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Week ahead: EU-US tech trade and tribulations

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We don’t yet know the outcome of the German federal elections, but over the next week - and maybe weeks - we will see a new coalition government emerge. What variety of coalition is formed and what it will mean for the rest of Europe remains to be seen, but a growth model that is so highly dependent on exports, especially to China, will present very real challenges for any incoming government. 

Fiscal future

There does seem to be widespread agreement that Germany needs to invest extensively in renewing and updating its infrastructure, which could assist the EU’s discussions around the future of the “stability and growth pact”, which will be reopened for consultation. 

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Aukward

Tensions between the US and France over Australia’s withdrawal from a submarine deal with little or no notice to the French partners nearly scuppered the EU-US trade and technology meeting, instead the meeting is going ahead, but without a press conference. Australia decided to choose the US and - to a lesser extent - the UK over France which challenged diplomatic arrangements to breaking point - with France briefly recalling its ambassadors from the US and Australia.

The EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) will meet for the first time on Wednesday (29 Septembter. The meeting provides a more formal platform to help alignment and address areas of common concern and will have ten working groups, including AI rules, semiconductors, export control, foreign investment screening and the nexus between trade, technology and security. There is a clear concern over China, and a recognition that this is a mutual concern for the EU and US. Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis will head to Pittsburgh to lead the EU side.

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However, the EU and US have had their own complications over technology. Data protection, the Schrems judgements on Safe Harbour and its successor Privacy Shield on data sharing with the US have not yet been fully resolved. 

This week also sees the commencement of hearings in the EU’s top court on the Google/Alphabet challenge to the European Commission’s decision to fine them €4.34 billion for breaching EU competition rules - a decision that dates from 2018. The fine is largely linked to Google requiring manufacturers to preinstall Google Search on mobile phones.

The Parliament will hold a hearing at the start of the week on EU/US trade relations.

Serbia/Kosovo

European Commission President von der Leyen will be heading to the Balkans this week, including planned visits to Kosovo and Serbia. The visit comes as Serbia has escalated its presence on its border with Kosovo. EU High Representative Josep Borrell issued a statement yesterday (26 September) calling for de-escalation and a return to EU-facilitated dialogue as the only platform to address and resolve all open issues between the parties. The chief negotiators for both sides have agreed to visit Brussels this week to discuss solutions. Borrell has also been in contact with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenber to discuss the co-operation with the NATO mission in Kosovo and its relations with EULEX. 

The Competitiveness Council will meet on 28-29 September, ministers will focus on research on Tuesday (A Global Approach to Research and Innovation, the European Research Area) and on industrial policy on Wednesday (the New Industrial Strategy and future-proofing policy making for the competitiveness of the EU).

The Parliament will meet for committee and group meetings this week. Among the most important issues will be committee discussions on the amendments to the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. The EP Conference of Presidents will meet with Vice President Maroš Šefčovič on the setting-up of an EU-UK parliamentary partnership assembly. 

Also on the Parliament’s agenda (and with courtesy of the Parliament):

ECB/Lagarde. Members of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee will quiz European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde on the state of the eurozone. Inflation, risks to price stability, disorderly market reactions after the pandemic and the review of the ECB’s monetary policy strategy are among the topics likely to be raised (Monday).

Revision of the trans-European networks for energy (TEN-E). The Industry and Energy Committee will vote on its position on the new EU guidelines for selecting the projects to be financed. The selected Projects of Common Interest should improve connection between national markets, secure supply and promote renewables. Financing of fossil fuels and hydrogen and carbon capture should also be addressed (Tuesday).

Budget control/FRONTEX. Following a decision by Parliament in April to postpone clearing of the accounts (so-called discharge) of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the Budgetary Control Committee will vote on whether or not the discharge should be granted. MEPs needed clarification on a series of issues, e.g. delays in recruiting fundamental rights officers, gender imbalance, reported cases of harassment and meetings with lobbyists not on the EU transparency register (Monday).

European Public Prosecutor/Kövesi. Members of the Budgetary Control Committee will discuss with EU chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi how the EU Public Prosecutor’s Office has fared in its first few months fighting against financial crimes. The Office’s workload, its lack of staff as well as the appointment procedures of the delegated prosecutors are likely to be raised by MEPs (Friday).

Rule of law/Hungary. A Civil Liberties Committee delegation will travel to Budapest to assess the situation regarding the rule of law, media freedom, the education system and minority rights. MEPs will meet, among others, the Mayor of Budapest, members of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, the fundamental rights commissioner, NGOs and journalists (Wednesday to Friday).

2022 EU budget. The Budgets Committee will set its negotiating position on the EU budget for 2022. MEPs want the budget to support the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and lay the foundations for a more resilient Union (Tuesday).

European Citizens’ Panels/Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Citizens’ Panels will continue their discussions with the third 200-citizen meeting in Strasbourg. It will focus on climate change, the environment and health. The Panels will put forward recommendations that will feed into the Conference deliberations and ultimately into the report on its final outcome (Friday to Sunday).

2021 Sakharov Prize. The nominees for this year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be presented to MEPs in a joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Development committees and the Human Rights Subcommittee (Monday).

Plenary preparations. Political groups will prepare for the 4-7 October plenary session, where MEPs will discuss the future of EU-US relations and vote on resolutions on the humanitarian crisis along the EU-Belarus border and the Belarusian regime’s hybrid warfare against the EU, on the state of the EU’s cyber defence capabilities and on an EU-Taiwan partnership. They will also debate and vote on the use of artificial intelligence by the police, on how to meet the EU’s ambition for zero road deaths by 2050, on opportunities and security challenges in the Arctic, on the reform of the EU Asylum agency and on the EU trust fund and the facility to support refugees in Turkey.

European Parliament

MEPs want protection for media, NGOs and civil society from abusive lawsuits

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The EU needs rules against vexatious legal actions intended to silence critical voices, according to the Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Legal Affairs committees, JURI  LIBE.

In a draft report endorsed on Thursday (14 October) with 63 votes for, nine against, and 10 abstentions, MEPs propose measures to counteract the threat that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society.

MEPs regret that no member state has yet enacted targeted legislation against SLAPPs, and they worry about the effect of these lawsuits on EU values and the internal market. In the report, they highlight the frequent imbalance of power and resources between claimants and defendants, which undermines the right to a fair trial. MEPs are particularly concerned about SLAPPs being funded from state budgets, and their use in combination with other state measures against independent media outlets, journalism and civil society.

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Measures to protect victims and sanction abusers

The draft report adopted by the Committees calls on the Commission to analyse best practices currently applied outside the EU to SLAPPs, and present a package of measures, including legislation. These should, according to MEPs, include:

  • An ambitious legal framework in the upcoming Media Freedom Act;
  • the prevention of ‘libel tourism’ or ‘forum shopping’ through uniform and predictable defamation rules, and by establishing that cases should be decided by the courts (and according to the laws) of the defendant’s habitual place of residence;
  • rules on early dismissal by the courts so that SLAPPs can be stopped quickly based on objective criteria, such as the number and nature of lawsuits or actions brought by the claimant, the choice of jurisdiction and law, or the existence of a clear and burdensome imbalance of power;
  • sanctions for the claimant if they fail to justify why their action is not abusive, rules to ensure the consideration of abusive motives even if early dismissal is not granted, and the payment of costs and damages suffered by the victim;
  • safeguards against combined SLAPPs, i.e. those combining criminal and civil liability charges, and measures to ensure that defamation (which is a criminal offence in most member states, despite calls for its decriminalisation by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) cannot be used for SLAPPs;
  • an EU directive establishing minimum standards, which should protect victims while preventing and sanctioning the misuse of anti-SLAPP measures, e.g. by authoritarian governments weaponising them to protect their government-organised NGOs, and;
  • financial aid for legal and psychological help for victims of SLAPPs and organisations assisting them, and adequate training of judges and lawyers.

Quotes

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Co-rapporteur Roberta Metsola (EPP, MT) said “The strong support for our report sends a powerful message that Parliament will safeguard the fourth pillar of our democracy. We call for mechanisms to allow for the expeditious dismissal of vexatious lawsuits and to help those affected to claim compensation. We want an EU Fund and information networks to support victims. The key issue is balance: we are targeting those who abuse our legal systems to silence or intimidate, while protecting those caught in the cross-fire, many of whom have nowhere else to turn”.

Co-rapporteur Tiemo Wölken (S&D, DE) said: “Even before they materialise, SLAPPs undermine the rule of law, the internal market, and the rights of expression, information and association. We call on the Commission to come forward with concrete and feasible legislative proposals, for example on ‘libel tourism’ and ‘forum shopping’. We also propose key non-legislative measures, such as effective financial and legal assistance, as well as psychological support and practical advice, to be provided by a ‘first aid’ one-stop-shop for victims".

Łukasz Kohut, S&D rapporteur for civil liberties, justice and home affairs, said: “The rich and the powerful, including government figures, have endless resources to weaken journalism and silence any critics through abusive lawsuits. Too many journalists, media organisations and NGOs regularly face smear campaigns through the use of these targeted lawsuits. But no one should fear legal consequences for speaking the truth. That is why the European Parliament has been urgently working to strengthen the voice of those working in the pursuit of the truth and put an end to abusive lawsuits. No effort to protect journalists or civil society is too much. With media freedom already under severe strain in the EU, we need the Commission to put proposals on the table that include binding safeguards for victims of SLAPPs. Across the EU, national governments must also fully implement the recommendations from the Council of Europe on the protection and safety of journalists. We have to act to counter any dangerous effort to undermine media freedom and democracy in the EU.”

Next steps

The draft report is expected to be tabled for a plenary vote in November.

Further information 

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European Parliament

Mobile phone roaming: MEPs back extension of free roaming in the EU

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Parliament’s Industry Committee voted in favour of extending the 'Roam like at Home' scheme for another ten years, ITRE.

The updated legislation, a follow-up to the 2017 elimination of roaming fees, also makes adjustments aiming for better roaming services for travellers.

According to the text adopted by MEPs, consumers would continue to enjoy the ability to use their mobile phones when travelling abroad in the EU with no additional fees on top of what they already pay at home.

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In addition, they would be entitled to the same quality and speed of mobile connection abroad as at home. Roaming providers would be obliged to offer roaming conditions equal to those offered domestically, if the same technologies and conditions are available on the network in the country people are visiting. MEPs want to prohibit commercial practices reducing the quality of services of regulated retail roaming services (e.g. by switching the connection from 4G to 3G).

Free access to emergency services

Access to emergency services would be provided to travellers without any additional charge - whether by call or SMS, including the transmission of caller location information. Operators would also have to provide information to roaming users about the European emergency number 112, MEPs agreed. MEPs also want people with disabilities to be able to access to emergency services without additional charges.

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Ending surcharges for intra-EU calls

MEPs also propose ending surcharges for intra-EU calls (e.g. when calling from Belgium to Italy), which are currently capped at 19 cents per minute. Users would pay only the extra costs objectively justified by the provider.

Lead MEP Angelika Winzig (EPP, AT) said: “Roam-like-at-home is an unprecedented European success story. It shows how we all directly benefit from the EU single market. We want to cut costs further and improve the quality of service for all European citizens. This is an opportunity for us to add some notable improvements, which will benefit citizens and businesses without causing disruption for mobile network operators. With this regulation we take another important step towards a true European digital single market, for a successful, strong and effective European Union of the future”.

Next steps

The new rules will need to be agreed by Parliament and Council, before they can enter into force. The report was adopted with 67 votes to 0, with 7 abstentions. MEPs voted to open negotiations with Council with 67 votes to 0 and 7 abstentions. The mandate will be announced during the 18-21 October plenary session. Council agreed its negotiating mandate on 16 June 2021. The first trilogue would then take place on the 26th of October.

Background

The Roaming Regulation established the 'Roam-Like-At-Home' (RLAH) rule that mandated the end of retail roaming charges as of 15 June 2017 in the EU. The regulation forms part of the EU digital single market achievements and is currently in force until 30 June 2022.

Five years after the adoption of the regulation in 2015, the Commission reviewed the scheme to assess its effects and the need for an extension. In its impact assessment, the Commission pointed out that market conditions do not yet appear to guarantee that free roaming can continue without regulatory intervention, and proposed to extend the rules beyond their current expiry date of 30 June 2022.

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Awards

The Pegasus Project awarded the 2021 Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for Journalism

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On 14 October, the Daphne Caruana Prize for Journalism was awarded to the journalists from the Pegasus Project coordinated by the Forbidden Stories Consortium.

The award ceremony held in the Press Centre of the European Parliament was opened by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

From 22 June to 1st September 2021, more than 200 journalists from the 27 EU countries submitted their media stories to a panel of judges.

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Representing the 29 members of the European jury, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, presented the 20.000 EUR prize money to the representatives of the consortium, Sandrine Rigaud and Laurent Richard.

About the winner

Forbidden Stories is a consortium of journalists whose mission is to continue the investigations of murdered, imprisoned or threatened journalists.

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Since its inception in 2017, Forbidden Stories and its partners have pursued the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but also of journalists murdered for their investigations into environmental crimes or Mexican cartels.

With more than 30 partner news organizations around the world and nearly 100 journalists, Forbidden Stories relies on a network that believes strongly in collaborative journalism. For its work, Forbidden Stories has won prestigious awards around the world, including the European Press Prize and the Georges Polk Award.

About the winning story

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

Short summary of the winning story:

An unprecedented leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected for surveillance by the customers of the Israeli company NSO Group shows how this technology has been systematically abused for years. The Forbidden Stories consortium and Amnesty International had access to records of phone numbers selected by NSO clients in more than 50 countries since 2016.

Journalists from the Pegasus Project – more than 80 reporters from 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab – sifted through these records of phone numbers and were able to take a peak behind the curtain of this surveillance weapon, which had never been possible to this extent before.

The Forbidden Stories consortium discovered that, contrary to what NSO Group has claimed for many years, including in a recent transparency report, this spyware has been widely misused. The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France, among others. Potential targets also include human rights defenders, academics, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of states.

For more information about the Pegasus project:

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

About the Prize

The Daphne Caruana Prize was initiated by a decision of the Bureau of the European Parliament in December 2019 as a tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese anti-corruption investigative journalist and blogger who was killed in a car bomb attack in 2017.

The Prize is rewarded on a yearly basis (on the 16 October, the date Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated) to outstanding journalism that promotes or defends the core principles and values of the European Union such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights. This is the first year the prize has been awarded.

The Prize was opened to professional journalists and teams of professional journalists of any nationality to submit in-depth pieces that have been published or broadcast by media based in one of the 27 European Union member states. The aim is to support and highlight the importance of professional journalism in safeguarding freedom, equality and opportunity.

The independent jury was composed of representatives of the press and civil society from the 27 European member states and representatives of the main European Associations of Journalism.

The prize and the €20 000 prize money demonstrates the European Parliament’s strong support for investigative journalism and the importance of free press.

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