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NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Belgium's €5.9 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has adopted a positive assessment of Belgium's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €5.9 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Belgium's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a key role in enabling Belgium to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic. The RRF – at the heart of NextGenerationEU – will provide up to €672.5bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Belgian plan forms part of an unprecedented co-ordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

The Commission assessed Belgium's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Belgium's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience. Securing Belgium's green and digital transitions The Commission's assessment finds that Belgium's plan devotes 50% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. This includes investments in measures to support the renovation of public and private buildings across the country to increase their energy efficiency, the deployment of alternative energy technologies such as low-carbon hydrogen production and reforms and investments to accelerate the transition to green mobility. It also provides for important investments to restore biodiversity, tackle the growing problem of droughts and promote the efficient use of resources, recycling, and the circular economy.

The Commission finds that Belgium's plan devotes 27% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. This includes measures to digitalise the public administration and justice system, the provision of digital skills training, strengthening Belgium's cybersecurity capacity and developing the legal framework for the deployment of 5G.

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Reinforcing Belgium's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Belgium's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Belgium by the Council in the European Semester in 2019 and in 2020. It includes measures to improve the efficiency of public spending and the fiscal and social sustainability of pensions, promote training and skills development, sustainable transport, the energy transition, research and innovation and digital infrastructure.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Belgium's recovery and resilience plan. NextGenerationEU will play a crucial role in financing the investments and reforms necessary to build the future we are committed to. The €5.9 billion available to Belgium will finance measures that will contribute to building a greener, more digital future for all of its citizens. The plan places a particularly strong emphasis on measures that will accelerate Belgium's green transition, with 50% of financing directed towards achieving climate objectives. We will stand by Belgium every step of the way to ensure the vision contained in the plan is fully realised.”

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The plan also provides for reforms and investments intended to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens and improve the business environment. The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Belgium's economic and social situation, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation. Supporting flagship investment and reform projects Belgium's plan proposes projects in seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects which address issues that are common to all member states in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the green and digital transition. For instance, Belgium has proposed to provide more than €1bn to renovate public and private buildings, including social housing, to improve their energy performance.

Belgium has also proposed to provide around €900 million to boost the digital, language and technical skills of vulnerable groups, job seekers and young people, to improve social inclusion and facilitate access to the labour market. The Commission's assessment finds that none of the measures included in the plan do any significant harm to the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation. The control systems put in place by Belgium are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis (pictured) said: “Belgium's recovery plan will help the country's economy to recover from successive COVID lockdowns and get on a greener and more digital path. Half the plan is devoted to supporting climate goals, including with investments to make buildings more energy efficient, support green mobility and alternative energy technologies. The reform of the widely-used company car tax scheme will also contribute to achieving the climate goals. The plan will support a digitalisation drive in the public administration and judiciary, which will help to cut red tape and create a more business-friendly environment. I particularly support the measures that will encourage schoolchildren and workers to have more digital skills, preparing the Belgian labour market for the future. Last but not least, we welcome measures will address the needs of vulnerable groups, including investment in social housing and early child care.

Next steps

The Commission has adopted a proposal for a decision to provide €5.9 billion in grants to Belgium under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal. The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €770m to Belgium in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Belgium. The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the recovery and resilience plan, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Belgium's plan sets out a programme of reforms and investments that should give a major boost both to the country's competitiveness and to its environmental and social sustainability. Two thirds of the plan's investments support the green or digital transition. The reform of the company car scheme and investments in electric buses, charging stations and cycling lanes will cut emissions and improve air quality. Schools and rural areas will enjoy improved connectivity while the justice, health and social security systems will see major improvements in efficiency through digitalization. Finally, investments in skills should facilitate social integration of vulnerable groups, reduce the digital divide and enhance career perspectives for young people.”

Belgium

EU Cohesion policy: Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy receive €373 million to support health and social services, SMEs and social inclusion

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The Commission has granted €373 million to five European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) operational programmes (OPs) in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy to help the countries with coronavirus emergency response and repair in the framework of REACT-EU. In Belgium, the modification of the Wallonia OP will make available an additional €64.8m for the acquisition of medical equipment for health services and innovation.

The funds will support small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in developing e-commerce, cybersecurity, websites and online stores, as well as the regional green economy through energy efficiency, protection of the environment, development of smart cities and low-carbon public infrastructures. In Germany, in the Federal State of Hessen, €55.4m will support health-related research infrastructure, diagnostic capacity and innovation in universities and other research institutions as well as research, development and innovation investments in the fields of climate and sustainable development. This amendment will also provide support to SMEs and funds for start-ups through an investment fund.

In Sachsen-Anhalt, €75.7m will facilitate cooperation of SMEs and institutions in research, development and innovation, and provide investments and working capital for micro-enterprises affected by the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the funds will allow investments in the energy efficiency of enterprises, support digital innovation in SMEs and acquiring digital equipment for schools and cultural institutions. In Italy, the national OP ‘Social Inclusion' will receive €90m to promote the social integration of people experiencing severe material deprivation, homelessness or extreme marginalisation, through ‘Housing First' services that combine the provision of immediate housing with enabling social and employment services.

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In Spain, €87m will be added to the ESF OP for Castilla y León to support the self-employed and workers who had their contracts suspended or reduced due to the crisis. The money will also help hard-hit companies avoid layoffs, especially in the tourism sector. Finally, the funds are needed to allow essential social services to continue in a safe way and to ensure educational continuity throughout the pandemic by hiring additional staff.

REACT-EU is part of NextGenerationEU and provides €50.6bn additional funding (in current prices) to Cohesion policy programmes over the course of 2021 and 2022. Measures focus on supporting labour market resilience, jobs, SMEs and low-income families, as well as setting future-proof foundations for the green and digital transitions and a sustainable socio-economic recovery.

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Climate change made deadly floods in Western Europe at least 20% more likely - study

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A house hit by a landslide is seen after heavy rain caused flooding in towns surrounding Lake Como in northern Italy, in Laglio, Italy. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Climate change has made extreme rainfall events of the kind that sent lethal torrents of water hurtling through parts of Germany and Belgium last month at least 20% more likely to happen in the region, scientists said Tuesday, writes Isla Binnie, Reuters.

The downpour was likely made heavier by climate change as well. A day of rainfall can now be up to 19% more intense in the region than it would have been had global atmospheric temperatures not risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures, according to research published by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) scientific consortium.

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"We will definitely get more of this in a warming climate," said the group's co-leader Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

"Extreme weather is deadly," said Otto, recalling that she urgently contacted family members who live in the affected areas to make sure they were safe when the floods hit. "For me it was very close to home."

With extreme weather events dominating news headlines in recent years, scientists have been under increasing pressure to determine exactly how much climate change is to blame.

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During the last year alone, scientists found that U.S. drought, a deadly Canadian heat wave and wildfires across the Siberian Arctic have been worsened by a warming atmosphere.

The July 12-15 rainfall over Europe triggered flooding that swept away houses and power lines, and left more than 200 people dead, mostly in Germany. Dozens died in Belgium and thousands were also forced to flee their homes in the Netherlands. Read more.

"The fact that people are losing their lives in one of the richest countries in the world -- that is truly shocking," said climate scientist Ralf Toumi at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study. "Nowhere is safe."

Although the deluge was unprecedented, the 39 WWA scientists found that local rainfall patterns are highly variable.

So they conducted their analysis over a wider area spanning parts of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. They used local weather records and computer simulations to compare the July flooding event with what might have been expected in a world unaffected by climate change.

Because warmer air holds more moisture, summer downpours in this region are now 3-19% heavier than they would be without global warming, the scientists found.

And the event itself was anywhere from 1.2 to 9 times -- or 20% to 800% -- more likely to have occurred.

That broad range of uncertainty was partly explained by a lack of historical records, WWA explained, and worsened by the floods destroying equipment that monitored river conditions. Read more.

Still, the "study confirms that global heating has played a big part in the flooding disaster," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist and oceanographer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who was not involved in the study.

"This is in line with the finding of the recent IPCC report, which found that extreme rainfall events have increased worldwide," he added, referring to a U.N. climate panel's findings. Read more.

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Belgium

Seven residents of Belgian nursing home die after outbreak of B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19

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Seven residents of a nursing home in Belgium have died after being infected with a lineage of the coronavirus first detected in Colombia despite being fully vaccinated, the virology team that conducted tests said on Friday (6 August), writes Sabine Siebold, Reuters.

The virology team said the residents had been infected with the B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19 that originated in Colombia and has been detected in recent weeks in the United States but cases in Europe have been rare.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has listed the B1.621 lineage as part of the Kappa variant of the coronavirus, but not as a variant itself.

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The seven people who died at the nursing home in the Belgian town of Zaventem, near Brussels, were all in their 80s or 90s, and some of them were already in a poor physical condition, said Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven which conducted tests on the virus found at the nursing home.

"It is worrisome," Van Ranst said, commenting on the fact that the residents died despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far, scientists do not know if the B.1.621 lineage is more transmissible than other lineages or variants of the coronavirus, he said.

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In Belgium, B.1.621 currently accounts for less than 1% of known cases of COVID-19, he said, compared to 2% of cases in the United States and more than that in Florida.

At the nursing home in Zaventem, 21 residents were infected with the variant along with several members of staff, Van Ranst told Reuters. The infected staff experienced only mild symptoms.

Van Ranst said the dominant coronavirus variant in Belgium with around 95% of infections is the Delta, first discovered in India, followed by the Alpha that was previously dominant in Britain.

Additional tests will be run on Friday to rule out any possibility that the nursing home residents died from a different variant of the virus or a different respiratory disease, Van Ranst said.

"It is unlikely but not impossible," he said.

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