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Commission proposes to strengthen coordination of safe travel in the EU

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European Commission has proposed to update the rules on coordination of safe and free movement in the EU, which were put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the summer, vaccine uptake has increased significantly and the EU Digital COVID Certificate has been rolled out successfully, with more than 650 million certificates issued to date. At the same time, the epidemiological situation in the EU continues to develop with some Member States taking additional public health measures, including administering booster vaccines. Taking into account all those factors, the Commission is proposing a stronger focus on a ‘person-based’ approach to travel measures and a standard acceptance period for vaccination certificates of 9 months since the primary vaccination series. The 9 month period takes into account the guidance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on the administration of booster doses as of 6 months, and provides for an additional period of 3 months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens can have access to boosters.

The Commission is also proposing updates to the EU traffic light map; as well as a simplified ‘emergency brake’ procedure. 

The Commission is also proposing today to update the rules on external travel to the EU [press release available as of 14:15].

Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, said: “Since the start of the pandemic, the Commission has been fully active in finding solutions to guarantee the safe free movement of people in a coordinated manner. In light of the latest developments and scientific evidence, we are proposing a new recommendation to be adopted by the Council. Based on our common tool, the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which has become a real standard, we are moving to a ‘person-based’ approach. Our main objective is avoid diverging measures throughout the EU. This also applies to the question of boosters, which will be essential to fight the virus. Among other measures, we propose today that the Council agrees on a standard validity period for vaccination certificates issued following the primary series. Agreeing on this proposal will be crucial for the months ahead and the protection of the safe free movement for citizens.”

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety added:  “The EU Digital COVID Certificate and our coordinated approach to travel measures have greatly contributed to safe free movement, with the protection of public health as our priority. We have vaccinated over 65% of the total EU population, but this is not enough. There are still too many people who are not protected. For everyone to travel and live as safely as possible, we need to reach significantly higher vaccination rates – urgently. We also need to reinforce our immunity with booster vaccines. Taking into account the guidance from ECDC, and to allow Member States to adjust their vaccination campaigns and for citizens to have access to boosters, we propose a standard acceptance period for vaccination certificates. At the same time, we have to continue to strongly encouraging everyone to continue to respect public health measures. Our masks need to stay on.”

Key updates to the common approach to travel measures within the EU proposed by the Commission are:

Focus on a ‘person-based approach’: a person who has a valid EU Digital COVID Certificate should in principle not be subject to additional restrictions, such as tests or quarantine, regardless of their place of departure in the EU. Persons without an EU Digital COVID Certificate could be required to undergo a test carried out prior to or after arrival.

Standard validity of vaccination certificates: To avoid diverging and disruptive approaches, the Commission proposes a standard acceptance period of 9-month for vaccination certificates issued following the completion of the primary vaccination series. The 9 month period takes into account the guidance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on the administration of booster doses as of 6 months, and provides for an additional period of 3 months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens can have access to boosters. This means that, in the context of travel, Member States should not refuse a vaccination certificate that has been issued less than 9 months since the administration of the last dose of the primary vaccination. Member States should immediately take all necessary steps to ensure access to vaccination for those population groups whose previously issued vaccination certificates approach the 9-month limit.

Booster shots: As of yet, there are no studies expressly addressing the effectiveness of boosters on transmission of COVID-19 and therefore it is not possible to determine an acceptance period for boosters. However, given the emerging data it can be expected that protection from booster vaccinations may last longer than that resulting from the primary vaccination series. The Commission will closely monitor newly emerging scientific evidence on this issue. On the basis of such evidence, the Commission may, if needed, propose an appropriate acceptance period also for vaccination certificates issued following a booster.

The EU traffic light map is adapted: combining new cases with a region’s vaccine uptake. The map would be mainly for information purposes, but would also serve to coordinate measures for areas with particularly low (‘green’) or particularly high level (‘dark red’) of circulation of the virus. For these areas, specific rules would apply by derogation from the ‘persons-based approach’. For travellers from ‘green’ areas, no restrictions should be applied. Travel to and from ‘dark red’ areas should be discouraged, given the high number of new infections there, and persons who are neither vaccinated nor have recovered from the virus should be required to undergo a pre-departure test and quarantine after arrival (with special rules for essential travelers and children under 12 years old).

Exemptions from certain travel measures: should apply for cross-border commuters, children under 12 and essential travellers. The list of essential travellers should be reduced as many travellers included in the current list have had the opportunity to be vaccinated in the meantime.

Simplified ‘emergency brake’ procedure: the emergency procedure intended to delay the spread of possible new COVID-19 variants or address particularly serious situations should be simplified and more operational. It would include a Member State notification to the Commission and the Council and a roundtable at the Council’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR).

To allow for sufficient time for the coordinated approach to be implemented, the Commission proposes that these updates apply as of 10 January 2022.

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Von der Leyen Outlines Vision for Stronger Europe

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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.

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Commission approves 2022-2027 regional aid map for Greece

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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.

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20 years of the euro in your pocket

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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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