Challenges for the EU [What Think Tanks are thinking]

Written by Marcin Grajewski,

Challenges for the EU

Lefebvre Jonathan / Fotolia

The European Union faces challenges, such as in relation to migration and stagnant economic growth, which test its ability to offer solutions to its citizens. Some politicians and analysts have called for a reform of the EU to shore up popular support for European integration 60 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the creation of what is now the Union.

This note offers links to recent commentaries, studies and reports from major international think tanks on the state of the EU and possible reforms. Earlier papers on the State of the Union can be found in a September edition of ‘What Think Tanks are Thinking’. Other issues in the series offer links to reports on euro area reform and the impact of Brexit on the EU. They  were published in September 2016 and in February 2017 respectively.

Regroup and reform: Ideas for a more responsive and effective European Union
Centre for European Policy Studies, February 2017

The EU’s existential threat: Demands for flexibility in an EU based on rules
Istituto Affari Internazionali, February 2017

A cracking debate on the EU’s future
Carnegie Europe, February 2017

Europe in a new world order
Bruegel, February 2017

The future of a more differentiated E(M)U:  Necessities, options, choices
Istituto Affari Internazionali, February 2017

The lessons of 60 years of ‘Rome’ and 25 years of ‘Maastricht
Clingendael, February 2017

Eurozone proposals will be Rome party pooper
Friends of Europe, February 2017

Une Commission politique grâce à une nouvelle organisation: “Cette fois, c’est différent”. Vraiment ?
Notre Europe Jacques Delors, February 2017

Promouvoir l’Europe sociale: La quête du progrès pendant “l’ère Delors
Notre Europe Jacques Delors, February 2017

The specter of post-Atlanticist Europe
Carnegie Europe, January 2017

Can the EU survive in an age of populism?
Centre for European Policy Studies, January 2017

Has the euro been a failure?
Centre for European Reform, January 2017

Régénérer l’Europe
Confrontations Europe, January 2017

Europe must take control of its own destiny in 2017
Friends of Europe, January 2017

How to balance sovereignty and integration in a voluntary EU
Bruegel, January 2016

L’Europe dans l’angle mort de la démocratie
Confrontations Europe, January 2017

Will the European Union survive until 2025? Three scenarios
German Marshal Fund, January 2017

Pour un code européen des affaires
Fondation Robert Schuman, January 2017

Europe today and what’s next
Liechtenstein Center on Self-Determination, December 2016

What’s wrong with the European Union? And what can be done?
College of Europe, December 2016

The “populist moment”: Towards a “post-liberal” Europe?
Fondation Robert Schuman, December 2016

Europe’s leaders must steel themselves for a tough 2017
Friends of Europe, December 2016

What millennials think about the future of the EU and the euro
Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, Bertelsmann Stiftung, December 2016

The resistible rise of populism in Europe
Martens Centre for European Studies, December 2016

De-constitutionalization and majority rule: A democratic vision for Europe
Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung, December 2016

Europe in search of Europeans: The road of identity and myth
Notre Europe Jacques Delors Institute, December 2016

Europe in 2016 and beyond
Carnegie Europe, December 2016

Time to go beyond interstate federalism-or something different? The response of new pro-European think tanks to the EU integration crisis
Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, November 2016

State of Europe 2016 seeks way ahead for Europe in crisis
Friends of Europe, November 2016

For an ambitious Europe
Notre Europe Jacques Delors Institute, November 2016

To give or to grab: The principle of full, crippled and split conferral of powers post-Lisbon
Collge of Europe, November 2016

The EU’s crisis of governance and European foreign policy
Chatham House, November 2016

‘Business as usual’ will just bring more calls to leave
Europe’s World, October 2016

The enemy within: Are modern European democracies afraid of introspection?
European Policy Centre, October 2016

EU@60: Countering a regressive and illiberal Europe
European Policy Centre, October 2016

The future of Europe
Fondation Robert Schumann, September 2016

Europe after Brexit: A proposal for a continental partnership
Bruegel, September 2016

A flexible Europe after the Brexit vote
Carnegie Europe, September 2016

Comment rendre l’Europe à nouveau populaire?
Fondation Robert Schuman, September 2016

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Circular economy: animated infographic

Waste collectionWritten by Didier Bourguignon, Jana Valant, Christian Dietrich and Mitja Brus.

In a circular economy, products and the materials they contain are highly valued. This contrasts with the traditional, linear economic model, which is based on a ‘take-make-consume-throw away’ pattern. In practice, a circular economy minimises waste through reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products.

Explore our animated infographic on the circular economy

Waste Generation in the EUAbout five tonnes of waste per capita are generated in the European Union (EU) each year, with municipal waste accounting for about 10 % of the total. Currently, over a quarter of municipal waste is landfilled and less than half is recycled or composted, with wide variations between Member States. The amount of municipal waste per capita and per year, a possible indicator for waste prevention, also varies significantly across Member States.

Material Flows in EUMaterials are key to our economy and well-being, yet materials supply poses some challenges. The stocks of materials we use are growing each year, making new inputs necessary even with high reuse and recycling rates. In addition, the supply of raw materials is associated with risks, such as price volatility, availability and import dependency. The EU currently imports, in raw material equivalents, about half the resources it consumes. The good news is, however, that material consumption is no longer closely linked to economic growth; in other words, we are now using our resources more efficiently.

There are a number of ways to make smarter use of our resources. These include: improving the implementation of the ‘waste hierarchy’, a concept in EU legislation which sets priorities among waste prevention and treatment options; increasing the lifetime of products; and sharing our resources using new business models.

Moving towards a more circular economy could deliver benefits, including reduced pressure on the environment; enhanced raw material supply security; and increased competitiveness, innovation, growth and jobs. However, the move also poses challenges, such as finance, key economic enablers, skills, consumer behaviour, business models and multi-level governance.Circular Economy concept

The EU has set itself ambitious goals (‘to live well, within the limits of the planet’ by 2050). In 2015, the European Commission pledged to take many actions to promote transition towards a circular economy, and the European Parliament is now monitoring their implementation.

The circular economy is set to become an important part of EU citizens’ daily lives. Our new animated infographic on the circular economy provides a visual explanation of the main concepts, as well as the facts and figures which underpin the movement.

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How does the EU promote sign languages?

In reference to sign languages, citizens contact the European Parliament requesting information on the status of sign languages at EU level, the actions taken to promote it and how its interpretation works in the EU institutions.

Smiling deaf woman learning sign language and talking with her teacher

Monika Wisniewska / Fotolia

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Convention), ratified by the European Union on 23 December 2010, recognises the freedom of expression and opinion and access to information of persons with disabilities, including by accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages (Article 21).

In the field of education, by virtue of having ratified the convention, the EU should take appropriate measures to facilitate the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community (Article 24).

EP resolution on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Parliament, inter alia, stressed that ‘persons with disabilities need to have access to information and communication in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities, including sign languages […]’ and it called, therefore, ‘on the Commission to take the necessary measures to enforce the implementation of EU legislation on access to information and communication’.

EP resolution on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters

The resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 23 November 2016 on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters inter-alia stresses the need for qualified and professional sign language interpreters which should be based on the official recognition of national and regional sign language(s) in Member States and within EU institutions. Furthermore, the Parliament recognises that sign language interpretation constitutes a professional service requiring appropriate remuneration.

The resolution also calls on the Member States to encourage the learning of sign language in the same way as foreign languages and emphasises that sign language should be included in educational curricula in order to raise awareness and increase the use of sign language.

EU institutions’ communication to citizens

The European Parliament, in its resolution of 14 April 2016 on Parliament’s estimates of revenue and expenditure for the financial year 2017, stated that it ‘backs the introduction of international sign language interpretation for all plenary debates so that they at least are genuinely accessible to all European citizens’.

The European Commission, in its reply of 23 March 2016 to a parliamentary question on sign language, stated that ‘there is a trend at EU level to make sign languages more visible at events. Through its Lifelong Learning Programme (2007-13), the Commission financed several projects aimed at making communication easier for the deaf and hard of hearing. The Commission also financed a pilot project of the European Union of the Deaf on potential technological solutions to improve independent communication and interaction between the deaf or hard of hearing and EU institutions [INSIGN Project]. The Commission is also working to make its buildings and websites more accessible. Its interpreting service provides sign language interpretation on request for the Commission. Concerning television coverage via Europe by Satellite [EbS], many events are broadcasted live which makes it difficult to include sign language. However for the corporate video productions, the Commission is aiming at a more systematic use of subtitling to enable the deaf and hard of hearing viewers to follow Commission videos.’

To enable deaf and hard of hearing persons participating in Commission’s meetings to gain access to information, sign-language interpreting is likewise practised at this institution.

Request for sign languages as EU official language

The European Union has 24 official languages. In order for a language to acquire the status of official language in accordance with the rules governing the use of languages at the EU institutions, a Member State must request that status for it, and its request must be approved by the Council, acting unanimously by means of regulations (Article 342 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

The European Commission underlined, in its answer of 22 February 2016 to a parliamentary question, that ‘although the language policy of Member States is their exclusive competence, the European Commission encourages recognition of sign languages and supports their dissemination through its programmes for education and training.’

Further information

The study ‘The protection role of the Committee on Petitions in the context of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ published in October 2016 by the EP Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Policy Department, and the in-depth analysis ‘The obligations of the EU public administration under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ published in March 2016 by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), might be of interest.

Do you have any questions on this issue or another EP-related concern? Please use our web form. You write, we answer.

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Circular economy package: Four legislative proposals on waste [EU Legislation in Progress]

Written by Didier Bourguignon (4th edition),


© avarooa / Fotolia

Although waste management in the EU has improved considerably in recent decades, over a quarter of municipal waste is still landfilled and less than half is recycled or composted, with wide variations between Member States. Improving waste management could deliver positive effects for the environment, climate, human health and the economy. As part of a shift towards a circular economy, the European Commission made four legislative proposals introducing new waste-management targets regarding reuse, recycling and landfilling, strengthening provisions on waste prevention and extended producer responsibility, and streamlining definitions, reporting obligations and calculation methods for target.


See also our at a glance note on: ‘Circular economy 1.0 and 2.0: A comparison‘.

See our animated infographic on Circular Economy.



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Better Law-Making in Practice, 2-3 February 2017

Written by Eva Casalprim and Laura Tilindyte,

MARTINEZ IGLESIAS, Maria JoseThe implementation and the broader implications of the Interinstitutional Agreement on Better Law-Making (which entered into force on 13 April 2016), were a common thread of the joint seminar devoted to better law-making in practice on 2-3 February 2017, jointly organised by the European Parliament’s Legal Service and EPRS. Two eminent experts in the field Professor Sasha Garben of the College of Europe in Bruges and Professor Mark Dawson of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin – shared their knowledge on the legal aspects of the difficult task of improving complex EU legislation to ensure EU law meets the needs of citizens and businesses.

In her introductory speech, Professor Garben (College of Europe) shared some inspiring thoughts regarding the quality of EU legislation, and discussed the structural factors of an EU of 28 Member States that render the task of adopting simple, clear and accessible rules rather difficult in practice. Professor Garben also emphasised the different, and sometimes conflicting, narratives of the EU better regulation agenda and stressed the need for further clarification and improvement.

The first joint declaration on EU’s legislative priorities, which was signed on 13 December 2016, was the focus of a panel discussion on legislative initiative and programming, Points raised at the seminar included emphasising that ‘priority treatment’ of certain initiatives, as envisaged in the agreement, should not be confused with ‘backroom deals’.

McDOWELL, I; TROUPIOTIS, A; KNUDSEN, L;Wolfgang Hiller of EPRS emphasised the reaffirmed role of impact assessment in contributing to high quality legislation, but also pointed to the remaining differences between the institutions regarding the intensity of their impact assessment work, which requires continued inter-institutional exchange and cooperation. The legal dimension of impact assessment was also highlighted with a stress, inter alia, on the increased tendency of the Court of Justice to address the (presence or absence of) impact assessments in its judgments.

Recent better law-making efforts signal a shift of attention to the question how EU laws are being implemented and applied ‘on the ground’. Following the logic of the legislative cycle, the fourth panel on implementation of Union law focused on the need for effective monitoring of Member States’ transposition measures, including the ‘gold-plating’ phenomenon. Jose Luis Rufas Quintana of EPRS emphasised the importance of evaluation, and noted the shift towards the logic of ‘evaluate first’ before taking new measures. EPRS is contributing with evaluation/ex-post impact assessment work, however challenges remain, including the need for interinstitutional coordination and data-sharing.

Better law makingThe second day of the seminar was devoted to delegated and implementing acts (DIAs) and soft law. The discussion on DIAs recalled the origin of the delegated (DAs) and implementing acts (IAs) in the European Convention and reflected on their development in the period preceding the new Interinstitutional Agreement on Better Law-Making. One of the main elements highlighted was the consultation of national experts in the preparation of delegated acts, including systematic access for European Parliament experts to all related meetings and documents. The discussion helped to distil the main challenges faced in the European Parliament’s work and emphasised the importance of confidence-building between the institutions.

The topic of soft law was introduced by Professor Dawson, who underlined that soft law has not been taken into account in the Inter-institutional Agreement, and is viewed with a certain degree of ambiguity and suspicion by European legislators. During the discussion, it was pointed out that, while better law-making signifies clarity, simplicity and coherence, soft law can involve ambiguity and no ‘clear effects’. Despite this initial perception, soft law can nevertheless become a useful instrument for clarifying, interpreting and updating rules in certain circumstances (guidelines, memoranda of understanding). The main issue was that soft law requires clarity.

Joe Dunne of EPRS concluded the seminar by reflecting that it is easier to quantify the costs of better law-making than to assess the benefits, however positive. The seminar served to underline that the achievement of a new Interinstitutional Agreement was a success in its own right.

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How the EU budget is spent: Justice Programme (2014-2020)

Written by Rafał Mańko,

European Union long shadow flag with a weight scale

© jpgon / Fotolia

EU law is applied on a daily basis by national judges in the Member States, who rely on assistance from the EU Court of Justice only in the most complicated cases. Judges otherwise interpret and apply EU law on their own. In the European area of freedom, security and justice, national courts are expected to cooperate ever more closely, as part of judicial cooperation in civil matters (including e.g. family law or company law) and judicial cooperation in criminal matters (e.g. European arrest warrant or cooperation in gathering evidence in cross-border criminal cases).

The justice programme seeks to contribute to the further development of a European area of justice. This area is based on two fundamental pillars: firstly, the mutual recognition of judicial decisions from various Member States, and secondly, the promotion of mutual trust between national judiciaries across the Union. The programme provides financial support for a wide array of actions, including analytical activities (research, collection of data, surveys etc.), training activities (including staff exchanges, workshops and seminars), mutual learning, support for national judiciaries, and European-level networks.

The justice programme is endowed with a budget of €377.6 million for the 2014-2020 period, with around 34 % of this to be spent on judicial training, 32 % on access to justice, 29 % on judicial cooperation and 5 % on the drugs prevention policy. Items financed by the justice programme include the EU’s membership in the Hague Conference on Private International Law, EU cooperation with the Council of Europe with regard to human rights protection, implementation of the e-Justice platform, as well as collaboration between judiciaries within the framework of the European Judicial Training Network, on top of numerous projects aimed at enhancing the quality of the judiciaries of EU Member States in the field of civil and criminal procedure.

Read the complete briefing on ‘How the EU budget is spent: Justice Programme (2014-2020)‘.

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Guide to EU Funding 2014-2020

Written by Vasilis Margaras,

Finding the appropriate funding sources for a local authority, a public entity, a company or a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) can be a major problem. Information is scattered across many different sources and is often confusing and outdated.

The EPRS ‘Guide to EU Funding 2014-2020’ is a basic introduction to EU funding opportunities for regional and local authorities, NGOs, businesses, professionals and citizens. The objective is to provide an accessible list of the most important EU funds, and to provide potential beneficiaries with appropriate information on the opportunities the funding offers.

Guide to EU Funding 2014-2020

Guide to EU Funding 2014-2020

The guide’s main funding themes are divided in subsections to facilitate research. A number of hyperlinks are included in the text, giving easy access to the source of funding information. NGOs usually receive funding from a number of programmes, such as the European Social Fund, Creative Europe, Europe for Citizens, Horizon 2020, Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) and the Connecting Europe Facility Programme. Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) may be able to secure funding from EU programmes such as COSME, Connecting Europe Facility, Horizon 2020, Regional and Agricultural Policy funds, and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. The guide, however, also points to funding opportunities to be found in other areas. Possibilities also exist for funding through a combination of different financial resources – much depends on the nature of the project submitted, its scope and priorities.

Applying for EU funds can be a bureaucratic and difficult process, which may require specialist advice. It requires considerable effort, resources and advanced planning. For instance, the application form needs to correspond to the main priorities of the funding call and to underline clearly its planned actions in great detail. Due to the high level of competition for funding, potential beneficiaries also need to prove that their submitted projects have an added value. Even if successful, it may take time for the competent authorities to disburse allocated funding for a project. This often implies that beneficiaries may need to spend part of their own resources to run the submitted projects in their initial stage. Furthermore, as EU funding is subject to various audits, it is important to follow the rules carefully and to respect the amounts stated in the funding bid proposed.

A list of major potential beneficiaries is mentioned at the end of each section of the guide to help the reader, but the list is not exhaustive. As new funding elements emerge on a continuous basis, the guide will be updated regularly.

Download the Guide to EU Funding 2014-2020.

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Latest thinking on Brexit [What Think Tanks are thinking]

Written by Marcin Grajewski,

The United Kingdom is preparing to meet the deadline it has set itself of end-March 2017 for launching the formal procedure to leave the European Union. Following a UK Supreme Court ruling, triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty now requires that the UK Parliament pass legislation on the matter, a process which is now under way.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House on Brexit on 17 January and the UK government’s subsequent White Paper were seen by analysts as anticipating a complicated set of negotiations between the UK and the EU, with the UK in effect prioritising control of migration over its continued membership of the single market.

This note offers links to recent commentaries and reports published by major international think tanks on the UK’s plans to leave the EU. More studies on issues raised by the vote can be found in a previous edition of ‘What Think Tanks are thinking’ in October 2016.

The UK's 'new settlement' in the European Union Renegotiation and referendum

© tonsnoei / Fotolia

Devolved external affairs: The impact of Brexit
Chatham House, February 2017

Brexit: The launch of Article 50
European Policy Centre, February 2017

After Brexit: It’s a brave new world
Centre for European Policy Studies, February 2017

Making the best of Brexit for the EU27 financial system
Bruegel, February 2017

Questionable immigration claims in the Brexit white paper
Bruegel, February 2017

A well-managed Brexit is a priority for the entire EU
Centre for European Policy Studies, February 2017

Brexit: Next steps of UK’s withdrawal from the EU
House of Commons Library, February 2017

A year full of challenges (and opportunities) for the EU
Atlantic Council, February 2017

Parliamentarians in Brexit talks: Bulls in a china shop?
Centre for European Reform, February 2017

Brexit, a game of deal or no deal
Carnegie Europe, February 2017

The €60 billion Brexit bill: How to disentangle Britain from the EU budget
Centre for European Reform, February 2017

The view from Brussels: If Britain gets a bad deal, the EU also loses
Open Europe, February 2017

Theresa May sur une voie étroite
Institut Thomas More, February 2017

The process of Brexit: What comes next?
European Institute, UCL Constitution Unit, February 2017

Brexit drama in three acts: Negotiation phases & scenarios
Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, January 2017

Is Brexit an opportunity to reform the European Parliament?
Bruegel, January 2017

Europe’s post-Brexit retrenchment
Egmont, January 2017

The debate over Brexit
Council on Foreign Relations, January 2017

L’Europe après le Brexit: Positions et perspectives allemandes
Institut français des relations internationales, January 2017

May’s Brexit will be both hard and risky
Peterson Institute for International Economics, January 2017

Europe is now Britain’s essential relationship
Chatham House, January 2017

The energy sector implications of Brexit
Institut français des relations internationales, January 2017

Theresa May’s Brexit Speech of 17 January 2017: Decoding its clarity and ambiguity
Centre for European Policy Studies, January 2017

What does Theresa May’s speech tell us about how Britain will leave the EU
Centre for European Reform, January 2017

What if Mrs May had a strategy for Brexit, and her divided opponents had not?
Egmont, January 2017

What free movement means to Europe and why it matters to Britain
Centre for European Reform, January 2017

Les Européens et les conséquences du Brexit
Fondation Robert Schuman, January 2017

Brexit and the EU budget: Threat or opportunity?
Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, Bertelsmann Stiftung, January 2017

Will Brexit revive the Franco-German engine?
European Policy Centre, January 2017

Brexit and the UK creative industry
Bruegel, January 2017

Europeans see more cakery on Brexit
European Council on Foreign Relations, January 2017

European defence after Brexit: Flying on one engine?
Egmont, January 2017

Brexit arithmetics
European Council on Foreign Relations, January 2017

What should be Europe’s post-Brexit plan?
Friends of Europe, January 2017

British business strategy, EU Social and Employment Policy and the emerging politics of Brexit
Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, January 2017

German firms relaxed in view of upcoming Brexit
Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln, December 2016

What will happen with the capital markets union after Brexit?
Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, December 2016

European Union Financial Regulation, Banking Union, Capital Markets Union and the UK
Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, January 2017

Scotland knows what it wants with the EU, while London seems still not to know
Centre for European Policy Studies, December 2016

Brexit and free movement of people
Institute of International and European Affairs, December 2016

Brexit and Article 50 of TEU: A constitutional reading
UCL European Institute, December 2016

Brexit and Europe’s future: A game theoretical approach
Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln, December 2016

What next after Brexit? Considerations regarding the future relationship between the EU and the UK
Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln, December 2016

Six months on, Brexit is shaking up British electoral politics
Chatham House, December 2016

What Brexit and austerity tell us about economics, policy and the media
Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, December 2016

EU economic governance after Brexit: Governing a disintegrating Europe
Foundation for European Progressive Studies, Policy Network, Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, November 2016

Increasingly apart: Post-crisis growth trajectories in the UK and eurozone
Chatham House, November 2016

Getting Brussels right: “Best practice” for City firms in a post-referendum EU
Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation, December 2016

Brexit and its aftermath: Impact and policy recommendations for Asia
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, December 2016

A European “special relationship”: Guiding principles, interests and options for the EU-27 in the Brexit talks
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, November 2016

Policy uncertainty and international financial markets: The case of Brexit
Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2016

Scotland’s choice: Brexit with the UK, independence, or a special deal?
Friends of Europe, November 2016

Free to move: The costs and consequences of restrictions on migration
Institute of Economic Affairs, November 2016

EU external action and Brexit: Relaunch and reconnect
Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, November 2016

Invest, devolve, liberate:  A new economic policy in the light of Brexit
Demos, November 2016

Mapping member states’ stances in a post-Brexit European Union
Instituto Affari Internazionali, November 2016

Brexit and the distribution of power in the Council of the EU
Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2016

Brexit and social security in the EU
Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2016

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Ethical and social challenges of agricultural technologies

Written by Mihalis Kritikos with James Tarlton,

‘We shouldn’t hinder technological development, but we should … protect our citizens and our natural resources” is how Marijana Petir (EPP, Croatia), a member of the European Parliament’s STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) Panel, opened the ‘ethical and social challenges of agricultural technologies – issues for decision-makers’, workshop STOA organised on 25 January 2017 in Brussels.

New agricultural technologies, including gene editing and synthetic biology, whether they modify plant genes or not, can increase yields, improve the way we use natural resources such as land and water, enhance the nutritional value of food and help to feed the world in a more sustainable and efficient way. Their diffusion and public acceptance are often deterred, however, by prospective consumers’ ethical and safety preoccupations.

Ethical and social challenges of agricultural technologies

©Shutterstock/science photo

For some time, societal actors and a wide range of stakeholders have flagged up the need to broaden the scope of authorisation and regulatory frameworks for agricultural biotechnologies, to take into account the relevant socioeconomic and ethical impacts. The principle of including socioeconomic and ethical considerations in biosafety decision-making is a widely debated issue at international, regional and national level, with a considerable impact on the way technologies are introduced and disseminated in society. The speakers at the workshop discussed the grounds for this principle, and how EU policy-makers may adapt it to better account for the potential benefits of new technologies.

Agricultural challenges

European agriculture is currently experiencing considerable strain. Julian Kinderlerer of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, told the audience that 80 % of European land is used for settlements or production systems (such as farms and forestry). European farms use four times more chemicals per hectare than farms in the United States of America. Despite this intensification, concerns remain about ensuring food security in a future of challenges, such as population growth and global warming. Kinderlerer argues that an impact assessment should be performed that takes into account product safety, security and sustainability, how technology may impact on the environment, and the human cost of changing the manner in which food is produced, whenever new technologies are introduced.

‘Synthetic biology’ covers a range of bio-engineering approaches, many of which introduce new potential risks that are not present for traditional GMOs. Helge Torgersen of the Austrian Academy of Sciences noted that some of these technologies result in organisms that are indistinguishable from those developed from breeding, leading to issues with the definition of what should be regulated. Torgersen’s view is that, although new technical containment concepts are necessary, society ultimately needs a political solution: a definition of goals followed by a choice of the adequate organisms for pursuing them.

Anne Ingeborg Myhr of the GenØk-Centre for Biosafety in Tromsø, Norway analysed the Norwegian Gene Technology Act, as a case study illustrating the details of existing biosafety regulations. Myhr noted that the Act establishes that socioeconomic criteria sustainability, the benefit to society, and ethics are important in GMO assessment, prior to cultivation, import and use as food or feed. Myhr discussed the different factors that are currently taken into account in authorisation decisions on GMOs, and the challenge of acquiring all relevant information. Using late potato blight – which accounts for half of all fungicide application in Norwegian agriculture – as an example, Myhr introduced a list of questions that may be considered when deciding whether to approve GMO potatoes that are resistant to the fungus, including the consideration of socioeconomic issues, sustainability and the role of participatory involvement.

The final challenge was introduced by Amir Muzur of the University of Rijeka, Croatia, who spoke about the history of bioethics, focusing on the difference between European and American approaches. In the USA, GMOs are used more widely than in the EU, as European policy-makers are generally more cautious about the use of new agricultural technologies. Muzur successfully demonstrated the congruity of the precautionary principle with the European bioethical tradition.

Comprehensive impact assessment

A recurring theme throughout the workshop was more comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of new technologies. This could involve policy-making which accounts for public perception and societal acceptance, as well as the potential benefits to society.

A recent STOA study on precision agriculture investigated how new technologies can be used to monitor crops and animals, through targeted intervention, with the aim of addressing some of the major challenges faced by European farming systems. Biotechnologies may also have a part to play in achieving this objective. To get the most out of the new technologies, we may need to reconsider how they are regulated and the terms of their authorisation.

If you missed the event, you can watch it here.


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Governance of the energy union [EU Legislation in Progress]

Written by Alex Benjamin Wilson (1st edition),

Long shadow EU map with a wind turbine

© jpgon / Fotolia

On 30 November 2016, the Commission proposed a regulation on governance of the energy union, as part of its ‘Clean energy for all Europeans’ package. The proposal is designed to integrate and simplify planning, reporting and monitoring obligations of the Commission and EU Member States, to make it easier to monitor overall progress and address weaknesses in implementing the goals of energy union, in particular the EU targets on renewables, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions set out in the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework. National energy and climate plans are to be prepared for the 2021-2030 period, followed by progress reports. Both plans and reports will use binding templates, and gain early input from the Commission. The reform includes enhanced measures for public and regional consultation. It also proposes to set up national and EU registries and inventories on greenhouse gas emissions, as a means to assess progress in meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The proposal also outlines some additional measures the Commission can take to ensure EU targets on renewables and efficiency are met.


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