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Coronavirus: A common path to Europe’s safe re-opening

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Ahead of the meeting of European leaders on 25 March, the Commission is calling on Member States to prepare for a coordinated approach to a gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions when the epidemiological situation will allow. In a Communication adopted today, it charts the way ahead for a balanced policy and common EU approach, pointing to what we need to do to advance the time when we can recover our European way of life, and do so in a safe and sustainable way with control over the virus.

While the epidemiological situation requires continued control until a sufficient vaccination coverage is achieved, the conditions must be created across the Single Market to allow for safe and sustained re-opening, so that citizens can enjoy their rights and economic and social activity can resume. This includes the deployment of a Digital Green Certificate covering vaccination, testing and recovery; the use of a common framework for response measures; guidance on additional testing strategies, such as wastewater monitoring to track variants; investment in diagnostics and treatments. The Communication also highlights actions to build global resilience through COVAX and an EU vaccine sharing mechanism.

Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “The common path forward requires a safe and sustainable approach for the benefit of all Europeans. In lifting restrictions, we must learn the lessons of 2020 and avoid damaging and costly cycles of opening and closing. Today’s Communication includes a balanced package of existing and new measures. We are looking forward to the endorsement of Member States at the upcoming European Council. Every day we get closer to achieving our vaccination goals and the recovery of our European way of life.”

Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said: “Today we are proposing a common EU approach that will lead us on the way to our goal of re-opening the EU in a safe, sustainable and predictable way. The situation with the virus in Europe is still very challenging and confidence in decisions taken are crucial. It is only through a joint approach that we can return safely to full free movement in the EU, based on transparent measures and full mutual confidence.”

Key steps and tools set out by the Commission:

Digital Green Certificates

Today, the Commission has adopted a legislative proposal establishing a common framework for a Digital Green Certificate covering vaccination, testing and recovery. This is an EU level approach to issuing, verifying and accepting certificates to facilitate free movement within the EU, based on a strict respect for non-discrimination and of the fundamental rights of EU citizens.

A technical framework will be defined at EU level, to be put in place by mid-June, to ensure security, interoperability, as well as full compliance with personal data protection. It will also allow the possibility to extend to compatible certificates issued in third countries.

A European framework for COVID-19 response measures

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is setting out a framework to help Member States take decisions on implementing restrictions. The approach will define tiers reflecting the epidemiological situation in each Member State. It will allow simulations to illustrate how much leeway each Member State has to reduce response measures without risking a reversal in the spread of the virus. An interactive digital tool developed by ECDC will be operational in April for use by Member States.

Guidance to support additional testing and tracing strategies

Self-tests for COVID-19 (both self-swabbing and self-testing kits) are now starting to enter the market. ECDC will publish today a technical guidance on COVID-19 self-tests, including details on their availability, their clinical performance compared to the “gold standard” RT-PCR tests, their implications for reporting and epidemiological surveillance, and the settings for their appropriate use.

The Commission is today adopting a Recommendation asking the Member States to put in place wastewater monitoring to track COVID-19 and its variants, share the data with competent health authorities for early detection of the presence of the virus, and identify clusters. It promotes the use of common methods for sampling, testing and data analysis, supported by a European exchange platform, and foresees respective financial support.

Data exchange between Member States’ contact tracing authorities can be particularly important when travellers are crossing borders in close proximity to each other, such as in airplanes or trains. Digital Passenger Locator Forms can be used by Member States to collect data from cross-border travellers entering their territory. In order for Member States to exchange relevant data through the exchange platform developed by the Commission and EASA, the Commission will publish draft measures establishing the necessary legal conditions for processing such personal data, to be adopted by the time of the summer travelling season.*

Investment in treatments

A common EU strategy on therapeutics is planned for mid-April to speed up research and manufacturing to ensure quick access to valuable treatments. More flexible regulatory measures for therapeutics, such as labelling facilitations, will be deployed to enable rapid supply at large scale during the pandemic.

Helping the tourism and culture sectors to prepare for safe re-opening

In the tourism and hospitality sector, the Commission has asked the Standardisation Organisation, CEN, to develop, in cooperation with industry and Member States, a voluntary sanitary seal to be used by establishments. This deliverable will be available by summer.

The Commission will promote EU cultural heritage sites and cultural routes, as well as cultural events and festivals, through an EU social media campaign on sustainable cultural tourism. New initiatives will be backed up when conditions allow through Erasmus+ and its DiscoverEU action to promote the discovery by young people of Europe’s cultural heritage by rail, during and beyond the European Year of Rail.

EU Vaccine Sharing Mechanism

A sustainable path out of the COVID-19 pandemic in the EU depends on progress at the global level. No country or region in the world will be safe from COVID-19 unless it is contained globally. The EU and its Member States are leading investment in the global COVAX Facility and are establishing a coordinated European approach to vaccine sharing by setting up an EU Vaccine Sharing Mechanism to help partner countries overcome the pandemic. The European approach to vaccine sharing will help neighbouring and partner countries overcome the pandemic and comes on top of the €2.2 billion EU investment from Team Europe (Commission, Member States and EIB) in COVAX.

Next Steps

The next months of the COVID-19 pandemic will require decisive action to ensure a sustainable and safe re-opening of our societies and economies. Coordinated action is needed at all levels to ensure that the next steps are as effective as possible in driving down the coronavirus, supporting citizens and businesses, and allowing our societies to return to a more normal situation. The EU set up a European bio-defence preparedness plan “HERA Incubator” against COVID-19 variants to bring together researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers, regulators and public authorities to monitor variants, exchange data and cooperate on adapting vaccines. Over the longer-term, the EU must also put in place a stronger framework for resilience and preparedness in the eventuality of future pandemics. This is already the objective of the proposals for a European Health Union.

The European Parliament and the Council should fast-track discussions, reach an agreement on the proposal for a Digital Green Certificate, and agree an approach to a safe opening based on a solid scientific framework. The European Commission will continue supporting the ramping up of vaccines production, and pursue technical solutions to increase interoperability of national systems to exchange data. Member States should accelerate vaccination programmes, ensure that temporary restrictions are proportionate and non-discriminatory, designate contact points to collaborate on wastewater surveillance and report on efforts made, and launch the technical implementation of the Digital Green Certificates in view of the fast-tracked adoption of the proposal.

In June 2021, upon request by the European Council, the European Commission will publish a paper on the lessons learnt from the pandemic and the way towards a more resilient future.

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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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