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Coronavirus isn’t the only problem facing EU officials this fall.
After the global crisis put a lengthy hold on life in Brussels, the back-to-school season is a chance for the EU to regain momentum — in some cases because it has to. There are several policy files on which the bloc needs to make progress this year, even as many officials and diplomats continue to work virtually.
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to 11 files set to dominate the remainder of 2020.
1. Reforming migration
A long-awaited Commission proposal for migration reform is expected to be presented at the end of September after repeated delays. Asylum regulation is one of the most sensitive issues in European politics, putting the EU under severe strain since 2015, and the subject no less delicate now.
Diplomats say the new proposal will tackle all the most problematic aspects, including some sort of redistribution mechanism for asylum seekers; a stronger procedure at the borders to assess asylum requests; and the responsibility of countries for asylum claims.
Currently the most frequently applied criterion is irregular entry, which means the country through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU is responsible for examining the asylum claim. But coastline countries in the south say that puts an unfair burden on them.
Southern countries say that Eastern countries should show solidarity. Eastern countries say they are ready to do so, but not in a mandatory form.
Key dates: The strategy is expected by the end of September, and to be discussed by EU interior ministers at meetings in October and December.
Key people: Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, and Margaritis Schinas, the Commission vice president whose portfolio includes migration.
2. Saving digital trade
After Europe’s top court this summer struck down the transatlantic data flows agreement between the EU and the U.S., the pressure is on the European Commission to come up with another mechanism to keep data flowing across the Atlantic and prevent billions of euros’ worth of digital trade falling into legal limbo.
Yet any deal that fails to address deep concerns about surveillance will be seen as a capitulation by Europe’s privacy hawks.
Washington and Brussels are now in talks to strike an “enhanced EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework” that complies with the July ruling. It looks unlikely that the U.S. will overhaul its surveillance regime, so a new agreement is likely to shore up EU customers’ ability to seek judicial redress against U.S. surveillance powers rather than move the needle on those powers themselves.
In the same period, the Commission must decide whether to accept the U.K.’s data protection regime as adequate. The decision is a tough one to call, with Brussels under pressure to be harder on foreign surveillance regimes following the July ruling.
Key dates: Don’t expect any meaningful progress on a U.S. deal before the November 3 presidential election. For the United Kingdom, the Commission is hoping to wrap up an adequacy decision before the December 31 Brexit deadline.
Key players: Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Vice President Věra Jourová are the go-to officials on the EU side, and data protection mandarin Bruno Gencarelli is the bloc’s man at the table. The U.S. side is led by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Oliver Dowden heads the U.K. government department responsible for an adequacy decision.
3. Making investment moral
The Commission is eyeing green finance standards to channel funds toward investments in line with its climate goals — but has said a new sustainable finance strategy coming in 2020 will also go broader, targeting investment in social projects and biodiversity as two examples.
The plans are likely to include tightening so-called taxonomy rules, agreed this year to classify sustainable economic activities for investment purposes; new green bond standards and labels for investment funds; as well as an EU database to compare companies’ green credentials. As national governments and the EU plow billions of euros into the pandemic recovery, Brussels wants in particular to screen those investments for their impact.
The financial industry says Brussels risks setting the bar too high for green standards. But the Commission says that even if too few banking products and investments qualify initially, it will provoke change, pointing to environmental labels for refrigerators in the 1990s as a similar example whereby something that seems extreme can become mainstream.
Key dates: End of Q4 for the renewed sustainable finance strategy.
Key players: Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis and the Commission’s finance department head John Berrigan.
4. Managing the fallout from Brexit
Talks on a future trade deal between the EU and the U.K. have turned into a game of chicken, increasing the chances of a no-deal outcome by the end of the year when the transition period agreed as part of the divorce package comes to an end.
The two sides remain at an impasse on various issues, the thorniest being so-called level playing field rules, designed to prevent the U.K. from undercutting the EU in the future, and fisheries. And while there has been progress on other aspects of the negotiations, the EU insists on “parallelism” — blocking progress in one area as long as there isn’t progress in others to prevent a series of mini-deals that would benefit the U.K.
Timing is tight. The EU and U.K. must come to an agreement on their future relationship by October so that it can be ratified before December 31. There is now continuous contact between Brussels and London between formal rounds of talks.
Meanwhile, the Commission is preparing contingency legislation in case no deal is agreed. But it wants to hold off at least until the European Council summit at the end of September before publishing, to avoid suggesting it’s lost faith in the negotiations.
Key dates: EU officials say the next formal round of talks in London in the week of September 7 will be crucial to ruling out a no-deal scenario before December 31. To have a deal in place by the end of the year, the EU and U.K. must reach an agreement by the European Council summit on October 15-16.
Key players: EU and U.K. officials hope the involvement of national and EU leaders — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, among others — might prevent a worst-case scenario. Some officials on both sides are also counting on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, as Germany currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. But unless and until that happens, it’s still up to the chief negotiators — the EU’s Michel Barnier and the U.K.’s David Frost — to find a compromise within their current mandates.
5. Taking on the chemicals industry
Brussels wants to majorly reduce the harm caused to humans and the environment from dangerous chemicals, but is also desperate to keep its industries going strong. That tension is causing problems for a big rethink of the EU’s chemicals policy due this fall.
An early draft of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, seen by POLITICO, sought to move toward a system that stops companies putting harmful chemicals into products in the first place, for example by changing the design, rather than trying to minimize exposure when they do.
But that set off alarm bells in the Commission’s industry department, teeing up a dispute with the environment department over how ambitious the final version now due in October will be. The strategy won’t just affect companies that produce industrial chemicals but pretty much every company making goods in Europe, from clothes to electrics to personal care products.
Key dates: The original plan was to publish the strategy in June but that was pushed back to October due to coronavirus-related delays.
Key players: Cristina de Avila — who’s been working on EU chemicals policy since 2004 — is the head of the unit at DG Environment that’s responsible for drafting the document. Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius will have the difficult task of selling the strategy to the public and environmentalists, who will question any compromises to industry.
6. Taming tech giants
The European Commission plans to regulate platforms such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon via the Digital Services Act, a legislative package expected by the end of the year.
One piece of legislation would “clarify a common set of responsibilities” for platforms as part of the effort to limit the appearance of illegal content, products and services online — and the Commission must decide whether it wants the legislation to also cover disinformation.
Another bill will set rules that would curb the power of the largest platforms that often act as gatekeepers between businesses and consumers. Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager is worried about their dual role as both platform and competitor to the companies they host, and said Brussels was considering a list of prohibited behaviors such as self-preferencing.
An expected charge sheet over allegations that Amazon discriminated against external sellers could prove influential. But those who were hoping the much-anticipated verdict of the EU General Court on the Commission’s €2.42 billion Google Shopping fine would come in the fall may have to wait longer. The ruling is not expected before the spring of next year, a person familiar with this type of procedure said.
Key dates: Commission consultation closes September 8; European Parliament’s civil liberties, internal market and legal affairs committees vote on their respective initiative reports September 28; Parliament plenary votes in October.
Key players: Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton and Commission head of unit Prabhat Agarwal; Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba, German MEP Tiemo Wölken and Belgian MEP Kris Peeters.
7. Reforming farm funds
The German Council presidency is aiming to (finally) wrap up a reform of the EU’s mammoth farm subsidies scheme, the Common Agricultural Policy, by 2021 — putting to bed negotiations that have dragged on for two years.
But reimagining the CAP is a politically touchy topic as Brussels seeks to balance the interests of farmers whose revenues have been squeezed by the coronavirus crisis, and the bloc’s new goals for tackling climate change, which likely mean new environmental conditions for farmers to access funding.
Getting a deal on the legislation this year won’t be easy given the number of open questions, ranging from the scheme’s so-called greening architecture to governance mechanisms. Either way the new scheme won’t be ready in time to launch from January 1, meaning the Commission proposed a so-called bridging law to ensure farmers can keep getting paid.
EU ministers want this transitional period to last two years, but the Commission says any longer than one year could delay the start of the new CAP’s eco-schemes.
Key dates: Parliament’s agriculture committee meetings September 2 and 7; Agriculture and Fisheries Council September 21-22.
Key people: Julia Klöckner, Germany’s agriculture minister; Elsi Katainen, Finnish MEP from Renew Europe.
8. Building trade defenses
Brussels will press ahead with constructing a new trade weapon to shoot back at President Donald Trump and go after America’s most prized firms, while awaiting the results of November’s U.S. presidential election.
The proposed law would allow the EU to hit back more strongly and more quickly in trade wars. In September, negotiations will resume between representatives from the European Parliament, Commission and Council to finalize the bill.
MEPs from different political families agreed they want to extend the plans to cover services and intellectual property, but the Commission is more cautious and wants to ensure new retaliation powers are consistent with World Trade Organization and EU rules.
Germany, which holds the rotating Council presidency, said it intends to find an agreement before the end of the year. Following the resignation of Phil Hogan, the EU will now have to quickly appoint a new trade chief to negotiate that legislation and push through the Parliament and Council.
Key dates: After the United States presidential election November 3, there’ll be a key meeting of EU trade ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council November 9.
Key players: The new trade commissioner (unknown — and until they’re appointed, chief trade civil servant Sabine Weyand); French MEP Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, German MEP Bernd Lange and Greek MEP Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou; German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier.
9. Securing coronavirus vaccines
A workable coronavirus vaccine hasn’t yet been found but that hasn’t stopped countries from snatching up pre-orders. That forced EU policymakers into a new role competing with the world for pharma deals. Brussels freed up more than €2 billion in June and moved experienced trade negotiator Sandra Gallina to the health department to take the lead.
The bloc initially fell behind as the U.S. and U.K. announced early deals with various manufacturers; but by the end of August, the European Commission had signed one agreement to purchase vaccines with AstraZeneca, and reached tentative agreements with four more manufacturers (Sanofi/GSK, Johnson & Johnson, CureVac and Moderna).
Commission officials are under close scrutiny as they try to secure more deals, and sign the tentative ones. Health groups are pushing for Europe to get a fair price for any future vaccines and not let companies off the hook should something go wrong.
Key dates: The race is on.
Key players: No 2. in the Commission’s department for health Sandra Gallina; Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides; and Austria’s Clemens Martin Auer, co-chair of the Commission’s vaccine advisory committee.
10. Matching climate promises
The EU has made very public promises on climate, but the next three months will be crucial for following through on them. Officials are hoping to adopt a Climate Law, which would make the bloc’s objective to be climate neutral by 2050 legally binding.
At the same time, the German Council presidency will oversee tough negotiations over raising the EU’s 2030 climate goal. The current target is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels, but the Commission promised to consider raising that to as much as 55 percent as part of its green agenda. It is due to come up with a plan on boosting the goal in late September. A lot will depend on those calculations.
Under the Paris climate deal, countries are expected to submit updated and ideally higher emission reduction pledges this year. The EU is keen to maintain its global image; and should the Commission’s assessment suggest that boosting the 2030 target to 55 percent can be done without too much economic pain, enthusiasm for a higher goal may grow — even in more conservative corners.
Key dates: The Commission’s proposal for a 2030 target is expected mid-September. Parliament is expected to vote on the Climate Law — including its position on the 2030 goal — early October.
Key players: Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s Green Deal chief; Mauro Petriccione, head of the Commission’s climate department; Angela Merkel and Svenja Schulze, representing the German government; and Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, who leads on the Climate Law in Parliament.
11. Paying for it all
The current EU budget framework ends December 31, and despite a July deal among EU leaders at a marathon summit the finance for the next seven-year cycle is not yet assured. The 2021-2027 budget needs European Parliament approval, while national parliaments are required to ratify the €750 billion EU recovery fund that would be established by borrowing against national contributions.
With the political fights over those big cash pots ongoing, officials in both Brussels and national capitals also need to quickly make progress on the implementing legislation.
As the Council and Parliament launch talks to get overall agreement for the budget, parliamentarians and EU officials are already working on many bits of legislation, not least a bill for how to spend €673 billion of the EU recovery fund.
Countries are meanwhile drafting their blueprints for economic revival from the crisis — so-called national recovery plans — that they must present to access EU recovery funds. Those will need approval from the Commission and qualified majority backing in Council.
Key dates: Talks on the MFF deal will continue September 7, 11 and 18; although the Parliament may not vote until October. If there’s no deal by January 1, the EU faces a problematic situation: under the bloc’s law the budget would roll over but with no new spending programs — and without one of its current big net contributors, the U.K.
Key people: German Ambassador Michael Clauss and conservative Belgian MEP Johan Van Overtveldt, chair of the Budgets Committee.
Reporting by Jacopo Barigazzi, Hannah Brenton, Jillian Deutsch, Laura Greenhalgh, Jakob Hanke Vela, Laura Kayali, Sanya Khetani-Shah, Vincent Manancourt, Barbara Moens, Arthur Neslen, Kalina Oroschakoff, Eline Schaart and Eddy Wax.