What’s going on in Brussels? A lot. And trying to follow it all can be difficult.
So this section of AcrossEU seeks to provide you with an overview of what each of the three main EU institutions are doing.
Late in February, the European Commission (the ‘Commission’) adopted the ‘Energy Union Strategy’, a package of proposals to create a single European energy market. The so-called Energy Union Plan would give the Commission more influence in the negotiation of gas supply contracts from third countries. This is a fundamental step towards the completion of single energy market and reforming how Europe produces, transports and consumes energy.
On 26 February 2015, the EU requested the establishment of a dispute settlement panel at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) concerning Russia’s excessive import duties, in particular on paper products, refrigerators and palm oil. When Russia joined the WTO in 2012 it promised to reduce duties on these products. It has not done so.
On 5 March 2015, the Commission opened the call for proposals under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) to help finance key transEuropean energy infrastructure projects. €100 million will be made available for projects aimed at ending energy isolation, eliminating energy bottlenecks and to complete the European energy market. The deadline for applications is 29 April 2015. A decision on the selection of proposals to be funded is expected for mid-July.
On 18 March 2015, the Commission presented a package of tax transparency measures as part of its ambitious agenda to tackle corporate tax avoidance and harmful tax competition in the EU. 1 A key element of this ‘Tax Transparency Package’ is the proposal to introduce the automatic exchange of information between Member States on their tax rulings.
On 23 March 2015, the Commission has opened an in-depth investigation to examine whether the public financing of a test centre for high-speed trains and related equipment (the ‘Centro de Ensayos de Alta Tecnología Ferroviaria’, CEATF) near Malaga in Spain is compatible with EU state aid rules. Under Spain's current plans, the project costs of €358.6 million would be fully financed by the EU Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Spain. At this stage, the Commission has doubts that the project pursues a genuine objective of common interest.
On 24 March 2015, the Commission has opened an in-depth investigation to assess whether two measures granted by the Brussels authorities in favour of the French outdoor advertising company JC Decaux were in line with EU state aid rules. The first measure concerns the exploitation of a number of advertising panels in the centre of Brussels. The second part of the investigation concerns the Villo bike rental system in the region of Brussels. The Commission has concerns that certain tax and rent exemptions may have given the company a selective advantage over JC Decaux competitors.
The Council of the European Union
On 12 March 2015, the Council of the European Union (‘Council’) adopted its position at first reading on new EU-wide rules on insolvency proceedings. The new rules are aimed at making cross-border insolvency proceedings more efficient and effective, benefiting debtors and creditors, facilitating the survival of businesses and presenting a second chance for entrepreneurs. They also bring the current Insolvency Regulation 2 into line with developments in national insolvency laws introduced since its entry into force in 2002.
On 13 March 2015 the Council reached a partial general approach on specific issues of the draft regulation setting out a general EU framework for data protection, on the understanding that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.3 The partial general approach includes the chapters and the recitals concerning the ‘one stop shop’ mechanism (chapters VI and VII) as well as the chapter and the recitals relating to the principles for protecting the personal data (chapter II). A subsequent leaked document has however revealed that several governments are planning to soften certain main points on the security of customer data.
On the same day, the Council formally prolonged the application of EU restrictive measures targeting action against Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. The asset freeze and travel bans against 150 persons and 37 entities have been extended for a further 6 months, that is until 15 September 2015.
The European Parliament
In relation to the interchages fees saga, on 10 March 2015 the European Parliament (‘Parliament’) agreed to impose caps on card payments in Europe, applying to cross-border and domestic card-based payments. In particular, the cap intercharge fees are fixed at 0.2% of transaction value for debit cards and 0.3% for credit card. Member States have the discretion to exclude three party schemes in certain circumstances, for instance when they licence others to issue their cards – rather than making their inclusion compulsory. Meanwhile, although the domestic intercharge fee on debit cards is capped at 0.2%, this may represent a weighted average, the annual transaction value of all domestic debit card transactions, rather than a cap on each individual transaction.
During the last plenary session that took place from 9 to 12 March in Strasbourg, the Parliament discussed a wide range of matters, including the assassination of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the worrying rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and violent extremism in the European Union, and called for greater efforts to abolish the gender pay gap and to tackle child sexual abuse on the internet. The Parliament also debated about European economic priorities and the priorities regarding the Energy Union Strategy. It also voted on rules to create European LongTerm Investment Funds and adopted resolutions regarding the Parliament’s stance on European Central Bank activities, the Parliament’s policy guidelines for the Commission's upcoming EU 2016 budget Proposal and the impact of Russian import restrictions on EU road hauliers. Finally, the Parliament warned candidate countries (Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to get their act together if they want to progress on their path towards the EU.
During the next plenary session scheduled for the last week of March in Brussels, the Parliament will discuss i) the conclusions of the European Council meeting that took place on the 19 and 20 of March, ii) the Decision adopted on the European Neighbourhood Policy Package, ii) the Decision adopted on the Tax Transparency Policy, iii) the minimum rates of pay in the transport sector and anti-Gypsyism in Europe. The Parliament will also vote on the mobilisation of the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, on the macro-financial assistance to Ukraine and on the Annual Tax Report. The International Trade (INTA) Committee will discuss with trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström the investment protection and investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).4 MEPs will also consult experts on the deal's potential benefits for businesses and consumers.