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Commission reviews relations with China, proposes 10 actions

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Against the backdrop of China’s growing economic power and political influence, the European Commission and the High Representative review European Union-China relations and the related opportunities and challenges.

Today, they are setting out 10 concrete actions for EU Heads of State or Government to discuss and endorse at the European Council of 21 March.

The European Union and China have committed to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Yet, there is a growing appreciation in Europe that the balance of challenges and opportunities China presents has shifted. With today’s Joint Communication, the European Commission and the High Representative aim to start a discussion to refine Europe’s approach to be more realistic, assertive and multi-faceted.

China is simultaneously a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner, with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. The EU will use links across different policy areas and sectors to exert more leverage for its objectives. Both, the EU and its Member States can achieve their aims concerning China only in full unity.

Vice-President, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, said: “China is a Strategic Partner of the European Union. We pursue strong bilateral and multilateral cooperation on files where we share interests, from trade to connectivity, from the JCPOA to climate change. And we are willing to keep engaging robustly where our policies differ or compete. This is the aim of the 10 actions that we are proposing to strengthen our relations with China, in a spirit of mutual respect.”

Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said: “EU and China are strategic economic partners as well as competitors. Our economic relationship can be hugely mutually beneficial if competition is fair and trade and investment relations are reciprocal. With this Communication we make concrete proposals on how the EU can act to strengthen its competitiveness, ensure more reciprocity and level playing field, and protect its market economy from possible distortions.”

Today’s Joint Communication proposes 10 action points for the debate: these actions are formulated in the context of relations with China, but some of them relate to the EU’s global competitiveness and security. In general, the EU’s response will pursue three objectives:

  • Based on clearly defined interests and principles, the EU should deepen its engagement with Chinato promote common interests at global level.
  • The EU should robustly seek more balanced and reciprocal conditions governing the economic relationship.
  • Finally, in order to maintain its prosperity, values and social model over the long term, there are areas where the EU itself needs to adapt to changing economic realities and strengthen itsown domestic policies and industrial base.

Specifically, the Commission and the High Representative invite the European Council to endorse the following actions:

Action 1: The EU will strengthen the EU’s cooperation with China to meet common responsibilities across all three pillars of the United Nations, Human Rights, Peace and Security, and Development.

Action 2: In order to fight climate change more effectively, the EU calls on China to peak its emissions before 2030, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Action 3: The EU will deepen engagement on peace and security, building on the positive cooperation on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran.

Action 4: To preserve its interest in stability, sustainable economic development and good governance in partner countries, the EU will apply more robustly the existing bilateral agreements and financial instruments, and work with China to follow the same principles through the implementation of the EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia.

Action 5: In order to achieve a more balanced and reciprocal economic relationship, the EU calls on China to deliver on existing joint EU-China commitments. This includes reforming the World Trade Organisation, in particular on subsidies and forced technology transfers, and concluding bilateral agreements on investment by 2020, on geographical indications swiftly, and on aviation safety in the coming weeks.

Action 6: To promote reciprocity and open up procurement opportunities in China, the European Parliament and the Council should adopt the International Procurement Instrument before the end of 2019.

Action 7: To ensure that not only price but also high levels of labour and environmental standards are taken into account, the Commission will publish guidance by mid-2019 on the participation of foreign bidders and goods in the EU procurement market. The Commission, together with Member States, will conduct an overview of the implementation of the current framework to identify gaps before the end of 2019.

Action 8: To fully address the distortive effects of foreign state ownership and state financing in the internal market, the Commission will identify before the end of 2019 how to fill existing gaps in EU law.

Action 9: To safeguard against potential serious security implications for critical digital infrastructure, a common EU approach to the security of 5G networks is needed. To kickstart this, the European Commission will issue a Recommendation following the European Council.

Action 10: To detect and raise awareness of security risks posed by foreign investment in critical assets, technologies and infrastructure, Member States should ensure the swift, full and effective implementation of the Regulation on screening of foreign direct investment.

What next?

The Joint Communication will be presented to the European Council on 21-22 March, with the Member States having the first opportunity to exchange views at the Foreign Affairs Council on 18 March. The next EU-China Summit is scheduled for early April.

Background

The existing policy framework for EU engagement with China is the Council Conclusions on the EU’s Strategy on China adopted in July 2016 and the Joint Communication of the Commission and of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy ‘Elements for a New Strategy on China’ of June 2016. This remains the cornerstone of the EU’s policy towards China.  

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Advancing the EU social market economy: adequate minimum wages for workers

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The Commission today proposes an EU Directive to ensure that the workers in the Union are protected by adequate minimum wages allowing for a decent living wherever they work. When set at adequate levels, minimum wages do not only have a positive social impact but also bring wider economic benefits as they reduce wage inequality, help sustain domestic demand and strengthen incentives to work. Adequate minimum wages can also help reduce the gender pay gap, since more women than men earn a minimum wage. The proposal also helps protect employers that pay decent wages to workers by ensuring fair competition.

The current crisis has particularly hit sectors with a higher share of low-wage workers such as cleaning, retail, health and long-term care and residential care. Ensuring a decent living for workers and reducing in-work poverty is not only important during the crisis but also essential for a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery.  

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today’s proposal for adequate minimum wages is an important signal that also in crisis times, the dignity of work must be sacred. We have seen that for too many people, work no longer pays. Workers should have access to adequate minimum wages and a decent standard of living. What we propose today is a framework for minimum wages, in full respect of national traditions and the freedom of social partners. Improving working and living conditions will not only protect our workers, but also employers that pay decent wages, and create the basis for a fair, inclusive and resilient recovery.”

Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People, Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “It is important to ensure that also low wage workers benefit from the economic recovery. With this proposal we want to make sure that workers in the EU earn a decent living wherever they work. Social partners have a crucial role to play in negotiating wages nationally and locally. We support their freedom to negotiate wages autonomously, and where this is not possible, we give a framework to guide Member states in setting minimum wages.”

Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: “Almost 10% of workers in the EU are living in poverty: this has to change. People who have a job should not be struggling to make ends meet. Minimum wages have to play catch up with other wages which have seen growth in recent decades, leaving minimum wages lagging behind. Collective bargaining should be the gold standard across all Member States. Ensuring adequate minimum wages is written in black and white in Principle 6 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which all Member States have endorsed, so we are counting on their continued commitment.”

A framework for minimum wages in full respect of national competences and traditions

Minimum wages exist in all EU Member States.  21 countries have statutory minimum wages and in 6 Member States (Denmark, Italy, Cyprus, Austria, Finland and Sweden) minimum wage protection is provided exclusively by collective agreements. Yet, in the majority of Member States, workers are affected by insufficient adequacy and/or gaps in the coverage of minimum wage protection. In light of this, the proposed Directive creates a framework to improve the adequacy of minimum wages and for access of workers to minimum wage protection in the EU. The Commission’s proposal fully respects the subsidiary principle: it sets a framework for minimum standards, respecting and reflecting Member States’ competences and social partners’ autonomy and contractual freedom in the field of wages. It does not oblige Member States to introduce statutory minimum wages, nor does it set a common minimum wage level.

Countries with high collective bargaining coverage tend to have a lower share of low-wage workers, lower wage inequality and higher minimum wages. Therefore, the Commission proposal aims at promoting collective bargaining on wages in all Member States.

Countries with statutory minimum wages should put in place the conditions for minimum wages to be set at adequate levels. These conditions include clear and stable criteria for minimum wage setting, indicative reference values to guide the assessment of adequacy and regular and timely updates of minimum wages. These Member States are also asked to ensure the proportionate and justified use of minimum wage variations and deductions and the effective involvement of social partners in statutory minimum wage setting and updating.

Finally, the proposal provides for improved enforcement and monitoring of the minimum wage protection established in each country. Compliance and effective enforcement is essential for workers to benefit from actual access to minimum wage protection, and for businesses to be protected against unfair competition. The proposed Directive introduces annual reporting by Member States on its minimum wage protection data to the Commission. 

Background

President von der Leyen promised to present a legal instrument to ensure that the workers in our Union have a fair minimum wage at the start of her mandate and repeated her pledge in her first State of the Union address on 16 September 2020.

The right to adequate minimum wages is in Principle 6 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which was jointly proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council on behalf of all Member States, and the European Commission in Gothenburg in November 2017.

Today’s proposal for a Directive is based on Article 153 (1) (b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) on working conditions. It follows a two-stage consultation of social partners carried out in accordance with Article 154 TFEU. The Commission’s proposal will now go to the European Parliament and the Council for approval. Once adopted, Member States will have two years have to transpose the Directive into national law.

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Commission proposes new ‘Single Window’ to modernise and streamline customs controls

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The European Commission has today proposed a new initiative that will make it easier for different authorities involved in goods clearance to exchange electronic information submitted by traders, who will be able to submit the information required for import or export of goods only once. The so-called ‘EU Single Window Environment for Customs‘ aims to enhance cooperation and coordination between different authorities, in order to facilitate the automatic verification of non-customs formalities for goods entering or leaving the EU.

The Single Window aims to digitalise and streamline processes, so that businesses will ultimately no longer have to submit documents to several authorities through different portals. Today’s proposal is the first concrete deliverable of the recently adopted Action Plan on taking the Customs Union to the next level. It launches an ambitious project to modernise border controls over the coming decade, in order to facilitate trade, improve safety and compliance checks, and reduce the administrative burden for companies.

Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for the Economy, said: “Digitalisation, globalisation and the changing nature of trade present both risks and opportunities when it comes to goods crossing the EU’s borders. To rise to these challenges, customs and other competent authorities must act as one, with a more holistic approach to the many checks and procedures needed for smooth and safe trade. Today’s proposal is the first step towards a fully paperless and integrated customs environment and better cooperation between all authorities at our external borders. I urge all Member States to play their part in making it a true success story.”

Each year, the Customs Union facilitates the trade of more than €3.5 trillion worth of goods. Efficient customs clearance and controls are essential to allow trade to flow smoothly while also protecting EU citizens, businesses and the environment. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of having agile yet robust customs processes, and this will become ever more important as trade volumes keep on increasing and new challenges related to digitalisation and e-commerce, such as new forms of fraud, emerge.

Currently, the formalities required at the EU’s external borders often involve many different authorities in charge of different policy areas, such as health and safety, the environment, agriculture, fisheries, cultural heritage and market surveillance and product compliance. As a result, businesses have to submit information to several different authorities, each with their own portal and procedures. This is cumbersome and time-consuming for traders and reduces the capacity of authorities to act in a joined-up way in combatting risks.

Today’s proposal is the first step in creating a digital framework for enhanced cooperation between all border authorities, through one Single Window. The Single Window will enable businesses and traders to provide data in one single portal in an individual Member State, thereby reducing duplication, time and costs. Customs and other authorities will then be able to collectively use this data, allowing for a fully coordinated approach to goods clearance and a clearer overview at EU level of the goods that are entering or leaving the EU. 

This is an ambitious project that will entail significant investment at both EU and Member State level, in order to be fully implemented over the next decade or so. The Commission will support Member States in this preparation, where possible, including through funding from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, to enable them to reap the full, long-term benefits of the Single Window. 

Background

The EU is the largest trading bloc in the world, accounting for 15% of the world trade. In 2018, almost 343 million customs declarations were handled by more than 2,000 EU customs offices, who collected €25.3 billion in customs duties.

The Single Window is part of the new Customs Union Action Plan, which sets out a series of measures to make EU customs smarter, more innovative and more efficient over the next four years. In her Political Guidelines, President von der Leyen announced plans for an integrated European approach to customs risk management, which supports effective controls by EU Member States. The measures will strengthen the Customs Union and enhance its ability to collect EU revenues and protect the security, health and prosperity of EU citizens and businesses.

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Commission opens infringements against Cyprus and Malta for “selling” EU citizenship

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Today, the European Commission is launching infringement procedures against Cyprus and Malta by issuing letters of formal notice regarding their investor citizenship schemes also referred to as “golden passport” schemes.

The Commission considers that the granting by these Member States of their nationality – and thereby EU citizenship – in exchange for a pre-determined payment or investment and without a genuine link with the Member States concerned, is not compatible with the principle of sincere cooperation enshrined in Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union. This also undermines the integrity of the status of EU citizenship provided for in Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Due to the nature of EU citizenship, such schemes have implications for the Union as a whole. When a Member State awards nationality, the person concerned automatically becomes an EU citizen and enjoys all rights linked to this status, such as the right to move, reside and work freely within the EU, or the right to vote in municipal elections as well as elections to the European Parliament. As a consequence, the effects of investor citizenship schemes are neither limited to the Member States operating them, nor are they neutral with regard to other Member States and the EU as a whole.

The Commission considers that the granting of EU citizenship for pre-determined payments or investments without any genuine link with the Member States concerned, undermines the essence of EU citizenship.

Next steps

The Cypriot and Maltese governments have two months to reply to the letters of formal notice. If the replies are not satisfactory, the Commission may issue a Reasoned Opinion in this matter.

Background

Investor citizenship schemes allow a person to acquire a new nationality based on payment or investment alone. These schemes are different to investor residence schemes (or “golden visas”), which allow third-country nationals, subject to certain conditions, to obtain a residence permit to live in an EU country.

The conditions for obtaining and forfeiting national citizenship are regulated by the national law of each Member State, subject to due respect for EU law. As nationality of a Member State is the only precondition for EU citizenship and access to rights conferred by the Treaties, the Commission has been closely monitoring investor schemes granting the nationality of Member States.

The Commission has frequently raised its serious concerns about investor citizenship schemes and certain risks that are inherent in such schemes. As mentioned in the Commission’s report of January 2019, those risks relate in particular to security, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption and the Commission has been monitoring wider issues of compliance with EU law raised by investor citizenship and residence schemes. In April 2020, the Commission wrote to the Member States concerned setting out its concerns and asking for further information about the schemes.

In a resolution adopted on 10 July 2020, the European Parliament reiterated its earlier calls on Member States to phase out all existing citizenship by investment (CBI) or residency by investment (RBI) schemes as soon as possible. As stated by President von der Leyen in the State of the Union Address of 16 September 2020, European values are not for sale.

The Commission is also writing again to Bulgaria to highlight its concerns regarding an investor citizenship scheme operated by that Member State and requesting further details. The Bulgarian government has one month to reply to the letter requesting further information, following which the Commission will decide on the next steps.

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