Parliament negotiators reached a provisional agreement with the Council presidency on 5 November on legislation establishing a mechanism that would allow the suspension of budget payments to a member state violating the rule of law.
The decision on the suspension will have to be taken by the Council acting by a qualified majority on the proposal of the European Commission.
MEPs have been warning that European values are at risk and that EU funds from the long-term budget and the recovery plan should not be put into the hands of those working against democracy and fundamental rights in Europe.
In a report adopted on 7 October, MEPs called for reinforcement of the rule of law across Europe through a new mechanism andfor effective sanctions on member states found to be in violation. They also insisted that the EU institutions should agree clear rules that link receiving EU funds to how a member state respects the rule of law.
What is rule of law?
Rule of law is laid down in the EU treaties as one of the values on which the Union is based. It means that governments should be bound by law, that they should not take arbitrary decisions and that citizens should be able to challenge their actions in independent courts.
It also enshrines the fight against corruption, which unfairly favours some to the detriment of others, and the safeguarding of media freedom, thus ensuring the public is properly informed about the work of government.
Rule of law is a common concern among Europeans. In a 2019 Eurobarometer survey, at least 85% of respondents across the EU considered each of the different aspects of the rule of law as essential or important. Another survey, from October 2020, found that 77% of Europeans support the concept that the EU should only provide funds to EU countries if they are in compliance with the rule of law and democratic principles.
EU mechanisms for the protection of rule of law
The EU has existing tools at its disposal to protect the rule of law. On 30 September 2020, the European Commission published the first annual rule of law report that monitors both positive and negative developments relating to the rule of law in all member states. It has been monitoring Romania and Bulgaria since they joined the EU in 2007.
There is also dialogue on the rule of law in the Council and the current German presidency plans to have country-specific discussions in November starting with five EU countries.
If the Commission is of the view that a member state is violating EU law, it can start infringement proceedings that may lead to financial sanctions determined by the European Court of Justice. Another procedure, under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, allows the Council to make recommendations or decide by unanimity on sanctions against a member state, including the suspension of membership rights.
The case for further measures
MEPs have argued that existing tools are insufficient. While there are ongoing hearings in the Council under Article 7 regarding Poland and Hungary, Parliament has expressed its regret about the lack of significant progress by the two member states in addressing the issues.
In a plenary debate on 5 October, MEPs welcomed the annual rule of law report launched by the Commission, but called for more action on enforcement. “Monitoring alone will not bring back judicial independence in Poland, nor will it save the Index media [outlet] in Hungary,” said Michal Šimečka (Renew Europe, Slovakia).
Šimečka drafted a report adopted on 7 October, calling for a mechanism that consolidates existing instruments and establishes an Annual Monitoring Cycle, with country-specific recommendations, timelines and targets for implementation. The cycle should serve as the basis for triggering Article 7 or suspending budget funds for a member state.
Protecting EU financial interests
Corruption or dependent courts may mean there is no protection against misuse of EU money allocated to a member state. The Commission put forward a legislative proposal in 2018 that aims to defend the Union’s financial interests, should deficiencies in the rule of law be detected.
Parliament adopted its position on the proposal in early 2019. The file is linked to the outcome of the negotiations on the EU long-term budget and Parliament has insisted that an agreement on the 2021-2027 budget is only possible if there is sufficient progress on this legislation.
EU leaders agreed in July 2020 to introduce rule of law conditionality, i.e. to make receipt of EU funds by a member state dependent on its respect for the rule of law. The German Council presidency put forward a compromise proposal in early autumn, which MEPs criticized as insufficient during the plenary debate on 5 October.
“A mechanism that cannot ever be triggered in practice due to backdoors or indecisive processes serves only the interests of those who do not wish to see any measures taken,” said Petri Sarvamaa (EPP, Finland).
Agreement with the Council
MEPs started negotiations with the Council in October. Parliament’s co-rapporteurs on the file are Sarvamaa and Eider Gardiazabal Rubial (S&D, Spain).
An agreement was reached on 5 November. Parliament’s negotiators secured a broad scope of the legislation, ensuring it will not only apply to cases of corruption and fraud, but will also cover breaches of fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights including the rights of minorities.
The agreed text also protects the final beneficiaries of the funds such as students, farmers or NGOs. They will be able to claim their due amounts from the Commission.
“For us it was crucial that final beneficiaries won’t be punished for the wrongdoing of their governments and that they continue receiving funds that have been promised to them,” said Gardiazabal Rubial.
How the EU aims to boost consumer protection
Find out how the EU aims to boost consumer protection and adapt it to new challenges such as the green transition and the digital transformation. Society
As the economy becomes more global and digital, the EU is looking at new ways to protect consumers. During the May plenary, MEPs will debate the digital future of Europe. The report focuses on removing barriers to the functioning of the digital single market and improving the use of articial intelligence for consumers.
New consumer agenda
Parliament is also working on the new consumer agenda strategy for 2020-2025, focusing on five areas: green transition, digital transformation, effective enforcement of consumer rights, specific needs of certain consumer groups and international cooperation.
Making it easier to consume sustainably
In November 2020, MEPs adopted a report on a sustainable single market calling on the European Commission to establish a so-called right to repair to make repairs systematic, cost efficient and attractive. Members also called for labelling the lifespan of products as well as measures to promote a culture of reuse, including guarantees on pre-owned goods.
They also want measures against purposefully designing products in a way that makes them obsolete after a certain time and reiterated demands for a common charger.
The Commission is working on right to repair rules for electronics and legislation on the environmental footprint of products to enable consumers to compare.
The review of the Sale of Goods Directive, planned for 2022, will look into whether the current two-year legal guarantee could be extended for new and pre-owned goods.
In September 2020, the Commission launched the sustainable products initiative, under the new Circular Economy Action Plan. It aims to make products fit for a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and circular economy while reducing waste. It will also address the presence of harmful chemicals in products such as electronics and ICT equipment, textiles and furniture.
Making the digital transformation safe for consumers
The digital transformation is dramatically changing our lives, including how we shop. To help EU consumer rules catch up, in December 2020 the Commission proposed a new Digital Services Act, a set of rules to improve consumer safety across online platforms in the EU, including online marketplaces.
MEPs want consumers to be equally safe when shopping online or offline and want platforms such as eBay and Amazon to step up efforts to tackle traders selling fake or unsafe products and to stop fraudulent companies using their services.
MEPs also proposed rules to protect users from harmful and illegal content online while safeguarding freedom of speech and called for new rules on online advertising giving users more control.
Given the impact of artificial Intelligence, the EU is preparing rules to manage its opportunities and threats. Parliament has set up a special committee and emphasises the need for human centric legislation. The Parliament has proposed a civil liability regime for artificial intelligence that establishes who is responsible when AI systems cause harm or damage.
Strengthening the enforcement of consumer rights
EU countries are responsible for enforcing consumer rights, but the EU has a coordinating and supporting role. Among the rules it has put in place are the directive on a better enforcement and modernisation of consumer law and rules on collective redress.
Addressing specific consumer needs
Vulnerable consumers such as children, elderly people or people living with disabilities, as well as people in financial difficulties or consumers with limited access to the internet need specific safeguards. In the new consumer agenda, the Commission plans to focus on problems with internet accessibility, financially vulnerable consumers and products for children.
The Commission’s plans include more offline advice for consumers with no internet access as well as funding to improve the availability and quality of debt advice services for people in financial difficulties.
Because children are particularly vulnerable to harmful advertising, Parliament has approved stricter rules for audiovisual media services for audiovisual media services.
Guaranteeing the safety of products sold in the EU
Consumers often purchase goods manufactured outside the EU. According to the Commission, purchases from sellers outside the EU increased from 17% in 2014 to 27% in 2019 and the new consumer agenda highlights the need for international cooperation to ensure consumer protection. China was the largest supplier of goods to the EU in 2020, so the Commission will work on an action plan with them in 2021 to increase the safety of products sold online.
In November 2020, Parliament passed a resolution calling for greater efforts to ensure that all products sold in the EU are safe, whether manufactured within or outside the EU or are sold online or offline.
Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee is working on the Commission proposal for the new consumer agenda. MEPs are expected to vote on it in September.
Find out more
Coronavirus: Health Security Committee updates the common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests
The Health Security Committee (HSC) has agreed to update the common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests (RATs), including those whose results are mutually recognised by EU member states for public health measures. Following the update, 83 RATs are now included in the common list, of which the results of 35 tests are being mutually recognised. Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said: “Rapid antigen tests play a crucial role to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Diagnostics are a central element for member states in their overall response to the pandemic. Having a wider list of recognised rapid antigen tests will also make it easier for citizens to benefit from Digital Green Certificates and to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU in the coming months.”
In addition, the Commission and the Joint Research Centre have agreed on a new procedure for updating the list of common and mutually recognised RATs in the future. From today onwards, RATs manufacturers will be able to submit data and information for certain tests that meet the criteria agreed by the Council on 21 January 2021. This includes only those rapid tests that are being carried out by a trained health professional or other trained operator and excludes rapid antigen self-tests. Moreover, as part of the new procedure, the HSC is setting up a technical working group of national experts to review the data submitted by countries and manufacturers and to propose updates to the HSC.
They will also work with the JRC and the ECDC on a common procedure for carrying out independent validation studies to assess the clinical performance of RATs. The updated common list of COVID-19 RATs is available here. Manufacturers can submit data on rapid antigen tests available on the market here. The Council Recommendation on a common framework for the use and validation of RATs and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results in the EU can be found here.
Mohsen Rezaee emerges as the West's man on the ground
As nuclear talks in Vienna stall, negotiators are keeping a close eye on Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, the outcome of which could be key to breaking the current deadlock, writes Yanis Radulović.
With a fourth round of talks set to resume in Vienna this week, pressure is mounting on high-ranking European negotiators to reach an accord that bridges the geopolitical chasm between Washington and Tehran and brings Iran back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
A historic non-proliferation agreement and widely regarded as one of the Obama administration’s premier foreign policy achievements, the JCPOA set out a framework to curtail Iran’s nuclear breakout time and established formal steps for capping the enrichment of fissile material, scheduling transparent atomic facility inspections, and dismantling excess centrifuge installations. In return for sustained compliance with this framework, the U.S. and other major world powers agreed to a gradual lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.
When the US withdrew from this landmark agreement in 2018, the European co-signatories of Germany, France, and the UK stepped up to keep the deal alive. However, European relations in the region quickly became strained by the revival of Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran, a campaign which aimed to strangle the Iranian economy via unilateral sanctions and escalatory retaliatory actions.
Unsurprisingly, Washington’s pivot to maximum pressure has placed major European powers in a foreign policy double bind. While the recent uptick in U.S.-Iran tensions has trended downwards since the election of President Joe Biden, his predecessor’s approach in the region has had a lasting effect upon Iranian goodwill towards multilateral agreements like the JCPOA.
For the European co-signatories, the nuclear talks in Vienna are embedded within a broader strategy of strategic détente and diplomatic reintegration between Europe and Iran. Beyond the obvious advantages of nuclear non-proliferation, Europe is also eyeing a future where Iran can step up as a fully-fledged, sanction-free actor on the international stage. Despite having an estimated 9 percent share of the world’s oil reserves, the sanction-sapped Iranian economy is woefully underdeveloped. Throw in the simulative potential of Iran’s frozen assets — estimated to be worth between $100 and $120 billion — and it’s easy to see why Europe views Iran as such a promising partner for foreign direct investment.
On a condition of anonymity, a senior official from the US State Department spoke with Reuters and shed some light on the likelihood of a deal being inked during the fourth round of talks, saying: "Is it possible that we'll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual compliance? It's possible yes.”
Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s top negotiator, is slightly more pessimistic at the chances of a deal in the immediate future. Speaking on state TV, Araqchi emphasized that Iran would not rush into a new deal without a stable framework of safeguards.
"When it will happen is unpredictable and a timeframe cannot be set. Iran is trying (for) it to happen as soon as possible, but we will not do anything in a rush," Araqchi said.
As formal talks stall, European negotiators are looking at Mohsen Rezaee, one of three front-runners in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, to cut through the diplomatic red tape and promote mutually beneficial collaboration with the US and EU.
Unlike his fellow presidential candidates, Rezaee is not a lifelong politician. Nevertheless, with a career spanning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Expediency Discernment Council, Rezaee is a seasoned diplomat and pragmatic negotiator. Perhaps Rezaee’s most impressive achievement is the fact that in all his years of civil, military, and political service, he has never once been subject to a corruption scandal or criminal probe.
While established politicians like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may be a more conventionally attractive partner with the West, there is growing conviction in Europe that Rezaee, a well-rounded, well-respected, and reliable candidate, is the man best suited to represent Iran and its position on international nuclear negotiations.
A proven leader who is unafraid to express his opinions, Rezaee has repeatedly shown that he is capable of adjusting his opinions and uniting coalitions. Despite his role as a representative of the “Revolution Generation”, Rezaee has made it clear that he is no radical. After years of civil service, Rezaee has broken ranks with many of the hardline views that are commonplace in the IRGC. In fact, in an interview with the Tehran Times, he went as far as to dismiss a nuclear arms race as unwise, remarking: “Political wisdom requires not to chase weapons that can destroy the entire humanity.”
With impediments to progress rearing at every turn in Vienna, it has become abundantly clear that the West needs a man on the ground in Iran. Mohsen Rezaee, and the emerging movement he represents, may be the key to breaking the deadlock in negotiations and bringing Iran back as a major player in the global economy.
The opinions expressed in the above article are thoseof the author alone, and do not reflect any opinion on the part of EU Reporter.
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