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Commission approves €31.9 billion Italian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €31.9 billion Italian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Many companies in Italy have seen their revenues significantly decline because of the coronavirus outbreak and of the measures necessary to limit its spread. This €31.9bn scheme will enable Italy to support these companies by helping them meet their liquidity needs and cover the fixed costs that are not covered by their revenues. We continue working in close cooperation with member states to find workable solutions to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, in line with EU rules.”

The Italian support measures

Italy notified to the Commission under the Temporary Framework a €31.9bn aid scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus and the restrictive measures that the Italian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus.

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The scheme consists of two measures: (i) limited amounts of aid; and (ii) support for uncovered fixed costs incurred during the period between March 2020 and December 2021 or parts of that period.

The scheme will be open to all companies, irrespective of their size and of the sector where they operate (with the exception of the financial sector).

Under the scheme, limited amounts of aid will take the form of (i) tax exemptions and reductions; (ii) tax credits; and (iii) direct grants.

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Given that most of the aid will be automatically granted and the aid ceilings will apply not only to the direct beneficiary but also to its affiliates, eligible beneficiaries will have to indicate in an ex ante self-declaration the amount of limited amounts of aid and support for uncovered fixed costs applied for. This should also allow the Italian authorities to better monitor compliance with the Temporary Framework, particularly for companies of the same group.

The Commission found that the Italian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular:

  • When it comes to limited amounts of aid, the aid (i) will not exceed €225,000 per company active in the primary production sector of agricultural products, €270,000 per company active in the fisheries and aquaculture sector and €1.8 million per company active in all the other sectors; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.
  • When it comes to support for uncovered fixed costs, the aid (i) will not exceed the overall amount of €10m per company; (ii) will cover uncovered fixed costs incurred during a period comprised between March 2020 and December 2021; (ii) will be granted only to companies that were not considered to be in difficulty already on 31 December 2019, with the exception of micro and small companies that are eligible even if already in difficulty; and (iii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.

On this basis, the Commission approved the aid measure under EU state aid rules.

Background

The Commission has adopted a Temporary Framework to enable member states to use the full flexibility foreseen under state aid rules to support the economy in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The Temporary Framework, as amended on 3 April, 8 May, 29 June, 13 October 2020 and 28 January 2021, provides for the following types of aid, which can be granted by member states:

(i) Direct grants, equity injections, selective tax advantages and advance payments of up to €225,000 to a company active in the primary agricultural sector, €270,000 to a company active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €1.8 million to a company active in all other sectors to address its urgent liquidity needs. Member states can also give, up to the nominal value of €1.8m per company zero-interest loans or guarantees on loans covering 100% of the risk, except in the primary agriculture sector and in the fishery and aquaculture sector, where the limits of €225,000 and €270,000 per company respectively, apply.

(ii) State guarantees for loans taken by companies to ensure banks keep providing loans to the customers who need them. These state guarantees can cover up to 90% of risk on loans to help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iii) Subsidised public loans to companies (senior and subordinated debt) with favourable interest rates to companies. These loans can help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iv) Safeguards for banks that channel State aid to the real economy that such aid is considered as direct aid to the banks' customers, not to the banks themselves, and gives guidance on how to ensure minimal distortion of competition between banks.

(v) Public short-term export credit insurance for all countries, without the need for the member state in question to demonstrate that the respective country is temporarily “non-marketable”.

(vi) Support for coronavirus related research and development (R&D) to address the current health crisis in the form of direct grants, repayable advances or tax advantages. A bonus may be granted for cross-border cooperation projects between member states.

(vii) Support for the construction and upscaling of testing facilities to develop and test products (including vaccines, ventilators and protective clothing) useful to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, up to first industrial deployment. This can take the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one Member State and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(viii) Support for the production of products relevant to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one member state and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(ix) Targeted support in the form of deferral of tax payments and/or suspensions of social security contributions for those sectors, regions or for types of companies that are hit the hardest by the outbreak.

(x) Targeted support in the form of wage subsidies for employees for those companies in sectors or regions that have suffered most from the coronavirus outbreak, and would otherwise have had to lay off personnel.

(xi) Targeted recapitalisation aid to non-financial companies, if no other appropriate solution is available. Safeguards are in place to avoid undue distortions of competition in the Single Market: conditions on the necessity, appropriateness and size of intervention; conditions on the State's entry in the capital of companies and remuneration; conditions regarding the exit of the State from the capital of the companies concerned; conditions regarding governance including dividend ban and remuneration caps for senior management; prohibition of cross-subsidisation and acquisition ban and additional measures to limit competition distortions; transparency and reporting requirements.

(xii) Support for uncovered fixed costs for companies facing a decline in turnover during the eligible period of at least 30% compared to the same period of 2019 in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The support will contribute to a part of the beneficiaries' fixed costs that are not covered by their revenues, up to a maximum amount of €10m per undertaking.

The Commission will also enable member states to convert until 31 December 2022 repayable instruments (e.g. guarantees, loans, repayable advances) granted under the Temporary Framework into other forms of aid, such as direct grants, provided the conditions of the Temporary Framework are met.

The Temporary Framework enables member states to combine all support measures with each other, except for loans and guarantees for the same loan and exceeding the thresholds foreseen by the Temporary Framework. It also enables Member States to combine all support measures granted under the Temporary Framework with existing possibilities to grant de minimis to a company of up to €25,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the primary agricultural sector, €30,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €200,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in all other sectors. At the same time, member states have to commit to avoid undue cumulation of support measures for the same companies to limit support to meet their actual needs.

Furthermore, the Temporary Framework complements the many other possibilities already available to member states to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, in line with EU State aid rules. On 13 March 2020, the Commission adopted a Communication on a Co-ordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak setting out these possibilities. For example, member states can make generally applicable changes in favour of businesses (e.g. deferring taxes, or subsidising short-time work across all sectors), which fall outside state aid rules. They can also grant compensation to companies for damage suffered due to and directly caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Temporary Framework will be in place until the end of December 2021. With a view to ensuring legal certainty, the Commission will assess before this date if it needs to be extended.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.62668 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the Competition Weekly e-News.

More information on the Temporary Framework and other action the Commission has taken to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

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First suspected case of Omicron variant of COVID-19 detected in Switzerland

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The first probable case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Switzerland, the government said late on Sunday (28 November), as the country tightened its entry restrictions to check its spread, writes John Revill, Reuters.

The case relates to a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa around a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter.

Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.

Switzerland has ordered that travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a fight to the country, and must go into quarantine for 10 days on arrival.

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The list includes Australia, Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic, South Africa and Israel.

Swiss voters on Sunday backed the government's pandemic response plan by a bigger than expected majority in a referendum, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases. Read more.

Some 62.01% voted in favour of a law passed earlier this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and laying the foundation for certificates giving proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test. These are currently required to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.

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Biden warns against Omicron panic, pledges no new lockdowns

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US President Joe Biden (pictured) urged Americans on Monday (29 November) not to panic about the new COVID-19 Omicron variant and said the United States was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed, write Susan Heavey, Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason.

Biden said the country would not go back to lockdowns to stop the spread of Omicron, and he would lay out his strategy on Thursday (2 December) for combating the pandemic over the winter. He urged people to get vaccinated, get boosters and wear masks. Read more.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said in remarks at the White House following a meeting with his COVID-19 team.

"We're going to fight and beat this new variant," he said.

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Biden said it was inevitable that Omicron cases, which were first detected in southern Africa, would emerge in the United States. He said officials were still studying Omicron but believed that existing vaccines would continue to protect against severe disease. Read more.

Biden said his administration was working with vaccine makers Pfizer (PFE.N), Moderna (MRNA.O) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) to develop contingency plans.

Travellers wait to process through a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before the Thanksgiving holiday in Seattle, Washington, U.S. November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
Dr. Anthony Fauci listens as U.S. President Joe Biden delivers an update on the Omicron variant at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque     

"In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool," he said.

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Biden said he would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to "use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety to get such vaccines approved and on the market if needed."

A U.S. travel ban took effect earlier on Monday blocking most visitors from eight southern African nations from entering the country. Earlier flights from South Africa to the U.S. did not screen passengers after the variant was found. Read more.

Biden said the travel restrictions were put in place to give the country time to get more people vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy in the United States and around the world has thwarted public health officials' efforts to get the pandemic under control.

Just 59% of all Americans are fully vaccinated, although almost 70% now have at least one dose. Nearly 782,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to a Reuters tally.

Much of the United States shut down in early 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but economic activity and jobs have bounced back in recent months. Face masks and vaccine mandates are opposed by some Republican politicians, even as health experts tout their effectiveness. Read more.

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Commission hosts second matchmaking event to speed up the development and production of COVID-19 medicines

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Today (30 November), the Commission is hosting a pan-European matchmaking event to accelerate and upscale the development and production of COVID-19 medicines in Europe, as part of the actions under the EU Strategy on COVID-19 Therapeutics. Following a first matchmaking event on COVID-19 medicines in July 2021 and a previous matchmaking event on COVID-19 vaccines in March 2021, this event aims at strengthening the participation of EU companies in value chains for COVID-19 therapeutics and speeding up connections among the participants. It also broadens the focus: from therapeutics specifically used to treat COVID-19, to also including those used to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, as well the production of disposable materials, such as syringes, and ingredients needed for making such medicines.

The event gathers companies from the European Economic Area as well as other businesses and organisations included in the portfolio of 10 most promising treatments, presented by the Commission in the follow-up to the COVID-19 Therapeutics strategy. In order to facilitate matchmaking events, the Commission issued a comfort letter in March 2021 (based on the Antitrust Temporary Framework adopted by the Commission on 8 April 2020) providing guidance, relevant also for this event, on how the matchmaking and exchanges between participating companies, including direct competitors, can take place in compliance with EU competition rules. The matchmaking event is organised by the Commission's Task Force for industrial scale-up of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, in close co-operation with the European Cluster Collaboration Platform. The event is also hosted in partnership with the Council of European BioRegions (CEBR) and the European Cluster Alliance (ECA), which are supporting the Commission in running an EU survey to assess EU capacities for COVID-19 therapeutics production. More information about the event is available here.

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