to the Parliament against the 10 priorities the Commission presented when they took office last year. The Commission’s work programme for 2016 is expected to be published at the end of October.

With reference to the forthcoming EU referendum in the UK he stated “I will seek a fair deal for Britain. I will do this for one reason and one reason alone: because I believe that the EU is better with Britain in it and that Britain is better within the EU”.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT NEWS

The Parliament voted in favour of legislation which bans cloning of farm animals, their descendants and products derived from them as well as marketing and import of same. The Parliament also voted in favour of strengthening a ban on seal product trade which brings an existing EU embargo into line with World Trade Organisation rules.

MEPs also called on the Commission to expand the ‘geographical indications’ system from food products only to regional non-food artisanal products like Waterford Crystal and Scottish tartan.

French President François Holland and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly addressed plenary to discuss migration and monetary reform.

ASYLUM AND MIGRATION

The European Commission has proposed €801.3 million for 2015 to address the refugee crisis which will be funded in part from a new draft amending budget which includes additional commitments of €330.7 million from Member States, funds from other programmes and money originally set aside for humanitarian aid and neighbourhood policies. The money will provide emergency assistance to the most affected EU Member States, increase staffing at front line agencies and provide assistance and humanitarian aid in third countries. The Commission is also proposing €900 million for 2016 which will be included in an amendment to the draft budget for 2016.

The Commission has agreed €2.4 billion of aid over 2014-2020 for countries dealing with immigration. 23 national programmes were approved by the Commission under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund with the remaining 13 to be approved later this year. Italy receives the most aid – €558 million - followed by Greece with €474 million. The Commission is also developing plans for strengthening rules for expelling migrants who are not entitled to EU residency.

France, Italy and Germany are among Member States calling for a revamp of existing rules on asylum amid an increase in refugees from Syria. The ‘Dublin regulations’ require that Member States where migrants first enter the EU are responsible for processing their asylum claims, therefore countries such as Greece, Hungary and Italy deal with most initial claims. Under the Schengen agreement of free movement without internal EU borders, migrants and refugees can travel onwards to other EU countries.

GREEK BAILOUT

Eurozone finance ministers have agreed 49 milestones which the Greek government will need to pass by mid- October in order to access €2 billion from their third EU/IMF bailout which is worth up to €86 billion. This follows two previous bailout programmes totalling €240 billion. These milestones include reform of pensions, changes to personal bankruptcy rules, tax increases for farmers and privatisation of state owned assets. The Greek government has approved the first privatisation – granting a concession of 14 regional airports to a German consortium in a deal worth €1.23 billion. Other plans for privatisation include water, energy and transport companies and major infrastructure including ports and postal services. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was re-elected after seeking a renewed mandate to implement reforms. Turnout at September’s election was less than 57%.

NEW TAX TRANSPARENCY DIRECTIVE

The European Commission has announced a new directive to increase tax transparency and facilitate greater cooperation between Member States to deter tax abuse. The plans include provisions for automatic exchange of information on cross border tax rulings every six months. Currently, there is no requirement for Member States to share information on tax rulings which can lead to exploitation by companies seeking to artificially reduce tax contributions. The directive comes into effect on 1 January 2017.

TTIP AGREEMENT IN 2016?

Following the tenth round of talks in July, European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström has confirmed that negotiators on the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are aiming to finalise the trade agreement in 2016 although she admits this is the ‘optimistic scenario’. Further talks are scheduled for October and December this year. A petition against TTIP signed by over 3 million people was handed into the European Commission on 7 October 2015.

‘SAFE HARBOUR’ DATA SYSTEM INVALID

The European Court of Justice has invalidated the ‘safe harbour’ online data sharing agreement between the EU and US amid concerns that it prevented national data protection watchdogs from intervening in citizens’ complaints on infringement of privacy. The agreement, which allowed US companies to send personal data from the EU to the US and to self-certify that they were abiding by the EU’s data protection rules, was introduced in 2000 and used by over 4,000 US companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google. The ECJ decision stems from the case of Max Schrems, an Austrian student who unsuccessfully tried to get the Irish data protection commissioner to investigate the transfer of his Facebook data to the US (Facebook’s EU headquarters are in Dublin) following revelations by Edward Snowden about US surveillance. The Commissioner had refused to investigate on the grounds that the safe harbour system was overseen by the European Commission. This ruling means that multinational companies must now find a new legal basis for any transfer of personal data of EU citizens to the US.

SUPPORT MEASURES FOR FARMERS

Following an extraordinary meeting of the Agriculture Council on 7 September, the Commission announced €500 million of measures to support farmers affected by the Russian import ban, falling demand from China, the end of the milk quota and other market conditions. There were widespread protests in Brussels by farmers while the Council was meeting. The Russian ban on EU dairy products, fruit, vegetables, pig, bovine and poultry meat, which will continue until at least August 2016, has had particular impact on Baltic countries and the newer EU Member States. A fall in milk prices following the end of the milk quotas in April 2015 and the succeeding rise in production has also had the heaviest impact in Baltic States where prices for milk in Lithuania and Latvia are around €0.21 per litre.

The measures announced focus on 4 priorities – addressing the cash flow difficulties farmers are facing; stabilising markets; addressing the functioning of the supply chain; and tightening the link between agriculture and society at large. One measure to tackle cash flow difficulties is that national governments will be able to pay up to 70% of farm subsidies for 2016 from October 2015, up from the current 50%.

The UK received £26 million (€36.1 million) with £5.1 million allocated for Northern Ireland farmers, compared to Wales and Scotland which will receive £3.2 million and £2.3 million respectively. Payments will be made to farmers in December 2015 through the Rural Payments Agency.

REGIONAL ACCESS TO JUNCKER PLAN

Officials from the European Investment Bank attended a meeting of the Committee of the Regions on 1 September to discuss the Investment Plan for Europe – the ‘Juncker Plan’ – and opportunities for regional and local projects to secure funding from the Plan, the aim of which is to provide €315 billion of funding for infrastructure projects in the EU by 2017.

UK EFSI CONTRIBUTION ANNOUNCED

The UK will contribute £6 billion to the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) – the largest Member State contribution to date. These guarantees will co-finance infrastructure projects in the UK. The EFSI is a core element of the EU’s Investment Plan for Europe and uses public funds to leverage private sector investment in infrastructure and SMEs.

Talks are ongoing between the European Commission and the Chinese government on whether China could become the largest non-EU contributor to the EFSI.

FAST TRACK TO INNOVATION FUNDING

The European Commission will provide funding to 16 innovative projects in the first round of Horizon 2020 Fast Track to Innovation funding. Each of the new projects will receive up to £2 million. There are 9 UK beneficiaries. Germany has the highest number of project partners (13), followed by France, the Netherlands and UK with 9 each.

STARTUP EUROPE REGIONS NETWORK

The European Commission launched the Startup Europe Regions Network on 1 October 2015. Startup Europe is the Commission’s division dedicated to startup companies and the new network is a group tasked with getting local and regional governments to cultivate a similar support network for startup businesses. The Startup Europe Regions Network will gather EU regions committed to startup support to offer a first virtual interconnected space for EU startups to scale up, aiming to leverage private investments with European and regional ones. The network will invest in new instruments and pilot schemes, in line with the priorities defined by the European Commission and the Committee of Regions and for the benefit of European startups.

BIRDS & HABITATS DIRECTIVES

The European Commission’s ‘fitness check’ on the Birds and Habitats Directives attracted over half a million consultation responses. The Commission will hold a conference in November 2015 to discuss the results of the draft evaluation of responses with stakeholder groups and Member States. The Commission’s final report on the fitness check is expected in early 2016.

The European Commission’s mid-term review of the EU’s biodiversity strategy has revealed that there has been no measurable improvement in the status of agriculture related habitats and species covered by the Habitats Directive since 2010. The strategy, introduced in May 2011, aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems, restore them to the extent possible by 2020 and help avert global biodiversity loss. The Commission has said that the new ‘greener’ Common Agricultural Policy could help the EU meet its objectives of halting biodiversity loss.

BAN ON GMO CROPS

Environment Minister Mark Durkan has announced a ban on cultivation of genetically modified crops in Northern Ireland. The announcement follows the introduction of EU legislation in the spring which provides Member States with greater flexibility in permitting or banning the growth of GMO crops. The Scottish Government also plans to ban the growth of genetically modified crops. This is at odds with the UK Government position which is in favour of growing GMO crops. Currently MON810 maize is the only GMO crop allowed to be grown in the EU. More than half of all EU Member States have filed for an opt out from the legislation to be allowed to ban the growth of GMO crops on their territory and the UK has requested a partial opt out for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

MINIMUM PRICE MAY BREACH EU RULES

The EU Advocate General Yves Bot, adviser to the European Court of Justice, has said that the Scottish Government’s plan for minimum retail selling prices for alcohol based on strength and volume risks breaching EU legislation. A Member State can introduce minimum unit pricing which restricts trade and distorts competition, but only if this would be superior to alternative measures, e.g. increased taxation. The ECJ follows the Advocate General’s opinion in most cases but his opinion is not binding.

ACCESS TO BENEFITS FOR MIGRANTS

The EU Advocate General Pedro Cruz Villal ó n has said that the UK’s right to reside test for migrants seeking access to benefits is justified by the UK’s need to protect its budget. The European Commission has launched a case against the UK stating that the test, introduced in 2004, breaches EU rules on the coordination of social security systems which do not allow discrimination against foreign nationals. Mr Cruz Villal ó n says that a host Member State can place conditions on granting of social security benefits.

ENERGY PROJECTS FUNDED

An energy project to develop compressed air energy storage using chambers in bedded salt deposits in Larne has been awarded €6.5 million under the first call in 2015 for proposals under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). The CEF is the EU's €33 billion plan to develop energy, transport and digital infrastructure. €5.85 billion is available under the CEF for trans-European energy infrastructure projects. The Commission has a list of 248 Projects of Common Interest (PCIs) which can apply for CEF funding. The second call for energy proposals is open until October 2015.

TRANSPORT PROJECTS FUNDED

The Connecting Europe Facility will allocate €24 billion of funding for the trans-European transport network (TEN-T) over 2014-2020. The Department of Regional Development made four bids in the 2014 calls for proposals and has secured €9.7 million (30% of the total cost) for works to upgrade the Knockmore to Lurgan rail line and €14.4 million (30% of total cost) for works to upgrade the Londonderry to Coleraine rail line. Bids for €15.4 million (30% of total cost) for bottleneck alleviation works on the A26 and €1.2 million (50% of total cost) for connection of the Warrenpoint port hinterland to the TEN-T core corridor were unsuccessful.

NEW EESC ROLE FOR NI ECONOMIST

Former head of the Ulster University School of Economics Prof. Mike Smyth has been elected as Vice President for Budget for 2015-2018 at the European Economic and Social Committee. Prof Smyth and Jane Morrice are the 2 Northern Ireland representatives on the EESC, a consultative body of the EU. Ms Morrice held the post of Vice President for Communication in the previous mandate of the EESC.

MEET YOUR MEP EVENTS

The European Parliament Office Edinburgh is organising a series of ‘Meet Your MEP’ events which are free and open to the public. The events for the 3 Northern Ireland MEPs will be held in the MAC, Belfast and moderated by BBC presenter Tara Mills. Dates for the sessions are listed in the ‘upcoming events’ section of this newsletter.

DANISH COMMITTEE ON ‘GOLD PLATING’

Following a general election in June, the Danish government has announced a new Cabinet Committee on the implementation of EU law which will work to end ‘gold plating’ and over- implementation of EU legislation. The Committee will be chaired by the Minister for Business and Growth and will include a panel comprised of experts and business representatives to advise the government on implement of EU legislation.

MOCK COUNCIL OF THE EU FOR SCHOOLS

A joint initiative between the European Commission Office in Belfast and the British Council, the next mock Council of the EU takes place in Parliament Buildings, Stormont on 23 October 2015. Schools will participate and a group of students will role play a mock meeting of the Council of the EU. This year, students will discuss the EU Investment Plan and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

TASKFORCE ON UK REFERENDUM

Effective from 1 September 2015, Jonathan Faull is the Director-General at the European Commission leading a new Taskforce responsible for strategic issues related to the UK Referendum on EU membership. The Taskforce will report directly to Commission President Juncker. Mr Faull was previously the Director-General of the Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union Directorate.

EU REFERENDUM

Following advice from the Electoral Commission, the Government has agreed to amend the text of the referendum question. Voters will now be asked whether they wish the UK to remain in or leave the EU. Previously the question only included the word ‘remain’ with the choice of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. The Electoral Commission had viewed that there was ‘a perception that the question encourages voters to consider one response more favourably than the other’.

As reported previously, the Bill as originally drafted, did not include a purdah period (during which the civil service cannot make official announcements on EU matters), however the Government was defeated on this issue in a vote on 7 September and the Bill has been amended to include a 28 day purdah period.

EUROPEAN COMMITTEE CHAIRS MEET

The Northern Ireland Assembly will host the next meeting of the Chairs of European Committees of the House of Commons, House of Lords, Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly on 27 November 2015. Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Mike Nesbitt MLA will represent the NI Assembly.

SCOTTISH INQUIRY INTO EU REFORM

The Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee is conducting an inquiry into the implications for Scotland of EU reform; and the EU referendum. The theme of the structures and processes for consulting the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament on EU reform and the referendum will run through both strands of the inquiry. The Committee has issued a call for evidence and also a call for testimonies from people living in Scotland on the impact the EU has had on their lives.

WELSH INQUIRY INTO EU REFORM

The National Assembly for Wales Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee will undertake a short inquiry in the autumn into the UK Government’s EU reform agenda and the process involved including how devolved administrations will be involved.

HOUSE OF COMMONS EUROPEAN SCRUTINY COMMITTEE (ESCOM)

At its meeting of 16 September , the Committee recommended for debate documents on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme; Promoting human rights and democracy in external action; financial management and countering fraud; and economic governance: Greece. The Committee also reported on:

Business, Innovation & Skills: WTO waiver on services for least developed countries

Transport: International Rail Transport

Treasury: Money Market Funds; Benchmarks; European Globalisation Adjustment Fund; General Budget 2015 – draft amending budget;

Work & Pensions: Employment guidelines; Youth Guarantee;

HOUSE OF LORDS EU COMMITTEE

The Committee has published a report analysing the process leading up to the referendum on UK membership of the EU . The Committee awaits a response from the Government and a debate is expected in the autumn.

Ongoing inquiries:

  • Online platforms and EU Digital Single Market
  • Strategic review of the EU’s foreign and security policy
  • EU energy governance
  • EU action plan against migrant smuggling

UPCOMING EVENTS

10-18 October 2015 – EU Code Week

12-15 October 2015 – Open Days 2015 , Brussels

13 October 2015 – Centre for Cross Border Studies: Implications of a UK exit from the EU for Ireland and Northern Ireland , Brussels

30 October 2015 – European Parliament Office: Meet Your MEP – Jim Nicholson, MAC Belfast

10 November 2015 – European Foundation Centre: Trust Matters – a lever to deliver better social justice outcomes , Brussels

13 November 2015 – European Parliament Office: Meet Your MEP – Martina Anderson, MAC Belfast

2 December 2015 – Rethink: Farm Modernisation and Rural Resilience , Brussels

11 December 2015 – European Parliament Office: Meet Your MEP – Diane Dodds, MAC Belfast

18-19 February 2016 – Centre for Cross Border Studies: Bordering Between Unions – What does the UK referendum on Europe mean for us? , Dundalk 

CURRENT EUROPEAN COMMISSION CONSULTATIONS

The list below shows a selection of open consultations. The full list of open Commission consultations is here.

Banking and finance:

30.09.2015 – 06.01.2016 Covered bonds in the European Union

30.09.2015 – 06.01.2016 Call for Evidence: EU regulatory framework for financial services

Energy:

29.07.2015 – 22.10.2015 Consultation on the list of proposed Projects of Common Interest – Additional projects in oil, gas and electricity

Information Society; Communications Networks; Content & Technology

11.09.2015 – 07.12.2015 Public consultation on the needs for Internet speed and quality beyond 2020

23.09.2015 – 16.12.2015 Public consultation on Standards in the Digital Single Market: setting priorities and ensuring delivery

25.09.2015 – 18.12.2015 Regulatory environment for platforms, online intermediaries, data and cloud computing and the collaborative economy

25.09.2015 – 18.12.2015 Geo-blocking and other geographically-based restrictions when shopping and accessing information in the EU

Internal Market

24.08.2015 - 16.11.2015 Public consultation on the Review of the EU Satellite and Cable Directive

Justice and Fundamental Rights

14.09.2015 – 07.12.2015 EU Citizenship: Share your opinion on our common values, rights and democratic participation

18.09.2015 – 11.12.2015 Public consultation on the application of Directive 2008/52/EC on certain aspects of mediation in civil and commercial matters

21.09.2015 – 14.12.2015 Public consultation on the implementation and application of Council Directive 79/7/EEC on the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security

Regional Policy

21.09.2015 – 21.12.2015 Public consultation on overcoming obstacles in border regions

Taxation

28.08.2015 – 27.11.2015 Consultation on the review of existing ‘structures’ legislation of excise duties on alcohol and alcoholic beverages

25.09.2015 – 18.12.2015 Public consultation on modernising VAT for cross-border e-commerce

Transport

02.09.2015 – 25.11.2015 Provision of EU-wide multimodal travel information services under the ITS Directive 2010/40/EU

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