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Plenary highlights: #EuropeanGreenDeal and #FutureOfEurope and #Brexit

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During the first plenary session of 2020, Parliament called for more ambitious measures to tackle climate change and to put citizens at the centre of an initiative to reform the EU.

Parliament supported the European Commission's plan for the EU to become climate neutral by 2050 on Wednesday and called for a higher 2030 emissions reduction target of 55%. The previous day, they discussed a proposal on how to finance this green transition, including support for regions affected by it.

Citizens have to be at the core of discussions on how to reform the EU, MEPs said in a resolution adopted on Wednesday (15 January), setting out their vision for the Conference on the Future of Europe.

On the same day, MEPs adopted a resolution calling to ensure the protection of EU and UK citizens’ rights after Brexit.

Ahead of the UN biodiversity conference in China in October, MEPs called for legally binding targets at global and EU level to stop biodiversity loss.

This week, MEPs also discussed measures to tackle the gender pay gap. A vote on a resolution on this will be held later this month.

MEPs debated the situation in Iran following recent escalations, while King Abdullah II of Jordan underlined the importance of peace in the Middle East during an address to MEPs.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković presented the priorities of his country's Council presidency to Parliament on Wednesday.

Parliament also adopted a resolution criticizing the worsening situation in Poland and Hungary regarding the rule of law.

January plenary with national flags

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In Italy, a monopoly to rule the telecommunications market is in the works

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The Italian telecom market might become much less competitive in the near future with the creation of a new monopoly, if a controversial plan to create a national broadband operator goes through, one that would see Telecom Italia (TIM) merging with Open Fiber, one of its only rivals on the broadband market. For his part, TIM CEO Luigi Gubitosi is extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects and is expecting the project to come to pass soon. Even so, these expectations could be immature, given that resistance against the merger is growing, writes Colin Stevens.

On the surface, however, Gubitosi has good reason to be optimistic at the moment. The Italian government is more than enthusiastic about the deal, having been the driving force behind it since 2018. Then, in August this year, Rome approved the proposed ownership plan for the post-merger company that was drawn up by state-owned investment bank Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP). According to press reports, CDP is the main proponent and guarantor of the plan that would see the emergence of AccessCo, a unified national broadband network to dominate the market.

The details are still being negotiated behind closed doors by the would-be partners, a group that also includes the Italian energy giant Enel, which controls around 50% of the Open Fiber stock, with the other half in the hands of CDP. In this scenario, TIM would eventually take majority ownership of the unified network, which the government hopes will accelerate Italy’s sluggish development of Internet infrastructure – an issue that has plagued the country for years.

Like other Southern-European countries, Italy is on the wrong side of the digital divide that cuts across Europe, lagging well behind Northern and even Eastern Europe in terms of both access and speed. The government’s reasoning is that the sheer scale of the new national provider will permit it to make massive investments in FTTx technology that the sector desperately needs. While Telecom Italia will be in charge of the proposed company, the authorities promise to put in place a system of regulations and multiple shareholders to keep them in check. 

The case against monopolies

But while the Italian government might see the merger as the silver bullet to improve the country’s Internet access, others are not so convinced. Angelo Cardani, at the time president of AGCOM, the regulator for the Italian communication market, in 2019 slammed the merger as a “backward step” for the industry, warning that the lack of competition will do more to stifle innovation and progress than promote it.

Cardani made his standpoint clear, but only weeks later his mandate as the head of AGCOM ended and the new president, Giacomo Lasorella, has been conspicuously silent on the matter. Lasorella is seen as an associate of Luigi Di Maio, a popular politician who previously served as leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement which currently forms half of Italy’s coalition government. 

Nevertheless, Cardani’s warning that the merger would create the opposite outcome of what Rome hopes to achieve is nothing to sneeze at. Over the last two decades, few industries have proven the beneficial effects of competition more than telecommunications. The countries routinely ranked among the best in terms of Internet access and quality are almost without exception countries with robust competition in their telecom markets. 

In the US, the geographical divisions between companies have created a pseudo-monopoly in which less than a third of the population has a choice of Internet provider. This has caused the US to drop out of the top 10 in recent years and is now trailing Hungary and Thailand thanks to broadband speeds that were unimpressive even 15 years ago. While Italy’s size and geography aren’t quite comparable to those of the USA, a monopoly would still create second class netizens in the country’s remote and mountainous regions, where improving the infrastructure of users who have no other choice is hardly a priority. 

Match point antitrust rules?

However, the biggest hurdle in AccessCo’s creation is undoubtedly antirust watchdogs. The European Union’s antitrust arm is known for routinely opposing such disruptive mergers, particularly in the tech and telecom industry. And despite current deliberations being held in private, the message conveyed through unofficial channels strongly indicates that it will do so again in this case. According to unnamed officials, the Commission’s view on the matter is that the merger would evidently create a monopoly and reverse two decades of deregulation. Since Italian antitrust rules closely mirror EU ones, there is little reason to expect a different outcome should the case come before the national authority.

The confidential revelations wiped 7.4% off Telecom Italia’s shares, and despite Italian Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri’s hasty assurances that he has “no awareness of a potential EU veto”, Brussels’ decision seems already predetermined. In its 'Connectivity for a European Gigabit Society' policy, the Commission has previously recommended the exact opposite of what the AccessCo merger proposes, encouraging the strategy of “unbundling” to be extended in the broadband industry and proposing measures to foster the development of genuinely competitive wholesale broadband markets. It stands to reason that the Commission is highly unlikely to renege on these principles, or grant an exception to Telecom Italia. 

Right reasons, wrong execution

The following months will prove crucial for the future of Italy’s telecoms market – and digital future. The country is right to make better internet a priority, and yet is taking the wrong approach. Even if an agreement is met by all the partners in the merger and even if the new AGCOM council gives its blessing, the European Union is still more likely than not to oppose AccessCo’s creation. The Italian competition authority would be wise to join the EU as well. As it stands now, the most important people in Italy’ telecom industry are working hard on a bad plan the only redeeming factor of which is that it’s probably doomed to failure from the start.

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Statement by the European Commission following the fourth meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee

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The fourth regular meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee on the implementation and application of the Withdrawal Agreement, co-chaired by Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, took place today (20 October) in London.

The aim of today's meeting was to jointly assess the current state of the implementation work, following the recent meetings of the Specialized Committees, and to reach a shared understanding of the outstanding issues and a detailed timeline for their resolution.

Given the limited time left before the transition period ends, Vice-President Šefčovič underlined the need to concentrate all efforts on both sides on bridging existing implementation gaps and delivering results so that the Withdrawal Agreement is fully operational as of 1 January 2021. This requires moving beyond a business-as-usual approach.

Vice President Šefčovič welcomed the clear political steer and commitment given today by Michael Gove, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and co-chairman of the Joint Committee, so that the EU and the UK can reach mutually agreed solutions on all outstanding issues on the table, in particular with regard to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In this context, it was agreed that contacts at all levels will significantly intensify. It was also agreed that the next meeting of the Joint Committee would take place in mid-November.

On citizens' rights, the parties welcome the progress made in recent weeks and agreed on the first joint implementation report, which will be published in the coming days. This report provides a first overview of national implementation measures with regard to residence in the EU and UK and will be updated at least every three months until the end of 2021. The EU recalled in particular its commitment to ensuring that UK nationals and their family members living in the EU can avail of their rights by the end of the grace period under the Withdrawal Agreement.

To that end, the vice president confirmed that all EU member states are on track to fully deploy their new residence schemes and process applications from all UK nationals on time. The EU side further sought and received political assurances that under the UK settlement scheme, all EU citizens with residence status will benefit from the same set and level of rights as those guaranteed by the Withdrawal Agreement. This is tangible proof that we are delivering on our commitment to 4.5 million EU and UK nationals.

The Vice-President also confirmed that an agreement had been found with EFTA countries on the decision to extend the social security protections provided by the Withdrawal Agreement to EU, UK and EFTA nationals in triangular situations.

With regard to the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, Vice President Šefčovič reiterated the importance of its full and timely implementation to maintain peace and stability on the island of Ireland by protecting the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and ensure the integrity of the EU Single Market.

In this respect, the EU informed the UK that the Commission had adopted a decision to give the UK access to the necessary IT systems, databases and networks needed to fulfil its obligations under the Protocol.

The EU side also strongly reiterated the need for the UK to substantially accelerate work on all necessary measures ensuring full practical implementation, in particular with regard to border control posts, Value Added Tax and the registration of Northern Irish traders for VAT purposes.

Vice President Šefčovič also recalled his strong concerns regarding the lack of progress on the decisions that need to be taken by the Joint Committee, as set out in the Protocol. These decision cover in particular workable arrangements for an EU presence in Northern Ireland, criteria for goods to be considered ‘not at risk' of moving into the Union and the exemption of agricultural subsidies from State aid rules, as well as a Decision correcting errors and omissions in Annex 2 of the Protocol.

Both teams were given clear political direction in today's meeting to operate constructively and make real progress towards our mutually agreed solutions.

Finally, Vice President Šefčovič welcomed the reassurances given by the UK side with regard to the Joint Decision on the list of arbitrators for the dispute settlement mechanism under the Withdrawal Agreement so that it can be established before the end of the year – in time for the arbitration panel to start operating next year.

Today's meeting demonstrated the political will to move at pace on both sides. This is necessary as, despite some progress, much work remains to be done by the UK, in particular with regard to the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland in its entirety from 1 January 2021 onwards. The EU reiterated that it is ready to work with the UK to find solutions at full speed and within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement and EU law.

 

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Poland: Why does Kaczyński fear independent judges?

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“For many years, we have witnessed the ruling coalition undermining the whole structure of the state, including the judiciary, in Poland. The consequences of this are extremely serious. The government is undermining the foundation on which the EU is built,” warned EPP Group Chairman Manfred Weber MEP.

Some of the latest, most alarming developments include a pseudo-verdict of an unrecognized disciplinary chamber to waive the immunity of a judge, suspend her and cut her salary in half. The waiver of the immunity of two other independent judges is also anticipated. This week, an attempt to remove the Ombudsman from his office is expected. In addition, plans are underway to erode women’s rights in Poland.

“These actions weaken Poland's position and are ultimately bad for our freedom and our economic progress. How are European citizens or businesses supposed to trust that their rights and freedoms are protected by law if Mr Kaczyński or Mr Ziobro are deciding what that law is? Independent justice underpins our common freedom and economic progress. The Polish government has been attacking this for too long,” Weber underlined.

It's time for urgent action according to EPP Group Spokeswoman for Civil Liberties Roberta Metsola MEP: “Polish judges are European judges and the EU has a duty to defend them and protect the rights of Polish citizens to have an impartial and fair judicial system. We urge the Polish government to turn back from its destructive path and re-embrace its role as a constructive partner within the European project. We call on the Commission to seriously examine the latest developments in Poland and act fast, in accordance with the pending Article 7 procedure and which has been ongoing now for three years with little positive impact.”

The situation is particularly concerning in light of the enormous amounts of EU solidarity investments planned for Poland under the Recovery Fund. "Europe is ready to massively support the Polish economy in the COVID-19 crisis. However, citizens everywhere are concerned about the rule of law and they don't want their taxes supporting governments that undermine the independence of the judiciary or the freedom of the media. Solidarity in Europe goes hand-in-hand with responsibility," Weber and Metsola insisted.

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