Coronavirus isn’t the only problem facing EU officials this fall. There are several policy files on which the bloc needs to make progress this year, even as many officials and diplomats continue to work virtually. Here’s POLITICO’s guide to 11 files set to dominate the remainder of 2020
Coronavirus isn’t the only problem facing EU officials this fall.
After the global crisis put a lengthy hold on life in Brussels, the back-to-school season is a chance for the EU to regain momentum — in some cases because it has to. There are several policy files on which the bloc needs to make progress this year, even as many officials and diplomats continue to work virtually.
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to 11 files set to dominate the remainder of 2020.
1. Reforming migration
A long-awaited Commission proposal for migration reform is expected to be presented at the end of September after repeated delays. Asylum regulation is one of the most sensitive issues in European politics, putting the EU under severe strain since 2015, and the subject no less delicate now.
Diplomats say the new proposal will tackle all the most problematic aspects, including some sort of redistribution mechanism for asylum seekers; a stronger procedure at the borders to assess asylum requests; and the responsibility of countries for asylum claims.
Currently the most frequently applied criterion is irregular entry, which means the country through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU is responsible for examining the asylum claim. But coastline countries in the south say that puts an unfair burden on them.
Southern countries say that Eastern countries should show solidarity. Eastern countries say they are ready to do so, but not in a mandatory form.
Key dates: The strategy is expected by the end of September, and to be discussed by EU interior ministers at meetings in October and December.
Key people: Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, and Margaritis Schinas, the Commission vice president whose portfolio includes migration.
2. Saving digital trade
After Europe’s top court this summer struck down the transatlantic data flows agreement between the EU and the U.S., the pressure is on the European Commission to come up with another mechanism to keep data flowing across the Atlantic and prevent billions of euros’ worth of digital trade falling into legal limbo.
Yet any deal that fails to address deep concerns about surveillance will be seen as a capitulation by Europe’s privacy hawks.
Washington and Brussels are now in talks to strike an “enhanced EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework” that complies with the July ruling. It looks unlikely that the U.S. will overhaul its surveillance regime, so a new agreement is likely to shore up EU customers’ ability to seek judicial redress against U.S. surveillance powers rather than move the needle on those powers themselves.
In the same period, the Commission must decide whether to accept the U.K.’s data protection regime as adequate. The decision is a tough one to call, with Brussels under pressure to be harder on foreign surveillance regimes following the July ruling.
Key dates: Don’t expect any meaningful progress on a U.S. deal before the November 3 presidential election. For the United Kingdom, the Commission is hoping to wrap up an adequacy decision before the December 31 Brexit deadline.
Key players: Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Vice President Věra Jourová are the go-to officials on the EU side, and data protection mandarin Bruno Gencarelli is the bloc’s man at the table. The U.S. side is led by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Oliver Dowden heads the U.K. government department responsible for an adequacy decision.
3. Making investment moral
The Commission is eyeing green finance standards to channel funds toward investments in line with its climate goals — but has said a new sustainable finance strategy coming in 2020 will also go broader, targeting investment in social projects and biodiversity as two examples.
The plans are likely to include tightening so-called taxonomy rules, agreed this year to classify sustainable economic activities for investment purposes; new green bond standards and labels for investment funds; as well as an EU database to compare companies’ green credentials. As national governments and the EU plow billions of euros into the pandemic recovery, Brussels wants, in particular, to screen those investments for their impact.
The financial industry says Brussels risks setting the bar too high for green standards. But the Commission says that even if too few banking products and investments qualify initially, it will provoke change, pointing to environmental labels for refrigerators in the 1990s as a similar example whereby something that seems extreme can become mainstream.
Key dates: End of Q4 for the renewed sustainable finance strategy.
Key players: Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis and the Commission’s finance department head John Berrigan.
4. Managing the fallout from Brexit
Talks on a future trade deal between the EU and the U.K. have turned into a game of chicken, increasing the chances of a no-deal outcome by the end of the year when the transition period agreed as part of the divorce package comes to an end.
The two sides remain at an impasse on various issues, the thorniest being so-called level playing field rules, designed to prevent the U.K. from undercutting the EU in the future, and fisheries. And while there has been progress on other aspects of the negotiations, the EU insists on “parallelism” — blocking progress in one area as long as there isn’t progress in others to prevent a series of mini-deals that would benefit the U.K.
Timing is tight. The EU and U.K. must come to an agreement on their future relationship by October so that it can be ratified before December 31. There is now continuous contact between Brussels and London between formal rounds of talks.
Meanwhile, the Commission is preparing contingency legislation in case no deal is agreed. But it wants to hold off at least until the European Council summit at the end of September before publishing, to avoid suggesting it’s lost faith in the negotiations.
Key dates: EU officials say the next formal round of talks in London in the week of September 7 will be crucial to ruling out a no-deal scenario before December 31. To have a deal in place by the end of the year, the EU and U.K. must reach an agreement by the European Council summit on October 15-16.
Key players: EU and U.K. officials hope the involvement of national and EU leaders — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, among others — might prevent a worst-case scenario. Some officials on both sides are also counting on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, as Germany currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. But unless and until that happens, it’s still up to the chief negotiators — the EU’s Michel Barnier and the U.K.’s David Frost — to find a compromise within their current mandates.
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