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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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Commission proposes draft mandate for negotiations on Gibraltar

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The European Commission has today adopted a Recommendation for a Council decision authorising the opening of negotiations for an EU-UK agreement on Gibraltar. The Commission also presented its proposal for negotiating guidelines.

It is now for the Council to adopt this draft mandate, after which the Commission can begin formal negotiations with the United Kingdom.

Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s co-chair of the Joint Committee and Partnership Council, said: “By putting forward this draft mandate, we are honouring the political commitment we made to Spain to start the negotiations of a separate agreement between the EU and the UK on Gibraltar. This is a detailed mandate, which aims to have a positive impact for those living and working on either side of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, while protecting the integrity of the Schengen Area and the Single Market.”

Gibraltar was not included in the scope of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed between the EU and UK at the end of 2020. The Commission committed to begin the negotiation of a separate agreement on Gibraltar, should Spain request so. That is why the Commission is now recommending that the Council authorises the launch of specific negotiations on Gibraltar.

Draft mandate

Today’s Recommendation builds upon the political understanding reached between Spain and the UK on 31 December last year. It is without prejudice to the issues of sovereignty and jurisdiction, and focuses on cooperation in the region.

The proposed negotiating directives put forward solutions to remove physical checks and controls on persons and goods at the land border between Spain and Gibraltar, while ensuring the integrity of the Schengen area and the Single Market. The proposals include rules establishing responsibility for asylum, returns, visas, residence permits, and operational police cooperation and information exchange.

Other measures are included in different areas, such as land and air transport, the rights of cross border workers, the environment, financial support, and establishing a level playing field. It envisages a robust governance mechanism, including a review of the implementation of the agreement after four years, the possibility for both parties to terminate the agreement at any time and the possibility of unilateral suspension of the application of the agreement under certain circumstances.

Spain, as the neighbouring Schengen Member State and as the Member State to be entrusted with the application and implementation of certain provisions of the future agreement, will be particularly affected by the agreement. The Commission will therefore maintain close contacts with the Spanish authorities throughout the negotiations and afterwards, taking their views duly into account.

With regard to external border control, in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational support, any Member State, including Spain, may request Frontex assistance in implementing its obligations. The Commission acknowledges that Spain has already expressed its full intention to ask Frontex for assistance.

Background

The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement excluded Gibraltar from its territorial scope (Article 774(3)). On 31 December 2020, the Commission received a note of the proposed framework for a UK-EU legal instrument setting out Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU. The relevant services in the Commission have examined this in close consultation with Spain. Building upon the proposed framework and in line with Union rules and interests, the Commission has today adopted a Recommendation for a Council decision authorising the opening of negotiations for an EU-UK agreement on Gibraltar and presented its proposal for negotiating guidelines.

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Commission overhauls anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism rules

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The European Commission has today presented an ambitious package of legislative proposals to strengthen the EU’s anti-money laundering and countering terrorism financing (AML/CFT) rules. The package also includes the proposal for the creation of a new EU authority to fight money laundering. This package is part of the Commission’s commitment to protect EU citizens and the EU’s financial system from money laundering and terrorist financing. The aim of this package is to improve the detection of suspicious transactions and activities, and to close loopholes used by criminals to launder illicit proceeds or finance terrorist activities through the financial system. As recalled in the EU’s Security Union Strategy for 2020-2025, enhancing the EU’s framework for anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing will also help to protect Europeans from terrorism and organised crime.

Today’s measures greatly enhance the existing EU framework by taking into account new and emerging challenges linked to technological innovation. These include virtual currencies, more integrated financial flows in the Single Market and the global nature of terrorist organisations. These proposals will help to create a much more consistent framework to ease compliance for operators subject to AML/CFT rules, especially for those active cross-border.

Today’s package consists of four legislative proposals:

Members of the College said:

Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President for an Economy that works for people, said: “Every fresh money laundering scandal is one scandal too many – and a wake-up call that our work to close the gaps in our financial system is not yet done. We have made huge strides in recent years and our EU AML rules are now among the toughest in the world. But they now need to be applied consistently and closely supervised to make sure they really bite. This is why we are today taking these bold steps to close the door on money laundering and stop criminals from lining their pockets with ill-gotten gains.”

Mairead McGuinness, Commissioner responsible for financial services, financial stability and Capital Markets Union said: “Money laundering poses aclear and present threat to citizens, democratic institutions, and the financial system. The scale of the problem cannot be underestimated and the loopholes that criminals can exploit need to be closed. Today’s package significantly ramps up our efforts to stop dirty money being washed through the financial system. We are increasing coordination and cooperation between authorities in member states, and creating a new EU AML authority. These measures will help us protect the integrity of the financial system and the single market.”

A new EU AML Authority (AMLA)

At the heart of today’s legislative package is the creation of a new EU Authority which will transform AML/CFT supervision in the EU and enhance cooperation among Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs). The new EU-level Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA) will be the central authority coordinating national authorities to ensure the private sector correctly and consistently applies EU rules. AMLA will also support FIUs to improve their analytical capacity around illicit flows and make financial intelligence a key source for law enforcement agencies.

In particular, AMLA will:

  • establish a single integrated system of AML/CFT supervision across the EU, based on common supervisory methods and convergence of high supervisory standards;
  • directly supervise some of the riskiest financial institutions that operate in a large number of Member States or require immediate action to address imminent risks;
  • monitor and coordinate national supervisors responsible for other financial entities, as well as coordinate supervisors of non-financial entities;
  • support cooperation among national Financial Intelligence Units and facilitate coordination and joint analyses between them, to better detect illicit financial flows of a cross-border nature.

A Single EU Rulebook for AML/CFT

The Single EU Rulebook for AML/CFT will harmonise AML/CFT rules across the EU, including, for example, more detailed rules on Customer Due Diligence, Beneficial Ownership and the powers and task of supervisors and Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs). Existing national registers of bank accounts will be connected, providing faster access for FIUs to information on bank accounts and safe deposit boxes. The Commission will also provide law enforcement authorities with access to this system, speeding up financial investigations and the recovery of criminal assets in cross-border cases. Access to financial information will be subject to robust safeguards in Directive (EU) 2019/1153 on exchange of financial information.

Full application of the EU AML/CFT rules to the crypto sector

At present, only certain categories of crypto-asset service providers are included in the scope of EU AML/CFT rules. The proposed reform will extend these rules to the entire crypto sector, obliging all service providers to conduct due diligence on their customers. Today’s amendments will ensure full traceability of crypto-asset transfers, such as Bitcoin, and will allow for prevention and detection of their possible use for money laundering or terrorism financing. In addition, anonymous crypto asset wallets will be prohibited, fully applying EU AML/CFT rules to the crypto sector.

EU-wide limit of €10,000 on large cash payments

Large cash payments are an easy way for criminals to launder money, since it is very difficult to detect transactions. That is why the Commission has today proposed an EU-wide limit of €10,000 on large cash payments. This EU-wide limit is high enough not to put into question the euro as legal tender and recognises the vital role of cash. Limits already exist in about two-thirds of Member States, but amounts vary. National limits under €10,000 can remain in place. Limiting large cash payments makes it harder for criminals to launder dirty money. In addition, providing anonymous crypto-asset wallets will be prohibited, just as anonymous bank accounts are already prohibited by EU AML/CFT rules.

Third countries

Money laundering is a global phenomenon that requires strong international cooperation. The Commission already works closely with its international partners to combat the circulation of dirty money around the globe. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, issues recommendations to countries. A country that is listed by FATF will also be listed by the EU. There will be two EU lists, a “black-list” and a “grey-list, reflecting the FATF listing. Following the listing, the EU will apply measures proportionate to the risks posed by the country. The EU will also be able to list countries which are not listed by FATF, but which pose a threat to the EU’s financial system based on an autonomous assessment.

The diversity of the tools that the Commission and AMLA can use will allow the EU to keep pace with a fast-moving and complex international environment with rapidly evolving risks.

Next steps

The legislative package will now be discussed by the European Parliament and Council. The Commission looks forward to a speedy legislative process. The future AML Authority should be operational in 2024 and will start its work of direct supervision slightly later, once the Directive has been transposed and the new regulatory framework starts to apply.

Background

The complex issue of tackling dirty money flows is not new. The fight against money laundering and terrorist financing is vital for financial stability and security in Europe. Legislative gaps in one Member State have an impact on the EU as a whole. That is why EU rules must be implemented and supervised efficiently and consistently to combat crime and protect our financial system. Ensuring the efficiency and consistency of the EU AML framework is of the utmost importance. Today’s legislative package implements the commitments in our Action Plan for a comprehensive Union policy on preventing money laundering and terrorism financing which was adopted by the Commission on 7 May 2020.

The EU framework against money laundering also includes the regulation on the mutual recognition of freezing and confiscation orders, the directive on combating money laundering by criminal law, the directive laying down rules on the use of financial and other information to combat serious crimesthe European Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the European system of financial supervision.

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New EU guidance helps companies to combat forced labour in supply chains

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The Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) have published today a Guidance on due diligence to help EU companies to address the risk of forced labour in their operations and supply chains, in line with international standards. The Guidance will enhance companies’ capacity to eradicate forced labour from their value chains by providing concrete, practical advice on how to identify, prevent, mitigate and address its risk.

Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said: “There is no room in the world for forced labour. The Commission is committed to wiping this blight out as part of our broader work to defend human rights. This is why we put strengthening the resilience and sustainability of EU supply chains at the core of our recent trade strategy. Businesses are key to making this happen, because they can make all the difference by acting responsibly. With today’s Guidance, we are supporting EU companies in these efforts. We will ramp up our due diligence work with our upcoming legislation on Sustainable Corporate Governance.”

High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell said: “Forced labour is not only a serious violation of human rights but also a leading cause of poverty and an obstacle to economic development. The European Union is a global leader on responsible business conduct and business and human rights. The Guidance we publish today translates our commitment into concrete action. It will help EU companies to ensure their activities do not contribute to forced labour practices in any sector, region or country.”

The Guidance explains the practical aspects of due diligence and provides an overview of EU and international instruments on responsible business conduct that are relevant for combatting forced labour. The EU has already put in place mandatory standards in some sectors and actively promotes the effective implementation of international standards on responsible business conduct.

Promoting responsible and sustainable value chains is one of the pillars of the recent EU trade strategy. The Guidance delivers on the strategy by helping EU businesses already take the appropriate measures, bridging the time until legislation on Sustainable Corporate Governance is in place. This upcoming legislation should introduce a mandatory due diligence duty requiring EU companies to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for sustainability impacts in their operations and supply chains. Subject to the upcoming impact assessment, this will include effective action and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that forced labour does not find a place in the value chains of EU companies.

EU trade policy already contributes to the abolishment of forced labour through its various instruments. EU trade agreements are unique in including binding commitments to ratify and effectively implement all fundamental ILO Conventions, including those on forced labour. Those conventions include an obligation to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms. This commitment extends to the countries benefitting from the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance (GSP+) under the EU’s General Scheme of Preferences (GSP). All 71 beneficiary countries of the General Scheme of Preferences are obliged to not commit serious and systematic violations of the principles of the fundamental ILO Conventions.

The Guidance also delivers on a number of the priorities of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 in the area of business and human rights. Those priorities include the eradication of forced labour and the promotion of internationally recognised due diligence standards.

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