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Western Balkans Summit in Poznan: Strengthening links within the region and with the EU

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At the Poznań Summit on the Western Balkans, the EU confirmed its commitment to strengthen cooperation with the region with a set of concrete measures focusing on five key areas: transport and energy, digital, economy, security and good neighbourly relations.

Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers, Ministers of Economy and Interior from the Western Balkans, together with their counterparts from several EU Member States and high-level EU representatives, met yesterday and today in Poznań to strengthen regional cooperation between the Western Balkans partners, as well as between the region and the EU, and to further advance the European integration process of the Western Balkans.

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President Federica Mogherini said: “Our engagement with the Western Balkans is a priority. Today, all six partners in the Western Balkans are closer to the European Union compared to the beginning of our mandate almost 5 years ago. The European perspective remains the driver for change in the region. Regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations and reconciliation are key and support the EU integration of the Western Balkans.”

Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations commented: “We are stepping up our work to modernised infrastructures, support digitalisation, invest in green growth and circular economy. The EU programmes will bring tangible benefits to the people in the Western Balkans and are another milestone in our even closer ties with the region.”

Violeta Bulc, Commissioner for Transport added: “I am very happy about the endorsement of several regional projects – in cooperation with the Transport Community. They will improve road safety and rail efficiency, reduce travelling time and transport costs and remove traffic bottlenecks. Better connectivity means supporting the everyday lives of people in the region and bringing them closer to the EU “

Strengthening transport and energy connectivity within the region and with the EU

Improving connectivity within the Western Balkans, as well as between the Western Balkans and the EU, is a key factor for growth and jobs and brings clear benefits to the region’s and the EU’s economies and citizens.

In the areas of transport and energy, the Commission put forward:

A new Connectivity Package worth €180 million. Implemented through the Western Balkans Investment Framework,the grants for eight new transport and energy projects (road, rail, energy transmission infrastructure) will contribute to the goals of the Connectivity Agenda (hyperlink to brochure) and are expected to leverage investments of up to €728 million. The projects will support the modernisation of a joint railway border station, the installation of signalling and telecommunications equipment on more than 100 km of railway lines, the construction and upgrade of over 30 km of motorways and over 100 km of electricity transmission lines, and the construction of 68 km of an interconnection gas pipeline.

Grants worth €15 million to improve road safety and the operation of border crossing points in the region. The grants aim at improving road conditions on sections with high accident rates, whereas improvements on border crossing points will result in time-savings for citizens and heavy good vehicles.

An Action Plan for the implementation of the regional rail strategy which aims at boosting connectivity within the region and with the EU and increase the competitiveness of the rail sector through more reliable, cost-effective and safer operations.

Boosting the digital transformation of the region

To support the transition of the region into a digital economy and bring the benefits of the digital transformation,such as faster economic growth, more jobs and better services, Leaders welcomed the entry into force of the Regional Roaming Agreement on 1 July 2019. The agreement is an important achievement of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans and a prime example of the benefits of regional cooperation. Consumers will see a substantial reduction of their roaming charges within the region, with calls up to eight times cheaper and costs for data dropping.

In the area of broadband connectivity, an essential element for the digital economy of the region, the Commission announced new grants of €1.65 million to three projects to support the development of national broadband networks and improve digital connectivity in Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

Supporting socio-economic development, economic integration and green growth

In the area of socio-economic development, the Commission

Reported on progress achieved under the Guarantee Instrument. Launched in early 2019 under the Western Balkans Investment Framework, with an initial EU commitment of up to €150 million, the guarantee aims to leverage up to €1 billion in investments into sustainable socio-economic development and regional integration to unblock private investment and improve access to finance in the region.

Signed Letters of Intent, together with international financial institutions, to reinforce the Western Balkans Enterprise Development and Innovation Facility by an additional €20 million to increase financial resources made available for SMEs based in the Western Balkans.

Continues to support the region’s own plan to develop a Regional Economic Area, and welcomed the endorsement of the Mutual Recognition of Academic Qualifications Agreement.

To support the social-economic integration of the Roma population, Leaders endorsed the Roma Integration Declaration. The Leaders pledged to take the necessary steps to achieve concrete results in the fields of employment, housing, education, health, civil registration and non-discrimination.

In the areas of environment and climate, Leaders endorsed the joint Statement on “Clean Energy Transition in the Western Balkans”, signed on 21 February 2019. To build on this momentum, the Commission is ready to support the region’s efforts to develop a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, which would strengthen regional cooperation and bring benefits to the well-being and the health of citizens in the region and neighbouring EU Member States while unlocking the potential of the green, low carbon and circular economy of the Western Balkans. The Leaders confirmed their commitment to an ambitious environmental agenda that contributes to fighting climate change.

Stepping up actions on security cooperation

The Leaders and Ministers took stock of the progress achieved in the cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU to address shared security challenges, including in the fight against terrorism, radicalisation, cyberattacks, hybrid threats, organised crime and firearms trafficking. The link between corruption and security was discussed and representatives of the Western Balkans reiterated their commitment to tackle corruption.

Supporting regional cooperation and good neighborly relations

Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations are at the heart of the countries’ path to the EU, which also entails achieving lasting and sincere reconciliation. The Summit was an opportunity for the Western Balkan partners to discuss bilateral issues and legacy of the past such as war crimes and missing persons. The EU continues to support the involvement of the Western Balkans youth – youth cooperation is key to increase regional connectivity – in many projects, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, the Creative Europe and Erasmus+ programmes, and the Youth in Action window animated by the South East Europe Resource Centre (SALTO). Furthermore, the EU supports the work of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) to promote reconciliation and cooperation between the youth in the region.

Background

The Poznań Summit is part of the Berlin process, an initiative of several EU Member States supporting efforts towards strengthening regional cooperation and the European perspective of the Western Balkans.

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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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