EU Matters - Issue 9/2015

EUROPEAN COMMISSION NEWS

Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič unveiled the first State of the Energy Union report which set out progress made on the Energy Union strategy which was launched earlier this year. The report included an assessment on how each Member State is performing and on how the EU as a whole is progressing in implementing energy policies. A guidance document has been published for Member States on the national plans they should produce detailing how they will meet the EU’s 2030 energy and climate targets. The first of these national plans is expected in 2017. A second list of projects of common interest is to be presented with 195 infrastructure projects in the fields of electricity and gas. Delivery of the Energy Union plans is expected in 2016 and will include legislative proposals to ensure the EU meets the 2030 targets on renewables and energy efficiency.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT NEWS

The Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality will hold a public hearing on 3 December on women refugees and asylum seekers in the EU with experts from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Women's Refugee Commission, and Asylum Aid.

PARIS ATTACKS

Disagreements between Member States on handling of refugees and immigration continue in light of the attacks, with some calling for stricter asylum policies. Slovakia has filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice to challenge the EU decision on mandatory refugee relocation quotas . Hungary is expected to do the same. At the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Commission President Juncker said “We should not mix the different categories of people coming to Europe. Those who organised these attacks and those that perpetrated them are exactly those that the refugees are fleeing and not the opposite.”

At an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers on 20 November agreement was reached on systematic controls of EU citizens at the EU’s external borders and on full use of technology to counter terrorism inside the Schengen area. Ministers also called for all migrants entering the Schengen area to be registered, including with fingerprints; resolution on the European PNR legislation (airline passenger data); and greater firearms security. EU defence ministers unanimously backed France’s decision to invoke article 42(7) of the Lisbon Treaty – the first time the Article has been triggered. Article 42(7), known as the ‘mutual defence clause’ stipulates "if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.". While ‘aid and assistance’ is not defined, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian noted France’s current military commitments in northern Africa, the Lebanon and the Central African Republic and the need to provide national security while a state of emergency is in place. He said other EU countries could help "either by taking part in France's operations in Syria or Iraq, or by easing the load or providing support for France in other operations".

MIGRANT CRISIS

On 20 November Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia closed their borders to all migrants except those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The move was led by Slovenia where a police spokesman said “Over the past days more and more people that we have reason to believe are economic migrants have been arriving” adding his country would only take in migrants “from countries where there are armed battles”. The move has left thousands of migrants stranded between countries. Macedonia has also begun building a fence along its border with Greece. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said “It is not acceptable, deciding who can pass on the basis of nationality. Every person needs to have a right to ask for regular asylum procedures.”

MIGRATION DEAL WITH TURKEY

EU leaders agreed a €3 billion deal with Turkey at a migration summit in Valletta which will see Turkey receive money over 2 years in return for stemming the flow of refugees into the EU. Under the deal, the EU would provide €500 million and the 28 Member States would supply €2.5 billion. David Cameron has pledged €400 million (£275 million) in assistance to the pact. A further summit between the EU Council and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was held on 29 November in Brussels. Turkey is home to more than 2 million refugees. Council President Donald Tusk said that approximately 1.5 million people have illegally entered the EU in 2015 and most have come through Turkey.

The deal between the EU and Turkey includes an agreement to improve the conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey, an agreement to loosen visa restrictions on Turks travelling in Europe and a commitment from the EU to ‘speed up the tempo’ of the negotiations on Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999 and has been negotiating for accession since 2005.

ACCESSIBILITY ACT PROPOSED

The European Commission has proposed an Accessibility Act which will set common accessibility requirements for key products and services for people with disabilities . The products and services covered were chosen after consultation and include ATMs and banking services; ticketing and check in machines; smartphones; TV equipment; e-books; and air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport services. The requirements in the Directive will advise which features of the product or service need to be accessible but not the specific technical detail of the solution. Member States must adopt national legislation to transpose the Directive within two years of it coming into force. The provisions are applicable within an additional period of four years so six years after its entry into force the Directive will be applicable in all Member States.

MIGRANT WORKERS IN FISHING

The Irish Government will issue up to 500 permits to migrant workers from outside the European Economic Area employed in the fishing industry in Ireland and ensure they are paid the minimum wage. This follows a recommendation of an interdepartmental taskforce set up to investigate allegations of human trafficking and exploitation in the fishing industry in Ireland including allegations that migrant workers are being brought into Ireland via Belfast without presenting themselves to immigration services. The taskforce also said that employers, who must be licensed vessel owners, are responsible for ensuring that a valid contract of employment, drafted in accordance with national and EU employment legislation, is in place.

CIRCULAR ECONOMY PACKAGE

Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans launched a new Circular Economy package on 2 December. The original package of measures was withdrawn last year with Mr Timmermans promising that he would re-table a more ambitious set of proposals. The Circular Economy package was intended to increase recycling levels and introduce new rules on landfill. It consisted of six legislative measures on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and waste electronic equipment.

The 2014 package called for a 70% recycling target for municipal waste for 2030 and a ban on landfill for all recoverable waste. This new package has a 65% recycling target and allows a 10% landfill quota. Deadlines to meet the targets have been extended and targets on food waste and resource efficiency have been dropped. Key measures in the new package are:

  • T arget for recycling 65% of municipal waste by 2030
  • T arget for recycling 75% of packaging waste by 2030
  • Binding target to  reduce landfill to maximum of 10% of all waste by 2030
  • Ban on landfilling of separately collected waste
  • Promotion of economic instruments to discourage landfilling
  • Simplified definitions and harmonised calculation methods for recycling rates
  • Measures to  promote re-use and stimulate industrial symbiosis 
  • Economic incentives for producers to put  greener products on the market and support recovery and recycling schemes

NEW BAILOUT FUND FOR BANKS

The new Single Resolution Fund (SRF) for Eurozone banks comes into operation in January 2016. The SRF is funded by annual contributions from banks and means that in the event of bankruptcy, taxpayers will not have to pay for bailout of a bank. The fund will reach €55 billion after 7 years and the meantime, bridge financing will be provided by Member States if necessary. The SRF is a key element of EU Banking Union which also includes a single supervisory mechanism for Eurozone banks.

ISRAELI SETTLEMENT PRODUCT LABELS

The European Commission has published guidelines on labelling which advise that EU retailers must ensure that labels with ‘product from …… Israeli settlement’ are placed on wine, farm produce or cosmetics where applicable. Labels on processed food and industrial goods are voluntary. The guidelines refer to a range of existing consumer directives and regulations and were published in response to pressure from stakeholders including the European Parliament. Member States are responsible for ensuring compliance with the legislation. In response, the Israeli foreign ministry called the move ‘discriminatory’ because the EU isn’t applying similar measures to products from other disputed territories. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered "a reassessment of the involvement of EU bodies in everything that is connected to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians….until completion of the reassessment; the Prime Minister has ordered a suspension of diplomatic contacts with the EU and its representatives in this matter."

PEACE IV FUNDING PROGRAMME

The European Commission has adopted the new EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE IV) worth almost €270 million with €229 million coming from the European Regional Development Fund. €30m will be provided for shared education projects; €57m for youth peer mentoring actions and community youth initiatives; €84.5m for shared services and spaces including interventions for victims and survivors of the conflict; and €44m for projects which build mutual understanding involving sports, arts and culture. Including this programme, the EU has allocated €1.56 billion to the four PEACE programmes. Together with the national co-financing from UK and Ireland, more than €2.2 billion will have been invested.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROJECTS FUNDED

The European Commission will provide €160.6 million to co-finance 96 environment projects across 21 Member States under the LIFE funding programme for the environment. There were 1,117 applications in the call for proposals which closed in June 2014. Among the successful projects are a €3.2 million RSPB project to improve the conservation prospects of roseate tern in sites across the UK and Ireland, including one at Larne Lough. A €2.7 million Wildlife Trusts project to tackle invasive alien grey squirrels across the UK includes specific actions for Northern Ireland such as direct squirrel control, management by 50 private landowners across Northern Ireland and creation of 3 new grey squirrel management groups in Northern Ireland.

REDUCING RED TAPE FOR BUSINESSES?

19 Member States have signed a letter to Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans who is in charge of better regulation calling for targets for reducing red tape for businesses. The letter says “unnecessary burdens in EU legislation must be removed while always taking into account proper protection of consumers, health, the environment, employees and financial market stability and respecting existing protection standards…... we now need to establish targets for reducing the burden of regulation in particularly burdensome areas”. The letter was signed by Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK – countries which together represent more than 80% of EU GDP.

TAX INVESTIGATION FOR McDONALD'S?

There are unconfirmed reports that Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager will launch an investigation into the tax affairs of McDonald’s and its tax agreement with the Luxembourg government on its franchise operations. Franchises pay royalties to McDonald’s for use of intellectual property. These royalties are paid to McDonald’s offices in Luxembourg and are taxed at a ‘favourable’ rate. This potential investigation follows on from previous investigations and tax rulings in respect of Fiat and Starbucks. Investigations continue into Amazon’s tax arrangements in Luxembourg and Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland.

RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN

Since a ruling on privacy by the European Court of Justice in May 2014, Google has received over 340,000 requests from across the EU to remove internet search results under the EU's ‘right to be forgotten’. Google agreed to 42% of the requests. The highest numbers of requests came from France and Germany. Google granted 38% of UK requests. Facebook was the top site for requests for information to be removed. Scenarios where information could be ‘forgotten’ include pages with content on an individual’s health, race, religion or sexual orientation; information on criminal convictions subsequently overturned; or news reports of crimes. Google may decline to delist if they feel the information is in the public interest.

EUROZONE FIXIT?

A public petition signed by 50,000 people has forced a debate in the Finnish Parliament about whether to leave the Eurozone amidst public dissatisfaction with the performance of the Finnish economy which is facing its fourth consecutive year of contraction. An IMF report stated that Finland was failing to recover from a unique confluence of structural and cyclical shocks since 2007….. Exports have suffered due to the declines of Nokia and the paper industry, compounded by weak external demand, especially from the euro area and Russia…. Wage hikes in 2008–10 and weak productivity growth have hurt competitiveness. Rapid population aging is a further drag on growth."

COFMDFM DISCUSSES EU REFORM

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister held an exchange of views on EU reform with Lord Boswell of Aynho, Chair of the House of Lords EU Select Committee on 26 November. The House of Lords Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the Government’s vision of EU reform and the discussions will feed into that inquiry. A transcript will be available shortly.

EC-UK MEETING AT NI ASSEMBLY

The NI Assembly hosted the biannual meeting of the European Committee Chairs UK forum. Lord Boswell, Chair of the House of Lords EU Committee, Christina McKelvie MSP, Chair of the Scottish Parliament European and External Relations Committee and Kate Hoey MP, member of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee attended the meeting which was chaired by Mike Nesbitt MLA, Chair of the Committee for OFMDFM which leads on EU affairs at the Assembly. The Head of the National Assembly for Wales’ EU Office also attended. Topics of mutual interest including EU reform and the referendum on EU membership were discussed.

EU REFERENDUM

The House of Lords voted by a majority of 82 to extend the franchise for the EU referendum to 16 and 17 year olds. The House of Commons voted against the measure in June 2015 by a majority of 45. The Bill will now return to the House of Commons.

Giving evidence in November to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, Jonathan Faull, Director General of the European Commission’s Task Force for Strategic Issues relating to the UK Referendum, stated that it will be difficult for officials to have an outline document on the UK demands for EU reform ready for discussion at December’s Council meeting and that it’s hoped that agreement can be reached by the Council meeting in February 2016.

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council has said that his personal opinion is that December discussions are preferable to February. It is up to Mr Tusk as to whether to put the matter on the agenda for the Council meeting on 17-18 December 2015 and this will be decided within days as the other EU leaders would need 10 days to study any documents before the meeting.

POTENTIAL ‘BREXIT’ IMPACT ON NI

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has accepted a proposal from Oxford Economics to join its UK study on a potential ‘Brexit’ and have the work extended to cover Northern Ireland. The project is seeking UK wide funding to examine the potential impacts of a UK exit from the EU under a selection of plausible exit scenarios. The DETI Minister Jonathan Bell has indicated that the paper exercise and access to a database detailing the results are expected to be available by the end of this financial year.

LAUNCH OF EU DEBATE NI

EU Debate NI, an initiative of the Centre for Peacebuilding and Democracy, launched in November with a panel debate at Queen’s University Belfast. The project aims to ‘stimulate through consultation and engagement with stakeholders discussion of the key issues that should inform debate about the consequences of the outcome of this (EU) referendum for Northern Ireland ’.  The initial consultation will draw on a briefing paper prepared by academics in QUB and University College Cork – ‘To Remain or Leave? – Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum’ .

HOUSE OF COMMONS EUROPEAN SCRUTINY COMMITTEE (ESCOM)

At its meeting of 2 December 2015 , the Committee indicated its intent to consider further developments on Capital Markets Union at the next meeting. The Committee also draws two further applications to the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (from Ireland and Finland) to the Committee for Work and Pensions as further examples of the use made by other Member States of an EU financial instrument of apparent little efficacy. The Committee asks the Government to provide progress updates on documents on improving gender balance on company boards; retains under scrutiny documents on the Data Protection package and Commission Communications on EU-US data flows; and asks the Minister to clarify the Government’s policy is in relation to Commission competence and submission of justice-related data to the Commission for the EU Justice Scoreboard.

Ongoing inquiries:

HOUSE OF LORDS EU COMMITTEE

As previously reported the Committee’s inquiry on ‘Visions of EU reform’ is ongoing. Recently published reports include The EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling ; The referendum on UK membership of the EU: assessing the reform process ; and the UK opt-in to the proposed Council Decision on the relocation of migrants within the EU.

European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip will give evidence to the Internal Market subcommittee inquiry into the Digital Single Market on 3 December.

Ongoing inquiries:

UPCOMING EVENTS

09 December 2015 – Committee of the Regions & Eurochambres: Putting SME internationalisation into practice – tools available to regions and cities , Brussels

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

16 February 2016 – Forum Europe: 2016 European Circular Economy Conference , Brussels

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.

Climate Action

19.10.2015 – 15.01.2016 Public consultation to support the evaluation of the car labelling Directive

Competition

04.11.2015 – 12.02.2016 Empowering the national competition authorities to be more effective enforcers

Education

27.11.2015 – 29.02.2016 Public consultation on a renewed Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education in the European Union

Equal opportunities

18.11.2015 – 17.02.2016 Public consultation on possible action addressing the challenges of work-life balance faced by working parents and caregivers

Energy

18.11.2015 – 10.02.2016 Preparation of a new Renewable Energy Directive for the period after 2020

Information Society; Communications Networks; Content & Technology

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

30.10.3015 – 22.01.2016 Public consultation: eGovernment Action Plan 2016-2020

Justice and Fundamental Rights

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

Transport

27.11.2015 – 19.01.2016 Evaluation of Directive 2015/413/EU facilitating cross-border exchange of information on road safety related traffic offences

Taxation

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

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