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Covid-19 recovery fund must be embedded in EU long-term budget

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MEPs discuss plans to reboot Europe’s economy in light of Covid-19 on Wednesday and vote on a resolution later in the week. Learn more in our interview.

The coronavirus outbreak is testing the EU in ways that would have been unthinkable only months ago. Along with the human cost of lives lost, the hit to the EU economy has been severe. Ahead of a vote on plans to revise the EU’s post-2020 budget, the chair of Parliament’s budget committee Johan Van Overtveldt warned the economic recovery would be “slow and gradual” and that the prediction of a 7.5% decline in economic activity this year is a “mild forecast”.

EU response to the coronavirus

In an interview on Parliament’s Facebook page, the Belgian ECR member noted there is still a great deal of incertitude: “Not even in wartime has economic life come to a halt with such suddenness. There is so much uncertainty: will there be a relapse? Will there be a second round of lockdowns? What will the mood of investors and consumers be?”

Since the outset, the EU has been mobilising all means available to help member states reinforce their health sectors and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the virus. Parliament has also called for a larges-cale recovery package to support Europe’s economy after the crisis. Van Overtveldt stressed that this must be embedded in the EU’s long-term budget: “The recovery fund should be substantial but it should also be part of the next [ budget], for 2021-2027 and not something apart.”

Need for contingency plans

With the EU’s current long-term budget set to end in December, Van Overtveldt underlined the importance of a contingency plan in case of failure to reach agreement on the post-2020 budget in time: “When we get into June, time becomes short to get the [budget] approved and up and running in time and a discontinuity of current EU programmes would be very bad for citizens and for the reputation and political coherence of the EU.”

The budget committee chair urged other EU institutions to take note of Parliament’s stance: “The consent of Parliament has to be obtained and that surely is much less a sure thing than it was with the outgoing [long-term budget], so the Commission and Council should take notice of what the Parliament is aiming for. In the interest of citizens, Parliament will ensure that the [long-term budget] and recovery fund are the best possible responses to the severe crisis we see now and that will have consequences for many years.”

Solidarity and responsibility

Commenting on comparisons between the Covid-19 recovery and the post-war Marshall Plan, Van Overtveldt said: “At this point, what has been done by Europe and certainly when the recovery fund to the tune of let’s say €1 trillion comes on top, we will be doing more than was done with the Marshall Plan.”

The European Commission is expected to table proposals on the recovery fund shortly, but there are already deep divisions on, for example, whether countries should be given loans or grants. In order to find a solution that can be agreed by all sides, Van Overtveldt said there must be a compromise: “There has to be solidarity, certainly, vis-à-vis the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, but there also has to be responsibility. Just throwing money around is never a solution. The big challenge will be to find the right balance.”

Greening the economy

The need for a significant stimulus to reboot the EU economy comes at a time when voices calling for increased green investment are also on the rise. Parliament is insisting that climate action is at the core of the post-pandemic recovery. Van Overtveldt described the Commission’s Green Deal as “a start”, but warned that the proposals are “incomplete and dangerously underfinanced”.

He also referred to the potential for “greening” the EU economy through agriculture and cohesion funding which account for roughly two thirds of the EU budget. He stressed the importance of improving the resilience of the EU economy, and making it better equipped to deal with emergencies like Covid-19: “What it’s all about at the end of the day is what you can achieve to increase the wellbeing and welfare of EU citizens. That’s the only relevant issue.”

Parliament votes this week on a resolution on the EU’s planned new long-term budget. To ensure democratic scrutiny and accountability, MEPs will insist on safeguarding Parliament’s role.

MEPs are also expected to request that the Commission prepares a contingency plan to avoid disruption for farmers, companies and organisations counting on EU funds in the event that approval of the long-term budget is delayed.

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Why social fairness and solidarity are more important than ever

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EU Commission’s services have published the 2020 edition of the Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE) review dedicated to the theme of social fairness and solidarity. The review provides evidence-based analysis on how to achieve greater fairness across the EU in the face of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic as well as structural changes due to demographic ageing, and the green and digital transitions.

Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit said: “The ESDE report shows that strengthening social fairness is key to overcoming the crisis. This requires putting people front and centre. To ensure resilience, solidarity and cohesion, the EU’s response has to prioritise employment, reduce inequalities and ensure equal opportunities. The effective implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights will serve as our guide.”

The review notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is having profound health, economic, employment and social effects, threatening much of the progress that the EU had achieved previously. All Member States are experiencing a greater economic shock than in 2008-2009. Economic output has contracted sharply and unemployment is on the rise. The most vulnerable persons, including Europe’s youth, are hit particularly hard.

Against this background, the ESDE report points to the following findings:

Adequate minimum wages and minimum income can have a beneficial effect on the social mobility of Europeans.

Strengthening social fairness, including through investments in people, pays off. Closing gender-related gaps brings particularly high returns, while extending working lives, and raising educational attainment also have positive effects.

Structural change, such as the green transition, has to be accompanied by social measures to be successful. Notably, this transition requires social investment in the form of re-skilling programmes and/or unemployment benefits. According to ESDE, this social investment could amount to €20 billion or more until 2030.

Short-time work schemes are protecting jobs effectively. The EU is helping Member States to provide such support through solidarity mechanisms like the instrument for temporary Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (SURE).

Social dialogue and collective bargaining influence fairness and its perception at the workplace by promoting more equitable wages, better working conditions and more inclusive labour markets.

More generally, to repair the damage done by COVID-19 and prepare an economy and society for a future of faster structural changes, the EU and Member States need to embrace fully the opportunities offered by the transition to a greener, digitalised economy and build inclusiveness, solidarity and resilience into the design of all policies. Ensuring a broad-based recovery is a key policy objective of our policy action, which will help strengthen social resilience in the longer run.

Background

The annual Employment and Social Developments in Europe review prepared by the Directorate-General of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, provides up-to-date economic analysis of employment and social trends in Europe and discusses related policy options. It is the European Commission’s analytical flagship report in the area of employment and social affairs, mandated by Articles 151, 159 and 161 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

There are many examples in which the Commission focuses on addressing the challenges raised in the yearly ESDE reports. In April 2020, the Commission proposed the SURE instrument, which will provide €100 billion in financial support to help protect jobs and workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In May 2020, the Commission put forward a powerful, modern and revamped long-term EU budget boosted by NextGenerationEU, an emergency temporary recovery instrument, to help repair the economic and social damage brought by the coronavirus pandemic, kickstart the recovery and prepare for a better future for the next generation. The Recovery and Resilience Facility will be one of EU’s main recovery tools, providing an unprecedented €672.5 billion of loans and grants in frontloaded financial support for the crucial first years of the recovery. The European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) will continue to invest in people, while an improved European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF) will be able to intervene even more effectively to support workers who have lost their jobs. The European Pillar of Social Rights and its upcoming Action Plan, as well as initiatives and tools such as the European Skills Agenda, the Youth Employment Support initiative or the Digital Europe Programme will all contribute to address challenges identified in the ESDE.

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EU-China Leaders’ Meeting: Upholding EU values and interests

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The European Union and China held a Leaders’ Meeting via videoconference on 14 September 2020. An EU-China Leaders’ meeting with the participation of leaders of all EU member states was initially scheduled to take place on this date. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Federal Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, for the Council Presidency, conducted the videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The meeting provided an opportunity to follow up on discussions at the 22nd EU-China Summit (22 June). The meeting was important to maintain the momentum of EU-China high-level exchanges in order to achieve concrete results in line with EU interests and values.

The comprehensive agenda of the Leaders’ meeting covered trade and investment, climate change and biodiversity, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as international affairs and other issues.

With regard to the negotiations for an ambitious EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI), while both sides registered progress on the rules regulating the behaviour of State-owned-enterprises, on forced technology transfer and on transparency of subsidies, the EU emphasised that more work was urgently needed on the issues of rebalancing market access and on sustainable development. The EU called on China to step up its ambition on these issues. The two sides reaffirmed their objective of closing the remaining gaps before the end of the year. The EU side emphasised that high-level political engagement would be required within the Chinese system to achieve a meaningful agreement.

On other trade and economic issues, the EU reiterated its call on China to engage in future negotiations on industrial subsidies in the WTO. The EU stressed that, in line with China’s stated commitment to open up and ensure that EU producers are fairly treated on the Chinese market, more needed to be done to improve market access in the agri-food trade, financial services and the digital sector. The EU also again made clear its concerns on overcapacity, both in traditional sectors such as steel and aluminium as well as in high tech.

The two sides welcomed the signature of the EU-China Agreement on Geographical Indications which will improve access to the Chinese market especially for high-quality European agricultural products.

The EU underlined the need for reciprocity and a level playing field in the area of science and technology, underpinned by high ethical and integrity standards. Leaders welcomed and agreed to continue the high level digital dialogue. They looked forward to concrete progress on ICT standards, product safety and research and innovation.

On climate change and biodiversity, the EU encouraged China to strengthen its climate commitments in terms of peaking carbon dioxide emissions and setting the goal of climate neutrality domestically. The EU also stressed the importance of a moratorium in China of building coal-fired power plants and financing their construction abroad, at least as part of a global initiative. The EU also encouraged China to launch its national emission trading system soon. The two sides agreed to establish a High-Level Environment and Climate Dialogue to pursue ambitious joint commitments on these issues.

The EU noted that joint commitments by both sides on biodiversity could be a game-changer at global level and China has a key role to play as host of the Conference of the Parties next year. An ambitious global agreement would be a major achievement.

On the COVID-19 response, the EU emphasised the shared responsibility to participate in global efforts to stop the spread of the virus, boost research on treatments and vaccines, and strengthen the role of the World Health Organisation, including through the full implementation of the World Health Assembly resolution of May 2020. The EU also underlined that the recovery measures should support the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy. China’s full engagement in G20 efforts to support low-income countries and effectively implement the G20 – Paris Club Debt Service Suspension Initiative will also be essential.

With regard to Hong Kong, EU Leaders voiced their grave concerns about the erosion of the fundamental rights and freedoms following the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong on 30 June, which is contrary to China’s international commitments. They also reiterated the EU’s concerns at the postponement of the Legislative Council election and the disqualification of candidates.

The EU reiterated its serious concerns about the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, the situation of human rights defenders, as well as the limitations to freedom of expression and access to information. The two sides agreed that the Human Rights Dialogue will take place as a physical meeting in China later this year.

On regional and international issues, the EU referred to the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, urging for self-restraint and a peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. Leaders welcomed the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha. They also confirmed their commitment to upholding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal).

The EU also expressed readiness to continue to discuss the Strategic Agenda for Cooperation 2025, which can only be concluded once significant progress has been made in the negotiations on the Comprehensive Investment Agreement.

An EU-China Leaders’ Meeting with the participation of the Heads of State and Government of the EU member states and President Xi is foreseen to be held in 2021.

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Commission adopts proposal to make EU-U.S. agreement on tariffs effective

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The European Commission today published a proposal for a Council and European Parliament regulation to scrap duties on certain imports to the EU. In return, the United States will reduce its duties on certain EU exports to the U.S. market. This will put into effect the agreement announced by the EU and the U.S. on 21 August 2020. These tariff reductions between the EU and the U.S. will increase access to both EU and U.S. markets by around €200 million per year.

Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The EU and the U.S. share the most important economic partnership in the world, with trade in goods and services worth over €1.3 trillion annually. This deal provides both sides with a true win-win outcome, helping us to strengthen our partnership even further. Lowering tariffs on both sides improves access for our exporters and reduces the cost of imported goods. Those are both critically important factors in this time of coronavirus-related economic crisis. From the EU side, we view this agreement as an important step towards improving our relationship and resolving outstanding disputes. We remain eager to deepen transatlantic cooperation wherever possible as we firmly believe that, when it comes to truly global challenges, the chances of achieving successful global outcomes are improved if the European Union and United States work together.”

Once approved in line with the relevant procedures on either side of the Atlantic, the agreement will entail the reduction of U.S. tariffs on EU exports worth some $160 million a year. This includes prepared meals, crystal glassware, surface preparations, propellant powders, lighters and lighter parts. On its side, the EU will eliminate tariffs on imports of U.S. live and frozen lobster products. U.S. exports of these products to the EU are worth some $111 million.

Both sides will eliminate those tariffs on a most-favored nation (MFN) basis, i.e. for any partner, in line with the existing multilateral commitments. The measures will apply with retroactive effect as of 1 August 2020.

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