Tag: Commission

What goes around

  • April 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

What goes around


Circular economy takes the centre stage in European climate action


Source: Pixabay


Two weeks ago, a washed-up carcass of a whale was found on the coast Sardinia, Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. The gruesome discovery was yet another indicator for why tackling plastic waste has taken the centre stage of the EU’s environmental action, with the new single-use plastic legislation coming into force soon. The plastic plan is one of the central elements of the Commission’s wider circular economy strategy, which can – if successfully completed – decrease the EU’s carbon emissions by more than a half.


‘The Council urges that the main policy foundations for a sustainable future include a decisive transition towards a circular economy.’ Conclusions of the General Affairs Council meeting on 9 April push for the EU to become a “trailblazer” for sustainable development by striving for climate neutrality and promoting safe low carbon energy. The Council recognises sustainability of innovation and health of citizens as the enablers of globally competitive economy and calls for the European Commission to use the relevant funding tools to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the conclusions highlight the need for a strong involvement of civil society organisations and the private sector stakeholders in achieving climate action goals.


Circular economy proposals have featured particularly heavily in the current legislative cycle with of many of the measures still needing to be implemented under the supervision of the next Commission configuration. Launch with an action plan in 2015, the EU’s circular economy strategy plays a crucial role in the bloc’s efforts to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and has so far resulted in 54 actions being either completed or under implementation in the member states. Over the 2016-2020 period the EU has pledged over €10 billion to support managed transition to a circular economy with a priority status given to the transition within the EU development and cohesion funds in the new 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework proposal. In March, negotiators between EU institutions reached an agreement to ringfence 35% of the proposed €100 billion research budget in 2021-2027 for climate-friendly technologies.


The most visible of these measures has been the highly popular proposal to ban and phase out single-use plastic within the EU. With the Council expected to grant its final approval to the legislation soon, the member states will have two years to fully implement the new targets of 90% collection target for bottles and new labels to help consumers to correctly dispose products. The measures also include the banning of certain plastic cutlery and cotton buds with plastic. Supported by the “Blue Planet effect”, the single-plastic use legislation has moved from the drafting stage to being in force within a year – a miracle in the EU, where the decision-making process is often measured in dog years.


The EU has set a 50% plastic recycling target by 2025, while some member states, such as the Netherlands and France, have more ambitious national plans in place. The Dutch plan, for example, aims to ensure that 70% of all single-use plastic packaging is recycled by 2025. Currently around 30% of the 26 million tonnes of annual plastic waste in the EU is collected for recycling, of which only about a third is actually converted into reusable material. As a result, producers converting plastics do not at the moment have a stable enough supply of suitable waste. One reason for this is the low local collection rates of plastic. Another is the lack of investment to technology that is capable of converting composites into consistent quality secondary materials. Improving these rates to the target level will require enhanced cooperation between public and private sector stakeholders in the member states supported by the EU.


Alongside plastic, a 2018 study by Material Economics, showed that by strengthening the sustainable circulation of also steel, aluminium, and cement, the EU could reduce its carbon footprint by a whopping 56% – or around 300 megatons of CO2 per annum. Globally, the UN has called for greater reuse of materials and recently published a study showing that extraction and primary processing of metals account for 26% of all carbon emissions.


Curbing the negative environmental impact of extraction with recycled content would significantly help the common European effort to reach the net-zero emissions target by 2050. Thankfully, significant progress has been made in many sectors. For example, around 83% of the almost 3 million tonnes of stainless steel produced annually by Outokumpu, Europe’s largest steel manufacturer, is made from recycled materials (the current European average stands at around 60%). Ovako, a Swedish engineered steel manufacturer specialising in effective scrap management, currently recycles around 800,000 metric tons of scrap metal each year. Both are signatories to Worldsteel’s Sustainable Development Charter, committing the industry to meet the UN 2030 sustainable development goals.


Cement, on the other hand, is in need of concrete alternatives. Since 1970, the global extraction of sand and gravel for concrete production has increased from 9 billion tonnes to 44 billion tonnes – a number that has only continued to soar as concrete has grown to become the second most consumed product in the world after water. Currently the second most polluting European industry after steelmaking, cement manufacturing contains high process emissions, is highly localised, and lacks obvious replacement materials. Nonetheless, alternative fuels and improved energy efficiency of manufacturing plants are readily available options for the industry to improve its environmental impact.


As things currently stand, available solutions can help Europe reach 75% of the cuts required to become climate neutral, according to the European Climate Foundation’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: From Whether to How’ report. Innovative technologies and approaches are needed, however, in order to reach the remaining 25%, which will require improved cooperation and increased investment from both the public and private sectors. It is essential for the next European legislative cycle to both encourage the widespread implementation of the 75% and support the research into the remaining 25%.

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Piece by piece

  • March 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Piece by piece


Solving the challenges hindering EU–US trade talks


Source: Security & Defence Agenda | Flickr


The EU–US trade negotiations could be revitalised “within some weeks”, according to the EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström. The Council is expected to approve the negotiating mandates during its currently on-going Summit in Brussels. The prospects of any transatlantic trade talks have faced numerous challenges since the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations stalled, but the two sides sound ready to return to the table.


As is often the case in trade talks conducted by the EU, however, the agriculture sector has constituted a significant problem moving forward. In the specific case of revitalising the EU–US trade negotiations, there have been significant disagreements on whether to include agriculture products within the scope of the agreement. Despite the joint declaration made by Presidents Juncker and Trump in the White House Rose Garden in July 2018 to reduce trade barriers and strengthen strategic cooperation, trust between the transatlantic partners has only eroded further. From the EU’s perspective, President Trump’s zero-sum perception of trade negotiations, steel tariffs, and threats to impose measures against European car imports have reinforced the view that his administration is not willing to follow the rules on which the transatlantic relationship has traditionally been based.


“Agriculture is out! That is crystal clear.” Speaking at a European Liberal Forum global trade event on Thursday (21 March), Trade Commissioner Malmström was more than certain that the Council would never grant her a mandate to negotiate trade with the United States that would include agriculture products. She stated that there is no appetite on the EU side to open negotiations for a full 30-chapter free trade agreement. Instead, the bloc would be looking to conclude a smaller agreement, as President Juncker already indicated during his July 2018 visit to the White House. According to the Commission’s draft mandates released this January, the EU would be open to negotiating a trade agreement strictly focused on removing tariffs on industrial goods (such as steel) and another agreement on regulatory conformity intended to remove non-tariff barriers.


Speaking also on the topic of trade on Thursday, the US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland told an American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (AmChamEU) transatlantic conference that “the mandate that is being circulated falls far short of what even President Juncker and President Trump discussed in July”. He continued that the talks will need to include “all aspects of our relationship” and repeated the US administration’s demand that agriculture is included in the deal. Last week, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told Congress that the EU-U.S. Executive Working Group had reached a “complete stalemate” as a result of the disagreements over agriculture.


The situation is not this simple, of course. Washington has also consistently refused the EU’s demands to include public procurement and geographical indications in the negotiations, as Commissioner Malmström explained on Thursday. In addition, car tariffs have been another point of contention, as Brussels has insisted that vehicles should be included in the negotiations. This is obviously in the EU’s interest in order to avoid higher import tariffs on European cars to the US as per President Trump’s threats to do so. However, the 2018 joint declaration – on which the current efforts to establish a dialogue are based – explicitly refers to “non-auto industrial goods” in its wording.


What is there to be done then? First of all, both Commissioner Malmström and Ambassador Sondland agreed in their speeches that the EU and US could build up agreements, moving through the issues one by one. Dealing with each issue on its separate track would allow addressing problems at their own pace. Successfully concluding a smaller trade deal could also be used as a platform to build trust between the transatlantic partners and to pave the way for more comprehensive talks in the future. According to Malmström, seeking a positive platform for these talks could start, for example, from the work already done on some regulatory cooperation and standard alignment matters during the TTIP negotiations. From the EU’s perspective, focusing also on aligning car safety regulations could possibly strengthen its hand in arguing that the US cannot impose tariffs on the basis of national security.


Furthermore, the EU and US should use the talks to set a common agenda on their shared concerns on global trade, namely reforming the WTO rulebook and challenging China on its unfair practices.


There are also risks that the transatlantic negotiation would backfire, eroding the already strained relationship even further. The EU might, for example, fail to enter the talks as one voice. The European Parliament’s recent vote failing to issue recommendations on the US trade negotiations highlights the existing divisions between European policy-makers on the topic. President Trump’s own ‘tough guy’ act and the possibility that his administration would impose punitive tariffs before the talks have been concluded – in which case the EU would most likely suspend the negotiations – also pose risks to re-building the partnership. For example, carefully avoiding any reconciliatory tones in a speech to the US governors this February, Donald Trump called the EU “in certain ways, tougher than China” on trade and said that he would “tariff the hell out of [the EU]” if the bloc would not agree to include agriculture products in the trade negotiations.


Yet, perhaps the future opportunity to use the EU–US trade negotiations as an example of President Trump’s deal-making skills ahead of the 2020 US presidential race will eventually be enough to convince Washington of the benefits of a smaller trade agreement. Commissioner Malmström, at least, expects the talks to be concluded by the end of the current Commission’s mandate on 31 October.

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Pandora’s box in the Balkans

  • March 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Pandora’s box in the Balkans


EU should reconsider its support for the Kosovo–Serbia “land swap”


Source: Wikimedia Commons


The attempts to settle one of the hottest borders in the Western Balkans have once again returned to ethnic divisions. The border demarcation proposal, or “land swap”, between Kosovo and Serbia has recently received support from the EU and the United States, both of which are looking to achieve shortcuts for the long-term problem that the two powers have attempted to solve for over a decade. The current plan to swap land along ethnic lines, however, threatens to weaken the core basis of the Western efforts in the Balkans based on the post-Cold War ideals of multi-ethnic, liberal states operating under the rule of law and European values.


Acceptance by the EU of redrawing borders based on ethnicity would not only be likely to have significant repercussions elsewhere in the Western Balkans but also in other disputed territories. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, has justified its occupation of Crimea partly by asserting that the peninsula has a mostly ethnic Russian population. Making matters worse, the Trump Administration – which has been leading the return of the US to Central and Eastern Europe – has been supportive of the “land swap” proposal. The President’s eyes seem glued to the credit-taking photo-op of hosting a historic signing ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.


“I look forward to hosting you in the White House to celebrate what would be a historic accord”, wrote the US President Donald Trump in the letters to the Presidents Hahsim Thaçi of Kosovo and Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia in December 2018.


Domestic political conflict over the “land swap” in Kosovo


Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after the 1998-1999 war that claimed around 13,000 lives. Since 2011, the two parties have engaged in a continuous dialogue facilitated by the High Representative of the EU as per the 2010 UN Consensus Resolution. The negotiations initially led to the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which was not signed by either of the sides but has nonetheless been recognised as a prerequisite for EU accession talks.


Since November 2018, however, the dialogue has stalled as a result of Kosovo imposing a 100% import tax on Serbian and Bosnian products. Kosovo imposed the tax originally at 10% on 6 November and lifted it to its current level on 21 November, arguing that it was a reaction to Serbia lobbying against the country’s admission to international organisations. On 20 November, Kosovo had failed to secure the support of the required two-thirds of Interpol member states in a vote to join the international police organisation. When faced with calls from the EU and US to remove the tariff that counters Kosovo’s obligations under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), the country’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj responded that he will not remove the measures until Serbia recognises Kosovo’s independence. Serbia, which constitution specifies Kosovo as an ‘integral part’ of its territory, has vowed never to recognise the region’s independence.


While the Kosovar Prime Minister Haradinaj and Speaker Kadri Veseli ramped up popular support with the measures against Serbia (benefitting Albania and Macedonia, which exports to Kosovo have increased 39% and 10% since November, respectively), Presidents Thaçi and Vučić have continued to promote their controversial border demarcation proposal. First introduced in August 2018, the “land swap” would involve granting parts of Serbia’s Preševo municipality to Kosovo in exchange for parts of northern Kosovo. In addition, The town of Bujanovac in Serbia would become a special district akin to the status of Brčko in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the divided Kosovar town of Mitrovica would become a ‘free city’. The mines of Trepča would also be given a special status. Since becoming public, the proposal has remained solidly unpopular in both Serbia and Kosovo. The swap would also add a new non-Schengen border on the route of Pan-European Corridor X.


Perhaps more than anything, the demarcation proposal has been a source of internal schism in the politics of Kosovo.  President Thaçi’s support of the “land swap”, which is unpopular in both Kosovo and Serbia, has seen tensions rise between the presidency and the parliament. Thaçi’s efforts to sidelines the national legislators in the opaque talks led to the Parliament of Kosovo endorsing its own ‘Delegation for Dialogue’ on 15 December to conduct the talks with Serbia instead. This internal struggle has only brought further confusion to the already fragile dialogue, which the demarcation proposal has thus failed to boost. In addition, together with the aforementioned import tax measures, Kosovo’s domestic situation has also begun to undermine its most important international alliance – its relationship with the United States.


Current Commission races against time to conclude the dialogue


Meanwhile, the EU has lost much of its footing in the Western Balkans, displaying once again the bloc’s difficulties in dealing with its own backyard. The decade of crises and the rise of populists have certainly hindered both the appeal of EU membership, which is generally argued to be the bloc’s most powerful tool in shaping its neighbourhood, as well as its ability to conduct external relations as a coherent unit. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s announcement that no new member states would be accepted during his mandate did not exactly motivate the Western Balkans candidate states to implement reforms either. Furthermore, the EU has not done itself any favours by delaying the visa liberalisation scheme promised to Kosovo in return for fulfilling specific reform criteria. Visa-free travel regime is seen as one of the main incentives for Kosovo to continue the EU-led talks with Serbia, as the country remains one of the only two territories in Europe (Belarus) to have Schengen restrictions.


Most recently, the EU’s standing in the Kosovo–Serbia dialogue has been undermined by the opposing positions taken on the issue by influential players within the bloc. Germany, the UK, and Austria (which held the rotating EU presidency when the demarcation plan came to light) have all raised concerns about redrawing the map along ethnic divisions in the region. “The focus should be on creating national rather than ethnic identities”, said the Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl reportedly. Nonetheless, some EU officials, most notably High Representative Federica Mogherini and the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn, have been supportive of the proposal in order to speed up the negotiations.


The Commission is obviously concerned about the end of its term in a couple of months’ time, but no one seems as concerned about their legacy as Mogherini. Much like her predecessor Catherine Ashton hurry to conclude the first International Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations between Kosovo and Serbia before the end of her term, Mogherini’s urgency to end the dialogue seems to stem from personal ambitions. This rush to achieve something concrete before the end of the current Commission’s five-year term does not, however, encourage the forging of a long-term and sustainable solution between the two sides.


Theory ≠ Practice


What may sound like a relatively quick solution in theory to the slowing dialogue process, is most likely not going to work in practice. For example, the rural areas surrounding the majority-ethnic Albanian towns in Serbia have a Serbian farming population who simply cannot move their livelihood between redrawn borders as it is tied to the land. Thus, any breakthrough in the Serbia–Kosovo dialogues should not be based on ethnicity.


Allowing redrawing of the fragile map of the Western Balkans threatens to open a Pandora’s box of ethnic shuffling between Serbia and its neighbours. There just simply is not a way this could be contained as a one-off instance. One only has to think about the precedent this would set to Republica Srpska’s Milorad Dodik.

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And not as I do

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

And not as I do

The EU must lead the way in transparency

Source: Daniel Huizinga | Flickr

“We cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution.” Heidi Hautala, the Finnish Green MEP and European Parliament Vice-President hit the nail right on the head with her comment last July after the people’s representatives had once again rejected greater transparency over their use of expenses.


Without even a hint of irony, The European Parliament’s 15-member executive committee – the Bureau – had behind closed doors blocked a proposal to tighten controls over the MEPs’ General Expenditure Allowance (GEA). This ensured that the European parliamentarians could continue to enjoy their €4,416 a month parliamentary expenses without much scrutiny, costing the European taxpayer around €40 million a year. No requirements are currently in place for the representatives to provide information on how these funds are spent and most MEPs claim the full allowance.


Furthermore, in September 2018 the EU General Court even ruled that the Parliament had the right to reject journalists’ requests for greater expenses transparency on the basis of the protection of personal data. This decision immediately begs two obvious questions: 1) what are the MEPs doing with public money that is so private that it cannot be publicly revealed and 2) does the MEPs’ right to privacy really trump the European citizens’ right of access to information as set in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? The court seems to have regarded the former as a question not worth considering and decided the latter to the benefit of the parliamentarians.


Last week it was revealed that the longest serving MEP currently sitting in the Parliament, Elmar Brok, had personally netted almost €18,000 from four groups of visitors by charging them €150 per person to visit the European Parliament as his guests. Nothing like a representative of the people who makes extra money out of the people he represents. But it is not so much the side hustle itself as the allegations that Mr Brok claimed many of the visitor costs back from the Parliament as expenses that constitute the problem within the context of transparency. Easy money. Doubled.


Scandals such as this are political gold for Eurosceptics looking to challenge the institution as wasteful and opaque – even if the same Eurosceptics are not any better with their own expenses. For example, last summer the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) was ordered to reimburse the Parliament over €500,000 of misspent public money, while in December the right-wing conservative Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) was asked to repay over €530,000. This kind of behaviour can only be challenged with greater accountability, which does not exist without greater transparency on the MEPs’ expenses.


Overall, European institutions need to become more mindful of the public’s perceptions as well as more open regarding their activities. Simply put, Europe of today cannot be run on the Monnet method of integration by stealth. The politicisation of the EU since the Maastricht Treaty together with the rapid expansion of access to information has resulted in the increased power of political narratives and brought with itself the need for public institutions to repair information gaps between what they do and how they are represented by other political actors in particular. As a directly elected political body, the European Parliament has so far been able to defend its democratic credentials to those willing to listen, but without greater transparency it cannot challenge the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the European project. Opaque expenses spending and unaccounted for meetings with unregistered lobbyists are powerful ammunition to those wanting to portray the Parliament as an inward-looking elitist institution distant from the masses.


On the other side of Rue Belliard, the European Parliament’s co-legislator is not making things any easier either. Despite recommendations from the European Ombudsman, the Council has failed to systematically record member state positions on legislative issues and routinely marks documents as not to be published. Transparency in the Council has been viewed as a hindrance to the negotiations between the EU’s 28 members despite academic evidence to the contrary. The secretive nature of the Council has turned lack of transparency into an artform that allows member state governments to take credit or shift blame depending on whether a particular decision made in the Council is likely to be viewed as popular or unpopular within their domestic electorates. In addition, due to inadequate measures for parliamentary scrutiny on EU affairs in many member states, the positions taken by national governments in Brussels can remain hidden and uncontested throughout the decision-making process. This legislative black hole allows for European populists to further stoke the fire of public dissatisfaction by representing “Brussels” as a malevolent entity oblivious to the needs of the people.


More often than not, however, this Eurosceptic blame game has centred around the Commission. Yet, as an unelected political institution, the Commission has actually been more sensitive to the calls of unaccountability and lack of democratic credentials than the EU’s co-legislators and has attempted to improve its transparency accordingly. Achieving greater openness was in fact one of President Juncker’s first pledges after assuming the role. For example, the Commissions has staff rules in place for limiting the so-called ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, it conducts trade negotiations in a more transparent manner and has been highly responsive to the recommendations of the European Ombudsman, while commissioners and senior officials are mandated to publish their travel expenses and meetings with lobbyists (who must be registered with the Commission’s transparency register). Currently only seven member states have passed national legislation regulating lobbying and only five have a mandatory code of conduct for lobbyists similar in scope to the Commission’s standards.


After years of demanding openness and transparency from market actors in the name of competition and trust, the EU’s institutions must reform and unify their own transparency rules for greater accountability and credibility for the Union as a whole. And the first opportunity of the year is rapidly approaching, as the European Parliament will be voting for the first time on binding transparency rules for lobbying activities in its Rules of Procedure tomorrow (31 January).


Yet, without a hint of irony the Parliament will be conducting another transparency vote in the opaquest manner possible. This time the European People’s Party (EPP) voted in a secret ballot within the group to demand that the votes on the transparency amendments to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure be conducted by secret ballot. As the EPP currently holds over 20% of the parliamentary seats, they were able to force a secret ballot on the vote based the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. On top of this, tomorrow’s vote is shadowed by a particular declaration made by the Parliament’s lawyers in November 2018. According to the EP’s legal minds, mandating MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists and even only voluntarily publishing information about these meetings is illegal based on the MEPs’ ‘freedom of the parliamentary mandate’ – an argument that has also been supported by the EPP. Both the EPP and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) groups have previously voted against rules allowing MEPs to meet only with lobbyists in the transparency register, which is already compulsory for commissioners and the Commission’s senior officials. It is time to unify the measures.


An increasingly politicised union has no choice but to increase the openness of its law-making. Accountability and trust have been burning topics in the current European debate on election manipulation, disinformation, and social media in particular, and the EU must be on the front lines of delivering reliable information to the voting public as well as ensure the accountability of its own actions. Greater institutional transparency is certainly the key to both of these ambitions.


Update: On 31 January the European Parliament approved the amended rulebook, including transparency rules and measures to prevent psychological or sexual harassment, by 496 votes to 114.

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