Travelling freely in the EU was until two months ago a given for most Europeans, but restrictions introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus meant the closing of internal borders in most parts of Europe. As the epidemiological situation improves and with the summer holidays in sight, countries are gradually restoring freedom of movement. MEPs demand that the passport-free Schengen zone returns to its full functioning as soon as possible.
Schengen in lockdown
“Member States were acting alone and it is now high time the EU steps in before it is too late and irreparable damage to Schengen has been done,” said MEP Tanja Fajon, The chair of the civil liberties committee’s working group on Schengen scrutiny. “The Commission should take on a key role in restoring freedom of movement and firstly for crucial categories such as cross-border workers. European coordination is therefore essential.”
According to the current Schengen rules, EU countries can – for a limited period – introduce border checks at their internal borders if there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security. They must notify the European commission of such closures. The Commission currently keeps an overview of national Covid-19 restriction measures by country.
EU guidance: how to reopen borders
In a package of proposals to enable travelling to resume safely in the EU, the Commission proposed on 13 May to countries that are part of the Schengen zone to gradually reopen their internal borders. The emphasis is on coordination and respect of common criteria based on guidance by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The phased system of lifting restrictions could start between regions or countries with similar epidemic levels, but there should be no discrimination based on nationality. The goal is to eventually open all borders throughout the EU to allow for smooth and safe travel for both professional and personal reasons. However, there is no set timetable as it depends on the epidemiological situation and member state decisions.
Border management and reintroduction of controls is a member state prerogative, but.since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Commission has been facilitating common guidelines to make sure that workers in critical sectors as well as deliveries of goods and services in the single market are guaranteed. It also facilitated the repatriations of almost 600,000 Europeans stranded abroad and proposed restricting entry of non-EU nationals into the EU, with an extension until 15 June.
MEPs are pressing for the restoration of borderless free movement for people, goods and services in the Schengen area. They want stronger EU cooperation to guarantee that there is no discrimination against any EU citizen.
In a debate on the state of Schengen by the civil liberties committee on 12 May, Tanja Fajon (S&D, Slovenia) recalled the closures introduced in the midst of the migration crisis in 2015. Some countries maintained those controls for years, which Parliament criticised as unjustified.
“If we fail to restore the integrity of Schengen, we would seriously endanger the European project,” Fajon said. MEPs therefore want to ensure that any future internal borders controls remain truly exceptional and very limited in time.
The civil liberties committee is preparing a resolution on the situation in the Schengen zone, which MEPs are likely to vote on during June’s plenary session.
Von der Leyen Outlines Vision for Stronger Europe
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, outlined a vision for a stronger and more independent Europe based on trust and the values of liberal democracy in a special address on Thursday to business, government and civil society leaders taking part in the World Economic Forum’s virtual event, the Davos Agenda.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, she spoke of European democracies showing their strengths. “The pandemic has demonstrated that democracies are the more powerful, resilient and sustainable form of government,” she said.
Democracy means liberty of research, freedom of science and independent choices for investors, she added. Europe has delivered over 1.2 billion doses of vaccines to its citizens, with more than 80% of the European population double vaccinated.
She also pointed to Europe’s leadership in discovering the mRNA vaccine technology and exporting it to the world. “Europe is the only region in the world to export or donate vaccines to other countries throughout the crisis, with 1.6 billion vaccine doses made in Europe having been delivered to 150 countries.”
On the path to recovery, Europe’s most valuable asset is trust, said von der Leyen. “Trust in science, for our health. Trust among countries, for cooperation. Trust in functioning societies, for competitiveness. Trust will be essential to build the world of tomorrow.”
Trust will also be essential for European citizens to embrace the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives with the overarching aim of making the European Union climate-neutral by 2050. The EC has issued the first NextGenerationEU bond for green and sustainable investments in the EU. This represents, she said, the world’s largest green bond issuance, adding that it was heavily oversubscribed.
“These developments demonstrate a clear sign of international confidence and trust in Europe,” she said.
Although von der Leyen said Europe is well positioned, it must do more to build supply chains we can trust and avoid single points of failure. Issues range from dependence on non-renewable energy to lack of local manufacturing of microchips and semiconductors to Europe’s gas crisis.
“Europe’s global semiconductor market share is only 10%. And today, most of our supply comes from a handful of producers outside Europe. This is a dependency and uncertainty we simply cannot afford. We have no time to lose. And this is why I announce here today that we will propose our European Chips Act in early February,” she said.
She emphasized that trust is also essential in the international arena: “At this moment in time, the world needs trust in democracy as much as trust between democracies.” Referring to intense dialogue with Russia, she stressed that Europe will not go back to the old logic of competition and spheres of interest, where entire countries were treated as possessions or backyards.
“We want this dialogue. We want conflicts to be solved in the bodies that have been formed for this purpose. But if the situation deteriorates, if there are any further attacks on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we will respond with massive economic and financial sanctions.”
“And what I want us never to forget is the following. Russia and Europe share geography, culture and history. We also want a common future,” she added.
Commission approves 2022-2027 regional aid map for Greece
The European Commission has approved under EU State aid rules Greece’s map for granting regional aid from 1 January 2022 to 31 December 2027 within the framework of the revised Regional aid Guidelines (‘RAG’).
The revised RAG, adopted by the Commission on 19 April 2021 and entering into force on 1 January 2022, enable Member States to support the least favoured European regions in catching up and to reduce disparities in terms of economic well-being, income and unemployment – cohesion objectives that are at the heart of the Union. They also provide increased possibilities for Member States to support regions facing transition or structural challenges such as depopulation, to contribute fully to the green and digital transitions.
At the same time, the revised RAG maintain strong safeguards to prevent Member States from using public money to trigger the relocation of jobs from one EU Member State to another, which is essential for fair competition in the Single Market.
Greece’s regional map defines the Greek regions eligible for regional investment aid. The map also establishes the maximum aid intensities in the eligible regions. The aid intensity is the maximum amount of State aid that can be granted per beneficiary, expressed as a percentage of eligible investment costs.
Under the revised RAG, regions covering 82.34% of the population of Greece will be eligible for regional investment aid:
Twelve regions (Βόρειο Αιγαίο / Voreio Aigaio, Νότιο Αιγαίο / Notio Aigaio, Κρήτη / Kriti, Aνατολική Μακεδονία, Θράκη / Anatoliki Makedonia, Thraki, Κεντρική Μακεδονία / Kentriki Makedonia, Δυτική Μακεδονία / Dytiki Makedonia, Ήπειρος / Ipeiros, Θεσσαλία / Thessalia, Ιόνια Νησιά / Ionia Nisia, Δυτική Ελλάδα / Dytiki Elláda, Στερεά Ελλάδα / Sterea Elláda and Πελοπόννησος / Peloponnisos) are among the most disadvantaged regions in the EU, with a GDP per capita below 75% of EU average. These regions are eligible for aid under Article 107(3)(a) TFEU (so-called ‘a’ areas), with maximum aid intensities for large enterprises between 30% and 50%, depending on the GDP per capita of the respective ‘a’ area. The region Ευρυτανία / Evrytania, which is part of Στερεά Ελλάδα / Sterea Elláda, also qualifies as a sparsely populated area having fewer than 12,5 inhabitants per km². In sparsely populated areas, Member States can use operating aid schemes to prevent or reduce depopulation.
In order to address regional disparities, Greece has designated as so-called non-predefined ‘c’ areas the regions of Δυτικός Τομέας Αθηνών / Dytikos Tomeas Athinon, Ανατολική Αττική / Anatoliki Attiki, Δυτική Αττική / Dytiki Attiki and Πειραιάς, Νήσοι / Peiraias, Nisoi. The maximum aid intensities for large enterprises in Δυτικός Τομέας Αθηνών / Dytikos Tomeas Athinon is 15%. The other ‘c’ areas mentioned above border with ‘a’ areas. For this reason, the aid intensity in these regions has been increased to 25%, so that the difference in aid intensity with the bordering ‘a’ areas is limited to 15 percentage points.
Greece has the possibility to designate further so-called non-predefined ‘c’ areas (up to a maximum of 1.16% of the national population). The specific designation of these areas can take place in the future and would result in one or more amendments to the regional aid map approved today.
In all the above areas, the maximum aid intensities can be increased by 10 percentage points for investments made by medium-sized enterprises and by 20 percentage points for investments made by small enterprises, for their initial investments with eligible costs up to €50 million.
Once a future territorial Just Transition plan in the context of the Just Transition Fund Regulation will be in place, Greece has the possibility to notify the Commission an amendment to the regional aid map approved today, in order to apply a potential increase of the maximum aid intensity in the future Just Transition areas, as specified in the revised RAG for ‘a’ areas.
20 years of the euro in your pocket
Twenty years ago, on 1 January 2002, twelve EU countries changed their national currency banknotes and coins for the euro in the largest currency changeover in history. In these two decades, the euro has contributed to the stability, competitiveness and prosperity of European economies. Most importantly, it has improved the lives of citizens and made it easier to do business across Europe and beyond. With the euro in your pocket, saving, investing, travelling and doing business became much easier.
The euro is a symbol of EU integration and identity. Today, more than 340 million people use it across 19 EU countries, with 27.6 billion euro banknotes in circulation for a value of about €1.5 trillion. The euro is currently the second most widely used currency in the world behind the US dollar.
As it celebrates this 20th anniversary, the EU continues the work to strengthen the international role of the euro and adapt it to new challenges, including the rapid digitalisation of the economy and the development of virtual currencies. As a complement to cash, a digital euro would support a well-integrated payments sector and would offer greater choice to consumers and businesses.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “It is now twenty years that we, European people, can carry Europe in our pockets. The euro is not just one of the most powerful currencies in the world. It is, first and foremost, a symbol of European unity. Euro banknotes have bridges on one side and a door on the other – because this is what the euro stands for. The euro is also the currency of the future, and in the coming years it will become a digital currency too. The euro also reflects our values. The world we want to live in. It is the global currency for sustainable investments. We can all be proud of that.”
David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, said: “The euro is the embodiment of an ambitious political project to promote peace and integration within the European Union. But the euro is also a condition for protecting and relaunching the European economic, social, and political model in the face of the transformations of our time. The euro is a symbol, the coming to fruition of a historic political vision, an ancient vision of a united continent with a single currency for a single market.”
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said: “The euro has come a long way — it’s a true European achievement. I would even say the euro has become part of who we are. And how we see ourselves as Europeans. Part of our mind-set. And part of our European spirit. The euro belongs to all of us all European citizens. But it isn’t just a success within our EU borders. It has also anchored itself on the international stage. Despite the crises, the euro has proven to be resilient — a symbol of European unity and stability. And never has that been truer than during COVID-19. The euro has served as a bedrock of stability. A stable asset for the Union. The euro also fuels our recovery. Unlocking the full potential of sustainable development, quality jobs, and innovation.”
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, said: “The euros we hold in our hands have become a beacon of stability and solidity around the world. Hundreds of millions of Europeans trust it and transact with it every day. It is the second most international currency in the world. As European Central Bank President, I commit we will continue to work hard to make sure that we maintain price stability. And I also pledge that we will renew the face of those banknotes and that we will give them the digital dimension as well.”
Paschal Donohoe, President of the Eurogroup, said: “The euro has proven its mettle in dealing with great economic challenges. In particular, our response to the COVID 19 pandemic demonstrated that by sharing the euro we can achieve more collectively than we can individually. The euro has strengthened its foundations over the last 20 years. Now, we need to build on those foundations to make the euro the global currency for transitioning to a lower carbon future.”
A long journey
The euro has come a long way from the early discussions on an Economic and Monetary Union in the late 1960s. Specific steps towards a single currency were first approached in 1988 by the Delors Committee. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty marked a decisive moment in the move towards the euro, as political leaders signed on the criteria that Member States had to meet to adopt the single currency. Two years later, the European Monetary Institute (EMI) started its preparatory work in Frankfurt for the European Central Bank (ECB) to assume its responsibility for monetary policy in the euro area. As a result, on 1 June 1998, the ECB became operational.
In 1999, the euro was launched in 11 Member States as an accounting currency on financial markets and used for electronic payments. It was finally on 1 January 2002 when Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain swapped their national notes and coins for euros. Slovenia joined the euro area in 2007, followed by Cyprus and Malta (2008), Slovakia (2009), Estonia (2011), Latvia (2014) and Lithuania (2015). Currently, Croatia is taking the preparatory steps to join the euro area, which it plans to do on 1 January 2023, provided it fulfils all the convergence criteria.
Twenty years of benefits for citizens and businesses
The euro has brought many benefits to Europe, especially to its citizens and businesses. The single currency has helped to keep prices stable and protected the euro area economies from exchange rate volatility. This has made it easier for European home buyers, businesses and governments to borrow money and has encouraged trade within Europe and beyond. The euro has also eliminated the need for currency exchange and has lowered the costs of transferring money, making travelling and moving to another country to work, study or retire simpler.
A large majority of Europeans support the single currency. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 78% of citizens across the euro area believe the euro is good for the EU.
A strengthened international role
The euro is the second most important currency in the international monetary system. Its stability and credibility has made it an international invoicing currency, a store of value and a reserve currency, accounting for around 20% of foreign exchange reserves. Sixty other countries and territories around the world, home to some 175 million people, have chosen to use the euro as their currency or to peg their own currency to it. Today, the euro is used for almost 40% of global cross-border payments and for more than half the EU’s exports.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis, the EU has continued to strengthen and deepen the Economic and Monetary Union. The EU’s unprecedented recovery plan NextGenerationEU will further improve the euro-area’s economic resilience and enhance economic convergence. The issuance of high-quality-denominated bonds under NextGenerationEU will add significant depth and liquidity to the EU’s capital markets and make them and the euro more attractive for investors. The euro is also now the leading currency for green investment: half of the world’s green bonds are denominated in euros, and this figure is rising thanks to the new green bonds issued to finance NextGenerationEU.
To further develop the international role of the euro, the Commission has launched outreach initiatives to promote euro denominated investments, facilitate the use of the euro as an invoicing and denomination currency, and foster a better understanding of the obstacles for its wider use. This outreach will take the form of dialogues, workshops and surveys with the public and private sector, financial regulatory agencies, and institutional investors in regional and global partner countries of the EU.
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