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Opinion: Europe - the paths to nowhere!

EU Reporter Correspondent

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_Portrait_of_Henri_Malosse_0034By European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) President Henri Malosse (pictured)

On 25 May 2014, European voters will have to select members of parliament from among candidates they have probably never heard of, who will sit in a parliament whose responsibilities and powers they know little about.  

The main campaign issues are gradually taking shape in each EU country. And, as usual, debates will be dominated by national political issues and games, with each party developing its own rhetoric and adding a European dimension for the sake of appearances. In this game of appearances, European citizens are often faced with three choices, i.e. three types of political players: those who are done with Europe; those who advocate the big leap; and those who are trying to hang on to the status quo. In our opinion, none of these options would get us anywhere and we must suggest another path for Europe.

1. Euroscepticism  
First we have the Eurosceptics - from the far left to the far right, and an intervening range of nationalist and sovereignist movements - who want a purely intergovernmental Europe. They base their argument on an outdated model of society, namely, one nation, one language, one state. The most radical among them do not hesitate to suggest abolishing the EU institutions, restoring borders, leaving the euro area, etc. However, Europe has already tried this path, and we know where it ended. Germany, the major power of the moment, could well team up with some eastern and central European countries, the Netherlands and possibly the Nordic countries, leaving other European countries seeking an alternative coalition. Haven't we seen something like this before? Aside from the threat of new conflicts, the real fear is that our continent could slide irretrievably into international decline.

2. European federalism
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the euro-enthusiasts, such as the Spinelli group, who advocate swift progress towards a federal Europe along the lines of a United States of Europe. This idea, which has been around for decades, is far more out of touch with grassroots reality than ever before. In view of the EU institutions' unpopularity with Europeans (according to the latest Eurostat survey over 60% of EU citizens do not or no longer trust them), how can they be asked to support a project that involves a transfer of economic as well as political sovereignty to Brussels, which they equate with the austerity measures and technocracy that are making their lives so difficult?

3. The status quo
The vast majority of traditional parties are trying to hang on to the hybrid model of a Europe that is half-intergovernmental, half-Union. In recent years, this model has been characterised by a series of crisis meetings, tired statements and unsatisfactory tinkered proposals from the institutions. Who can seriously believe that a €6 billion plan (i.e. €300 per jobseeker) is likely to make a significant dent in Europe's unemployment figures? A Europe where the presidents of the Commission and of the Council are still jostling for their place among heads of state, is a Europe where, some fifty years on, Kissinger's question - "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" - is still relevant. The worst choice would in fact be to do nothing and to let the European project drift along gradually until it became a source of perpetual crisis.

The fourth path? 
Three paths, three dead ends! It is no surprise that the majority of Europeans are planning to spend 25 May 2014 taking walks in the country, fishing or demonstrating against a Europe that has forgotten them.

But could there be another way, a more pragmatic path? Others have succeeded before us - take Jean Monnet, who got the European project on track after the devastation of the Second World War.

Europe has gone off course, especially since the crisis, with increasingly divergent economic and social models, or models plain and simple. With minimum wages that vary from 1 to 12 across the EU, development gaps continue to grow and directives from Brussels about the size of cucumbers or the quality of flush devices will do nothing to stop this.

The priority should be to restore public confidence and intra-European solidarity and to return to the path of convergence. For this reason, we need to establish appropriate tools and a timetable for their implementation, not least in areas such as the budget, taxation and social welfare. A European budgetary institute would make it possible to set priority objectives based on the competitive gains expected from greater convergence and solidarity. The re-industrialisation of Europe would be a major undertaking, which would return it to the path of growth and employment, as happened in Germany during the Schröder era. By encouraging national enterprises to work together, we would be facilitating the emergence of European leaders that are competitive on the international market, like Airbus, which remains a rare example of a genuine European success story.

The next step would be to set a timetable for fiscal and social convergence along similar lines to the monetary snake preceding the establishment of the euro. Consensus could then be reached on several principles, such as the crucial need to boost industry and the vital need for simplification.  The third step would be for the EU to adopt a budget worthy of the name - today it represents less than 1% of GDP - thereby enabling it to become a regional player with the capacity to influence international decisions.

This path to what I would call a solid and solidarity-based Europe cannot be taken without the permanent involvement of Europeans - national parliaments, the European Parliament, citizens initiatives and civil society. Jean Monnet was right to establish a committee of economic and social partners within the ECSC in 1951 and, subsequently, the Economic and Social Committee in 1958. Faced with member states' refusal to support the EU through these necessary changes, the EU will have to turn to European citizens. And to do this, Europe needs to convince them that they are at the centre of its concerns.

This is why, when the time comes, a European Convention should be launched, based on the model born of the constitutional treaty, but this time it will not be to agree on the destination but on the path itself.

As Buddha said, happiness is a journey not a destination. This is equally true for Europe and Europeans.

Henri Malosse

EU

Companies should be held accountable for their actions, say MEPs

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs want a new EU law to ensure companies are held accountable when their actions harm people and the planet. On 8 March MEPs debated a report by the legal affairs committee on corporate accountability. The report calls on the European Commission to come up with a law obliging EU companies to address aspects of their value chains that could affect human rights (including social, trade union and labour rights), the environment (for example contribution to climate change) and good governance.

Doing the right thing does not give businesses a competitive advantage at the moment. The lack of a joint EU-wide approach on this matter could lead to a disadvantage for those companies that are proactive regarding social and environmental matters, the report said. The rules would apply to all large undertakings in the EU, as well as to publicly listed small and medium-sized enterprises and those that for example share "risky" supply chains with larger companies.

However, MEPs say the binding rules should also go beyond the EU’s borders, meaning that all companies that want to access the EU's internal market, including those established outside the EU, would have to prove that they comply with due diligence obligations related to human rights and the environment.

In addition, the MEPs want the rights of stakeholders or victims in non-EU countries, who are particularly vulnerable, to be better protected. They likewise want a ban on importing products linked to severe human rights violations such as forced or child labour.

“The European Parliament has the chance this week to become a leader in responsible business conduct,” said report author Lara Wolters (S&D, the Netherlands) during the debate.

“For businesses, we’re creating a level playing field and legal clarity. For consumers, we’re ensuring fair products. For workers, we’re enhancing protection. For victims, we’re improving access to justice. And for the environment, we’re taking a step that is very long overdue.”

In February 2020, the Commission published a study which found that only one in three companies in the EU is currently taking some form of due diligence measures while 70% of European businesses support EU-wide due diligence rules.

Read more on how the EU trade policy helps to promote human rights and environmental standards.

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Coming up: Women’s Day, future of EU, investment and health

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs will mark International Women’s Day, vote on EU investment and health programmes, call for greater corporate responsibility and support LGBTIQ rights during the next plenary session.

International Women’s Day

Parliament will mark International Women’s Day today (8 March) with an address by Parliament President David Sassoli and a pre-recorded video message on women’s leadership during Covid crisis from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Find out more about other events surrounding International Women's Day organized by the Parliament.

Boosting investment to help recovery

On Tuesday (9 March), MEPs will vote on the InvestEU programme, which aims to boost strategic and innovative investments to help Europe recover from the current crisis as well as achieve its long-term goals of a green and digital transformation.

New EU health programme

Another important item on Tuesday is EU4Health - MEPs will debate and cast their final vote on the €5.1 billion programme for EU action in the field of health for 2021-2027, aimed at boosting EU readiness for and crisis management of future health threats.

Conference on the Future of Europe

Wednesday (10 March) will bring us closer to the Conference on the Future of Europe when the joint declaration will be signed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. The Conference will be an opportunity for Europeans to express their opinions and get involved in setting the EU’s priorities.

Carbon levy on imports

Today (8 March) MEPs will debate ways of combating climate change by preventing so-called carbon leakage. This is when companies transfer production to countries with laxer greenhouse gas emission constraints than the EU. Parliament is expected to call for a carbon levy on imports from such countries. MEPs will vote on it on Wednesday.

Social and environmental accountability for companies

Parliament is expected to call on the European Commission to introduce new rules holding businesses accountable and liable when they harm human rights, the environment or good governance. MEPs want corporate due diligence and corporate accountability rules to also apply to all companies that want to access the EU market. They will debate today and vote on Wednesday.

Support for LGBTIQ rights

MEPs are expected to express their support for LGBTIQ rights by calling for the EU to be an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone. There will be a debate on Wednesday and a vote on Thursday. This is in response to the so-called ‘free of LGBT ideology zones that have been introduced by some local governments in Poland, a move strongly condemned by the European Parliament.

Media freedom in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia

On Wednesday, MEPs will debate recent action by Polish, Hungarian and Slovenian authorities that could put the situation of independent media at risk.

Also on the agenda

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EU, under pressure over vaccine rollouts, considers switch to emergency approvals

Reuters

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The European Commission said on Tuesday (2 March) that it was considering emergency approvals for COVID-19 vaccines as a faster alternative to more rigorous conditional marketing authorizations which have been used so far, writes Francesco Guarascio, @fraguarascio.

The move would mark a big shift in approach to vaccine approvals, as it would entail using a procedure that the EU had considered dangerous and that before the COVID-19 pandemic had been reserved for exceptional authorization at national level of drugs for terminally ill patients, including cancer treatments.

The potential change comes as the EU executive and the bloc’s drug regulator come under increasing pressure for what some consider slow vaccine approvals, which have contributed to a slower rollout of COVID-19 shots in the 27-nation union, compared to the United States and former EU member Britain.

“We are ready to reflect with the member states on all possible avenues to indeed accelerate the approval of the vaccines,” an EU Commission spokesman told a news conference.

One option could be “an emergency authorisation of vaccines at EU level with shared liability among member states”, the spokesman said, adding that work on this could start very quickly if EU governments supported the idea.

It was not clear whether an EU-wide emergency authorisation procedure, if agreed upon, would entail the same conditions as emergency approvals granted at national level, the commission spokesman told Reuters.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) cannot currently issue emergency approvals but in exceptional circumstances has recommended the compassionate use of drugs before marketing authorisation.

This procedure was used in April to initially authorise doctors to use Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment against COVID-19. The drug was later given conditional approval by EMA.

National emergency approvals are allowed under EU laws, but they force countries to take full responsibility if something goes wrong with a vaccine, whereas under the more rigorous marketing authorisation, pharmaceutical companies remain liable for their vaccines.

The EU Commission had said that national emergency authorisations should not be used for COVID-19 vaccines, because faster approvals could reduce regulators’ ability to check efficacy and safety data.

This could also boost vaccine hesitancy, which is already high in some countries, EU officials had said.

One senior EU official said the emergency procedure had so far usually been used at national level for terminally ill patients and the EU had instead chosen the lengthier conditional marketing authorisation because with vaccines “we inject healthy people” and the risk was disproportionate.

The change of tack would come after Eastern European countries, including Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, approved Russian and Chinese vaccines with national emergency procedures.

Britain has also used the emergency procedure to approve COVID-19 vaccines.

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