What if we could fight coronavirus by pooling computing power?

Written by Mihalis Kritikos.

Distributed computing has accelerated Covid‑19 research in molecular dynamics as it allows people to voluntarily make their computers available to scientists for effective virtual screening of chemical compounds. As computing initiatives grow to meet the increasing demand for massive computational power, this analysis examines the current applications and the surrounding legal and policy questions.

Computer simulations and their capacity to process inconceivable amounts of data in a very short time can be extremely effective in helping scientists map the behaviour and reveal the three-dimensional shape of all protein structures of a virus. The need for vast processing power to simulate the folding of the virus proteins can be met in two ways: by using the world’s fastest supercomputers and/or by seizing the opportunities that grid/distributed computing offers.

Edge computing carries the capacity for efficient processing of massive data sets and performing multifaceted simulations of the dynamics of protein molecules to understand the process of protein folding, which could serve as a basis for developing effective therapies. It is based on the integration of distributed resources of many computers into a single unit that effectively takes the form of a ‘virtual supercomputer’. As a form of citizen science (citizens participating in the scientific process via crowd-sourcing without any particular cognitive involvement), distributed computing that enables concurrent computation has been invaluable during the pandemic. It operates on the basis of allocating large computing tasks to different users on the grid and allowing anyone to contribute computing power to a common cause. In the context of Covid‑19, distributed computing has been used extensively to allow millions of volunteers worldwide to lend their processing power to scientists who require borderless access to distributed computing infrastructures and massive amounts of computational power to run complex simulations to model molecular dynamics.

Potential impacts and developments

The scientific community has mobilised a series of voluntary computing initiatives, such as Folding@home and Rosetta@home that simulate protein dynamics to help with the design of drugs to fight Covid‑19. The Folding@home project is by far the most powerful crowd-sourced supercomputer in the world, involving more than 1 000 000 computers, while, before the pandemic, 30 000 devices were running for Folding@home. It currently encompasses approximately 2.4 exaflops of computational power which is more raw computing power than the world’s 500 largest traditional supercomputers combined. The combined computing power of Folding@home, which also makes use of CERN’s computing resources, has been used to virtually screen 800 potential drug compounds.

Rosetta@home is another massive network of volunteer computers that allows citizen scientists to lend their computers’ CPUs and RAM for protein analysis tasks. Currently, Rosetta@home comprises nearly 4 406 203 hosts across 151 countries, collectively enabling an estimated 473 petaflops of volunteer cloud computing power, setting another successful example of donation of computing power for Covid‑19 research. Moreover, it is worth mentioning the OpenPandemics-COVID-19 project coordinated by the World Community Grid, an IBM social impact initiative that is currently screening hundreds of millions of molecules. This grid has accelerated the process of tackling Covid‑19 through the involvement of 7 047 819 devices and aims to develop an open source toolkit that could be used as a basis for seeking treatments in the event of future pandemics. Οther distributive initiatives include DreamLab, a specialised application developed by Vodafone, which accumulates the processing power of smartphones to analyse coronavirus-related complex data while phones are being charged, the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid at CERN, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, SiDock@home COVID Moonshot and the Open Science Grid.

The European Union has been supporting several citizen science actions, such as the active and voluntary public participation in research as part of its Open Science policy. In the context of Covid‑19, the support has taken many forms and the promotion of distributed computing is one of the most prominent. Among others, Europe-based distributive computing projects include the work carried out by the Slovenia-based COVID.si, the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics and the HADDOCK service on the WeNMR platform supported by the European Grid Infrastructure, which is the largest distributed computing infrastructure for research, bringing together hundreds of data centres worldwide.

Anticipatory policy-making

The distributed nature of the underlying computing network, where data are processed using computing resources anywhere, carries multiple policy challenges that involve questions about restricting access to the distributed computing system, safeguarding network security and privacy, and ensuring the smooth integration of computing, software and storage resources. More concretely, heterogeneity can become a challenge in the operation of these networks, as a varied group of hardware devices running various operating systems communicate among themselves to serve a particular purpose. Further, network security poses a fundamental challenge in terms of possible data leakage software piracy, integrity infringement and denial of service. The integration of different distributed components and possible malicious devices also creates privacy challenges in addition to more difficulty in troubleshooting and diagnostics due to distribution across multiple servers.

These challenges can be tackled efficiently if policy-makers aim to render distributed computing an essential part of high-computing frameworks and an attractive and trustworthy option for individuals who could donate spare computing power for a social reason. To achieve this, a series of requirements need to be met. First, an EU-wide registry of scientific projects that require computing power for massive and immediate processing could be created. Further, incentives that could bring thousands and/or millions of individual users under the same computing ‘roof’ would also need to be developed. Τhese incentives could take the form of tailoring applications and services to particular users’ specific requirements, and of promoting the benefits of open science and citizen science including the training of users, the empowerment of distributed digital infrastructures and the development of open-source software. Additionally, open-source components that could enable the access and processing of data collected/stored in different platforms and formats could be further developed. The European Commission’s adoption of its new open source software strategy 2020-2023 makes explicit reference to the need for sharing and reusing of software solutions, knowledge and expertise to benefit society.

The European Commission could develop funding schemes for the development of open and flexible distributed computing architecture based on common standards for the smooth integration of hardware and software components, on user-friendly and comprehensive repositories as well as on standards-based common interfaces that could address the challenges of privacy and cybersecurity. Fostering the development of data and computing e-infrastructure at the EU level and achieving their accessibility and interoperability – independent of the different data-driven technologies used – should be prioritised. Ensuring the connectivity of all European households and populated areas, which could further enhance the effectiveness of distributed computing initiatives, is an essential part of the Commission’s vision for Europe’s digital transformation by 2030, as was recently presented in the form of a digital compass. The success of the distributed projects to tackle Covid‑19 illustrates the need for the EU to invest further in the development of efficient, sound and user-friendly crowd-sourced distributed computing projects and for an in-depth examination of the factors that could increase the involvement of volunteers in these bottom-up efforts. This should be seen as part of a broader strategy for enhancing lay participation in scientific endeavours by facilitating digital accessibility and removing computational obstacles for communities and user groups that face serious technical and financial difficulties. The ultimate aim should be the gradual creation of a trustworthy federated European data and distributed computing infrastructure that is based on optimised access to IT equipment and services, on a clear definition of the goals and the objectives of each and every distributed computing project, as well as on the acknowledgment of the cost-effective character of distributed systems compared with the use of expensive supercomputers.


Read the complete ‘at a glance’ on ‘What if we could fight coronavirus by pooling computing power?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Understanding initial coin offerings: A new means of raising funds based on blockchain

Written by Angelos Delivorias.

Initial coin offerings (ICOs) are a relatively new method of raising capital for early-stage ventures. They allow businesses to raise capital for their projects, by issuing digital tokens in exchange for crypto assets or fiat currencies. They constitute an alternative to more traditional sources of start-up funding such as venture capital (VC) and angel finance.

ICOs can potentially offer advantages in comparison with traditional ways of raising capital. At the same time, their opacity and the general tendency for issuers to exploit regulatory loopholes can carry significant risk for investors, may make ICOs vulnerable to money laundering and terrorist financing, and could even create financial stability concerns.

ICOs have been met with a wide range of initial regulatory responses: from an outright ban in the case of China and South Korea, to more supportive approaches in other jurisdictions, with Singapore in Asia and Switzerland in Europe leading the way. As for the European Union (EU) and the United States, the relevant regulatory agencies initially published warning notices, reinforced by statements that securities laws could apply and registration be necessary. The EU went a step further and is currently seeking to partially regulate ICOs, with a proposal for a regulation on markets in crypto-assets (MiCA regulation). Meanwhile, some Member States are currently implementing regulatory sandboxes, to provide an impetus for innovation without imposing the immediate burden of regulation.


Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding initial coin offerings: A new means of raising funds based on blockchain‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Re-starting tourism in the EU amid the pandemic

Written by Maria Niestadt.

Tourism plays an enormously important role in the EU economy and society. It generates foreign exchange, supports jobs and businesses, and drives forward local development and cultural exchanges. It also makes places more attractive, not only as destinations to visit but also as locations to live, work, invest and study. Furthermore, as tourism is closely linked with many other sectors – particularly transport – it also affects the wider economy.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourism sector hard. The impact on various tourist destinations in the EU has been asymmetrical and highly localised, reflecting differences in types of tourism on offer, varying travel restrictions, the size of domestic tourism markets, level of exposure to international tourism, and the importance of tourism in the local economy. At the beginning of summer 2021, several EU Member States started to remove certain travel restrictions (such as the requirements for quarantine or testing for fully vaccinated travellers coming from certain countries). However, all continue to apply many sanitary and health measures (such as limits on the number of people in common areas, and cleaning and disinfection of spaces). Such measures and restrictions change in line with the evolving public health situation, sometimes at short notice, making recovery difficult for the sector. The EU and its Member States have provided the tourism sector with financial and other support. Some measures were already adopted in 2020. Others were endorsed only shortly before the beginning of summer 2021. One flagship action has been the speedy adoption of an EU Digital Covid Certificate. This certificate harmonises, at EU level, proof of vaccination, Covid-19 test results and certified recovery from the virus. However, it does not end the patchwork of travel rules. Despite efforts to harmonise travel rules at Council level, Member States still apply different rules to various categories of traveller (such as children or travellers arriving from third countries).


Read the complete briefing on ‘Re-starting tourism in the EU amid the pandemic‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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STOA meets its International Advisory Board to discuss the Artificial Intelligence Act

Written by Philip Boucher and Carl Pierer.

The European Commission published the much-anticipated Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA), an ambitious cross-sectoral attempt to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) applications on 21 April 2021. Its aim is to ensure that all European citizens can trust AI by providing proportionate and flexible rules – harmonised across the single market – to address the specific risks posed by AI systems and set the highest standards worldwide.

The proposal sets out a risk-based approach to regulating AI applications: those presenting an ‘unacceptable risk’ would be banned, those presenting a ‘high-risk’ would be subjected to additional requirements before entering the market, and others, such as chatbots and ‘deep fakes’, would be subject to new transparency requirements. Applications presenting ‘low or minimal risk’ – the vast majority of AI applications – could enter the market without restrictions, although voluntary codes of conduct may be developed. Other proposed measures include a European AI Board to monitor implementation and regulatory sandboxes to facilitate innovation.

In the context of the legislative proposal, STOA convened a meeting with the members of its International Advisory Board (INAB) on 24 June 2021, inviting Board members to present their views on the AIA and discuss them with the STOA Members. Participants welcomed the proposal as a timely and necessary step in the right direction. The Board members broadly agreed with the aims and approach of the AIA, but raised several points that they felt might require further reflection and discussion during the negotiation period.

Continuity from the AI White Paper’s focus on ‘AI Excellence’

Several key elements of the AIA were first set out in the AI White Paper. Some participants noted that the White Paper’s ambitious support for ‘AI excellence’ figures less prominently in the legislative proposal. Others highlighted what they saw as a missed opportunity to align AI development to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Other participants responded that the AIA focused upon product safety, and that support for innovation would be provided through other mechanisms. While many participants were pleased that the AIA proposed sandboxes for controlled experimentation with novel AI applications, they suggested that the explanation of how they would function in practice was insufficient. The Commission has indicated that further details would be set out in implementing acts.

List-based approach

The AIA includes list-based approaches to two of its key elements. First, the definition of AI technologies makes use of a list of techniques set out in Annex I. Second, the definition of high-risk applications includes safety components of products that are already subject to conformity assessment due to sectoral rules, as well as a list of additional applications categorised as high-risk applications, which is provided in Annex III. The Commission can update both annexes. Several participants argued that such an approach could lead to the AIA quickly becoming outdated, forcing the institutions into a constant ‘catch up’ stance following the emergence of new technologies, applications, and risks. It was suggested that, instead of lists, it may be better to rely upon criteria or principles to determine whether a specific piece of software would be defined as AI and to which risk category its applications may belong.

Some participants highlighted that the risk-based approach might not be appropriate for managing applications that are low-risk but high-frequency, such as targeted content delivery. It was suggested that low-risk applications could cumulate and interact to generate high-impact outcomes, some of which may be as serious as high-risk applications. Furthermore, high-risk applications in the AIA focus upon ‘critical’ domains of activity, such as essential services, infrastructure, employment and law enforcement. However, it was highlighted that AI systems that reinforce gender and racial discrimination remain an extremely serious risk, even in non-critical domains of activity. In this sense, the AIA may underestimate the pervasive character of the serious risks posed by AI throughout all domains of activity. It was also suggested that the focus on specific applications could represent a missed opportunity to address general purpose AI, which could become increasingly important in the years to come.

Governance and enforcement

A substantial part of the discussion focussed on enforcement and oversight, with several participants agreeing that reflection on the rules should go hand in hand with reflections on their enforcement. In the proposed AIA, national authorities would be responsible for enforcement of the AIA. An AI Board would be set up to monitor implementation and provide guidance. This Board would be comprised of Member State representatives and the European Data Protection Supervisor. Some participants were concerned that this approach could lead to uneven enforcement across the EU. In addition, some participants proposed that a group of experts could assist and advise the Board in their decisions on technically complex matters. Indeed, while it is not present in the AIA itself, the Commission has indicated its intention to establish such an expert group during the implementation process. Moreover, several participants highlighted the need for innovative approaches to regulation and implementation to keep up with the rapidly developing technology, welcoming the sandbox approach and calling for the elaboration of a wider range of innovative regulatory tools.  

Conformity assessment

Several participants raised issues relating to conformity assessment, in particular the question of who would be responsible for conducting it. For example, since the developers and deployers of AI systems are not always the same, it was suggested that the AIA should make a clearer distinction between these roles and their respective responsibilities when it comes to compliance and conformity assessment. Participants were concerned that failure to do so could have a chilling effect upon open source innovation.

Many participants commented on the need for access to data and algorithms in order to assess their conformity with the new rules. While AI providers may have the most profound understanding of their own data and algorithms, their role in assessing their own conformity may give raise to conflicts of interest and enforcement issues. On the other hand, it was suggested that some firms might be unwilling to provide authorities with access to their data and algorithms without guarantees about their use and safeguarding. Some participants stated that the key to conformity assessment would be to foster a healthy market for high-quality independent third party auditors, capable of assessing compliance while protecting firms’ data and algorithms. There was broad agreement on the importance of reflecting upon the role of data spaces and wider data governance issues, which are subject to other complementary initiatives.

Consumer protection

Some participants regretted the limited reference to consumer protection, as this could weaken the AIA’s effectiveness. They mentioned in particular the lack of mechanisms to address economic harms, to notify consumers of breaches, and to enable complaints and legal remedies. Furthermore, by prohibiting applications that intentionally manipulate behaviour in a way that gives rise to harms – rather than restricting any application that has this effect, regardless of intentions – some participants felt that the regulation might fail to effectively protect consumers. The AIA also includes specific protections for people with age-related or physical or mental vulnerability. While some participants suggested that the AIA should go further to protect vulnerable citizens, in particular children, others reasoned that the complexity of AI systems makes all consumers vulnerable in the sense that they struggle to make informed choices, and that the protections set out for vulnerable people in the draft AIA should apply to all citizens.

Next steps

The AIA is now subject to negotiation between the European Parliament and the Council. Meanwhile, other relevant legislative files are also under discussion, including the Data Governance Act, Digital Services Act, and a forthcoming Data Act.

There will be further opportunities for STOA and INAB members to discuss these proposals in the coming months. Meanwhile, stay informed about STOA’s Centre for AI and the International Advisory Board on the STOA website, or by following us on Twitter at @EP_ScienceTech.

Your opinion counts for us. To let us know what you think, get in touch via stoa@europarl.europa.eu.

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Mental health and the pandemic

Written by Nicole Scholz.

While the pandemic is primarily a physical health crisis, it has also had widespread impact on people’s mental health, inducing, among other things, considerable levels of fear, worry, and concern. The growing burden on mental health has been referred to by some as the ‘second’ or ‘silent’ pandemic.

While negative mental health consequences affect all ages, young people, in particular, have been found to be at high risk of developing poor mental health. Specific groups have been particularly hard hit, including health and care workers, people with pre-existing mental health problems, and women. The pandemic has also appeared to increase inequalities in mental health, both within the population and between social groups.

To address the population’s increased psycho-social needs, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe established an expert group on the mental health impacts of Covid-19 in the European region. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has issued analyses and guidance on mental health in general and the pandemic’s impact on mental health in particular.

At European Union level, a December 2020 European Commission communication addressed the pandemic’s impact on mental health. In May 2021, the Commission organised a major online stakeholder event, and published best practice examples of solutions presented.

A July 2020 European Parliament resolution recognises mental health as a fundamental human right, calling for a 2021-2027 EU action plan on mental health. Members of the European Parliament have also called on the Commission to put mental health at the heart of EU policymaking. Stakeholders broadly rally around calls for programmes and funding to improve citizens’ mental health, not least to respond to the pandemic’s long-term implications.


Read the complete briefing on ‘Mental health and the pandemic‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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EU integration of the Western Balkans [Topical Digest]

The Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), North Macedonia, Kosovo,(*) Montenegro and Serbia – have developed enduring relationships with the EU in their efforts to join the Union. At the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, EU Member States engaged to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, so that they would become an integral part of the EU once they meet the established criteria. However, over the years, expected progress has faltered. Regional disputes, such as the unresolved Serbia-Kosovo issue, as well as the fragile internal political environment in some of the countries, have effectively hindered the accession process. Following the 2008-2009 crisis, economies and investment have not developed fast enough either. The slow pace of reforms overall and the increasingly uncertain domestic context, coupled with growing influence of external actors, and the EU’s own internal difficulties, have complicated the case for enlargement. Many challenges remain, and the Covid‑19 pandemic put the region in the spotlight, deepening the gap between their European potential and realities on the ground, where the EU is competing with other global actors, such as Russia and China. In recent months, the Western Balkans have come under increased EU attention.

In February 2020, the European Commission presented a new enlargement methodology. The new approach aims to strengthen the process by pushing reforms forward, notably in the areas of rule of law and the economy. It aims to make the accession negotiations more credible, more predictable, more dynamic and guided by a stronger political steer. However, this new methodology could slow down accession negotiations, if internal reforms are not adopted at a certain pace. In March 2020, the European Council sent a positive signal by giving the green light to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. However, substantive talks have not yet started. In May 2020, the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb reaffirmed unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The EU is determined to strengthen its support to the region’s political, economic, and social transformation. The Investment Plan, adopted in October 2020, will use some €9 billion with the aim of spurring the long-term economic recovery of the region and its convergence with the European Union. Slovenia, which holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, between 1 July and 31 December 2021, strongly supports the Western Balkan countries’ accession process, and has announced that it will host an EU–Western Balkans summit in autumn 2021.

EPRS publications

Albania: No closer to joining the EU
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, June 2021
A candidate country since 2014, Albania has made slow progress in its advance to EU membership. This is particularly due to persistent corruption, lack of media freedom and minority rights, as well as a dysfunctional judicial system.

North Macedonia’s accession prospects dimmed
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, June 2021
North Macedonia became an EU candidate country in 2004, but bilateral disputes with neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria have so far blocked its accession negotiations.

Serbia: EU accession progress stalled
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, June 2021
The EU launched accession negotiations with Serbia in 2013, but since then the process has stalled due to unresolved regional issues such as the dialogue with Pristina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Difficult path towards EU membership
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, June 2021
Despite Bosnia and Herzegovina being identified as an accession candidate in 2003, internal political instability and lack of political reforms have dampened the country’s prospects of joining the EU.

Montenegro: 2019 and 2020 country reports
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, May 2021
The European Commission’s reports on Montenegro in 2019 and 2020 confirmed progress in accession negotiations. However, the Commission deplored the state of freedom of expression and media freedom.

EU support for vaccination efforts in the Western Balkans
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, May 2021
The coronavirus pandemic has accentuated the call for global solidarity and increased the need for health care and social support in the Western Balkans. The EU’s response has included the ‘Team Europe’ facility, but also delivery of vaccines to the region, where the EU is competing with other global actors, such as Russia and China.

Belgrade-Pristina dialogue: The rocky road towards a comprehensive normalisation agreement
Briefing by Branislav Stanicek, March 2021
Despite the initial success of the Brussels Agreement in 2013, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue remains stalled due to deep-rooted historical tensions and asymmetrical expectations regarding the normalisation agreement.

Macro-financial assistance to enlargement and neighbourhood partners in the coronavirus crisis
‘At a glance’ note by Branislav Stanicek, May 2020
In April 2020, the European Commission submitted a proposal for a decision for macro-financial assistance (MFA) to support ten enlargement and neighbourhood partner countries in their efforts to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, for a total amount of €3 billion.

A new approach to EU enlargement
Briefing by Branislav Stanicek, March 2020
A revised methodology for EU enlargement was announced in February 2020, aiming to boost the accession process by making negotiations more transparent and efficient.

Further reading

The six policy priorities of the von der Leyen Commission. State of play in spring 2021
In-depth Analysis, edited by Étienne Bassot, April 2021
See chapter, ‘A stronger Europe in the world’, by Branislav Stanicek

Towards a more resilient Europe post-coronavirus. Options to enhance the EU’s resilience to structural risks
Study by EPRS, DGs IPOL and EXPO, European Parliament, April 2021
See chapter, ‘Stabilising the European Neighbourhood’, by Branislav Stanicek

EPRS Graphics Warehouse

COVID-19 pandemic annual excess mortality rate in the European Union and in the Western BalkansCOVID-19 pandemic annual excess mortality rate in the European Union and in the Western Balkans
COVID-19 pandemic: annual excess mortality rate in the European Union and in the Western Balkans

COVID-19 pandemic: annual excess mortality rate in the European Union and in the Western Balkans

Български (jpg | pdf) – Deutsch (jpg | pdf) – Ελληνικά (jpg | pdf) – English (jpg | pdf) – Français (jpg | pdf) – Hrvatski (jpg | pdf) – Italiano (jpg | pdf) – Magyar (jpg | pdf) – Română (jpg | pdf) – Slovenščina (jpg | pdf) – SV (jpg | pdf)

Graphic taken from the EPRS At-a-glance Note ‘EU support for vaccination efforts in the Western Balkans‘.

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EU-UK relations: Difficulties in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol

Written by Issam Hallak.

On 3 March 2021, the United Kingdom (UK) Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, announced in a written statement to the UK Parliament, and without consulting the European Union (EU) in advance, that the grace period on border controls on a series of food and live products shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be extended. This meant that products of animal origin, composite products, food and feed of non-animal origin and plants and plant products could continue being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without the official certification, such as health and phytosanitary certificates, required by the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland (the Protocol) of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).

In response to the UK’s decision, the EU launched legal action against the UK for breaching the provisions of the Protocol, as well as the good faith obligation under the WA. According to the Protocol, the UK must establish border controls on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland according to EU law. The application of EU law to Northern Ireland, together with the conduct of border controls within the UK, was designed to prevent the establishment of physical border controls (a ‘hard border’) on the island of Ireland, so as to safeguard the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement which brought peace in Northern Ireland, while preserving the integrity of the EU’s single market.

The grace period on border controls was agreed by the EU and the UK in December 2020 as a temporary solution to problems raised by the UK. The UK government has reiterated that it intends to implement the Protocol, but that the border controls are causing trade disruption between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and require time to be resolved. It has also mentioned other issues involving areas as diverse as medicinal supplies and parcel shipments, as well as the complexity of customs systems and implementation of exchange of information between the EU and the UK. On 30 June 2021, the EU and the UK reached an agreement on some solutions, including the extension of the grace period on meat products, conditional on tight controls.


Read the complete briefing on ‘EU-UK relations: Difficulties in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Plenary round-up – July 2021

Written by Katarzyna Sochacka and Clare Ferguson.

During the July 2021 plenary session in Strasbourg, Parliament continued to debate and adopt Multiannual Financial Framework programmes for 2021-2027, this time finalising programmes in the justice and home affairs, fisheries and infrastructure areas. Debates on a number of Council and Commission statements were held, including on the programme of activities of the Slovenian Council Presidency, on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 24-25 June 2021, on the Commission’s 2022 work programme, on the state of play of implementation of the EU Digital Covid Certificate Regulation, on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in aviation, and on the 70th anniversary of the Geneva (refugee) Convention. A number of other debates were held, inter alia on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary and Poland, on amendments to the Visa Information System, and on European Investment Bank activities in 2019. Members also debated international policy issues – the situation in Nicaragua, the repression of the opposition in Turkey, and the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Connecting Europe Facility and smart ‘TEN-T’

Following a joint debate, Members adopted at second reading agreements on the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) and ‘smart TEN T’. These legislative initiatives seek to renew not only trans-European transport networks (TEN-T), but also energy and digital connections across the Union. While the proposals for a ‘smart TEN-T’ aim at financing a programme of swifter transport permit processes, the CEF proposal aims at establishing a funding infrastructure to facilitate investment in key network projects. The €30 billion allocated to the CEF will be shared between measures to upgrade transport, energy and digital networks.

Eighth Environment Action Programme

Members debated and adopted Parliament’s negotiating position on the Commission’s proposal on the eighth EU environment action programme for 2021‑2030 that should encourage a societal step-change, through a ‘sustainability first’ approach, to implementing measures to reach the EU’s long-term environmental goals. The Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee may now start trilogue negotiations. The committee calls for priority objectives to be achieved by 2030, including ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, with the programme becoming a governance tool for environmental policy beyond the Green Deal.

Justice and home affairs funds

Following a joint debate, Members adopted at second reading the agreed texts of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Integrated Border Management Fund for 2021-2027. The first aims at strengthening the common European asylum system, supporting legal migration and countering irregular migration, as well as managing migrants’ return and readmission to third countries. Parliament has succeeded in ensuring the fund better focuses on solidarity and responsibility, including legal migration, as well as efficient management of migration flows. The second fund provides financial support, allocated proportionately to the countries most affected by requirements for external border management and visas. Parliament also adopted, at second reading, the new Internal Security Fund (ISF) to tackle terrorism and radicalisation, organised crime and cybercrime, and to assist victims. With a final budget allocation of €1.9 billion, the ISF aims to ensure a high level of security within the EU aligned with fundamental rights protection.

European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund

Members adopted a hard-won agreement at second reading with the Council to continue funding the common fisheries policy through the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund. The change to the fund’s name reflects an increased focus on aquaculture. While financial assistance to shipping fleets would be extended to cover 12‑24 m vessels, stricter conditions will apply.

European Medicines Agency

Members adopted Parliament’s negotiating position on the Commission proposal to reinforce and extend the mandate of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), referring it back to the ENVI committee for trilogue negotiations. The proposal aims at stronger EMA coordination of the EU response to health crises, particularly in respect of monitoring and mitigating critical medicine and medical device shortages, which proved to be a weakness during the pandemic, as well as greater EU coordination of clinical trials.

Draft Amending Budget No 3/2021

Members adopted Amending Budget No 3/2021, which enters the 2020 general budget surplus, totalling almost €1.77 billion (less than in the previous year), as revenue in the 2021 budget. The surplus mainly results from higher than expected customs duties and lower expenditure – partly due to Covid‑19. Under the current rules, Member States’ gross national income contributions to the 2021 budget will be reduced, but Parliament wants all available funding used to boost the coronavirus recovery, and accordingly calls for Member States to dedicate the surplus amounts to assisting victims of the pandemic.

Financial activities of the European Investment Bank (EIB) – Annual report 2019

Financing the Green Deal and Europe’s long-term climate ambitions is increasingly the focus of the European Investment Bank (EIB). However, the report of the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) on the control of the EIB’s financial activities in 2019 highlights the danger that a lack of transparency and accountability could lead to fraud and corruption in respect of the bank’s operations. Members endorsed the committee’s report following a debate in the presence of Werner Hoyer, President of the EIB.

Protection of the EU’s financial interests

Members also voted on a CONT committee report on the European Commission’s 2019 report on protection of the EU’s financial interests and the fight against fraud – an issue of particular concern given the need to ensure sound management of coronavirus recovery funding. Fraudulent activity appears stable in 2019, although detection remains difficult and violations of public procurement rules in the health sector are of particular concern. The CONT committee notes that over half the reported fraud in 2019 concerns only two Member States, and calls for improved information exchange, data collection and control.

EU privacy rules conflicting with measures to combat child sexual abuse online

Members debated and adopted an agreement at first reading on EU privacy rules with measures to combat child sexual abuse online. The proposal to exempt internet providers from e‑privacy measures temporarily, so that they can legitimately remove child sexual abuse material online, raises serious concerns, particularly in respect of the unintended consequences for fundamental rights to privacy and data protection. Parliament’s negotiators have secured the exclusion of audio communications from the regulation’s scope, as well as mandatory impact assessments of data protection, and compulsory human review.  

LGBTI rights in the EU – Recent developments following the Hungarian law

Members debated and adopted a resolution on breaches of EU law and on the right of LGBTIQ citizens in Hungary as a result of the adopted legal changes in the Hungarian Parliament. On 15 June 2021, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a law originally intended to fight paedophilia, but which includes clauses prohibiting the portrayal to minors of homosexuality and gender reassignment. Additionally, the law prohibits homosexuality and gender reassignment from being featured in sex education classes, and stipulates that such classes can now only be taught by registered organisations. The law came into force on 8 July and has generated widespread criticism at EU level.  

Opening of trilogue negotiations

Members confirmed the mandate for negotiations from the Transport and Tourism (TRAN) Committee on the proposal for a regulation on the capacity of the European Aviation Safety Agency to act as performance review body for the Single European Sky.


Read this at a glance note on ‘Plenary round-up – July 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Source Article from https://epthinktank.eu/2021/07/09/plenary-round-up-july-2021/

Understanding delegated and implementing acts

Written by Micaela Del Monte and Rafał Mańko.

Law-making by the executive is a phenomenon that exists not only in the European Union (EU) but also in its Member States, as well as in other Western liberal democracies. Many national legal systems differentiate between delegated legislation − adopted by the executive and having the same legal force as parliamentary legislation − and purely executive acts −aimed at implementing parliamentary legislation, but that may neither supplement nor modify it.

In the EU, the distinction between delegated acts and implementing acts was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. The distinction, laid down in Articles 290 and 291 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), seems clear only at first sight. Delegated acts are defined as non-legislative acts of general application, adopted by the European Commission on the basis of a delegation contained in a legislative act. They may supplement or amend the basic act, but only as to non-essential aspects of the policy area. In contrast, implementing acts are not defined as to their legal nature, but to their purpose − where uniform conditions for implementing legally binding Union acts are needed. Under no circumstances may an implementing act modify anything in the basic act.

Delegated acts differ from implementing acts in particular with regard to the procedural aspects of their adoption − the former after consulting Member States’ experts, but their view is not binding; the latter in the comitology procedure, where experts designated by the Member States, sitting on specialised committees, can object to a draft implementing act. In the case of delegated acts, however, the Parliament and Council can introduce, in the delegation itself, a right to object to a draft act or even to revoke the delegation altogether.

Both delegated and implementing acts are subject to judicial review by the Court of Justice of the EU which controls their conformity with the basic act.


Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Understanding delegated and implementing acts‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Artificial intelligence at EU borders: Overview of applications and key issues

Written by Costica Dumbrava.

The EU and its Member States are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in their efforts to strengthen border control and mitigate security risks related to cross-border terrorism and serious crime. This is a recent manifestation of a broader trend towards a ‘smartening’ of EU borders, a trend that also includes the development and interlinking of large-scale centralised information systems and the deployment of a decentralised information exchange mechanism for borders and security. These systems have gradually been expanded and upgraded in order to cover ever more categories of persons (that is, to close ‘information gaps’) and to process increasingly varied types of data (including an increased processing of biometric data).

In the course of history, states have been quick to co-opt ‘new’ technologies in order to solve the typically modern problem of accurately identifying individuals for the purpose of controlling mobility and tackling crime. Regardless of the sophistication and effectiveness of various identification technologies and tools (passports, body measurements, fingerprinting, photography, lie detectors or face recognition systems), their adoption has always reflected the scientific, social and political views and concerns that dominated in the relevant times and locations.

This paper identifies and discusses four major types of AI applications that the EU is using or considering using in the context of border control and border security: 1) biometric identification (automated fingerprint and face recognition); 2) emotion detection; 3) algorithmic risk assessment; and 4) AI tools for migration monitoring, analysis and forecasting.

The EU’s centralised information systems for borders and security are increasingly incorporating biometric technologies for the purpose of identity verification or identification. Automated fingerprint identification technology is currently used in three information systems (the Schengen Information System, the European dactyloscopy database (Eurodac) and the Visa Information System) and will also be used in another two (the Entry/Exit System and the European Criminal Record Information System for third-Country nationals). Automated face recognition technology (FRT) is not yet used in any EU information system, but all systems except one (the European Travel Information Authorisation System) are expected to process facial images in the near future for the purpose of verification and/or identification.

Emotion detection technologies constitute one of the most controversial applications of AI at borders and elsewhere. Whereas there are currently no emotion-detection systems deployed at EU borders, a number of EU-funded projects and initiatives have explored and piloted such technologies for the purpose of enhancing border control.

Apart from verifying and identifying known persons, AI algorithms are also used to identify unknown persons of interest based on specific data-based risk profiles. Algorithmic profiling for assessing individual risks of security and irregular migration is currently being developed in the context of the Visa Information System and the European Travel Information Authorisation System. Automated, intelligence-driven risk assessment is carried out by Member States in the framework of the exchange of passenger data among them.

The EU is also investing in AI-based tools for monitoring, analysing and forecasting migration trends and security threats. The European Asylum Support Office is currently using an early warning and forecasting system to predict the number of asylum applications. The European Commission and the EU agencies in the area of freedom, security and justice are exploring other applications in this field, including in the context of the development of the Frontex EUROSUR system and the Europol innovation hub.

There are clear benefits to be reaped from a careful adoption of AI technologies in the context of border control, such as increased capacity to detect fraud and abuses, better and timely access to relevant information for taking decisions, and enhanced protection of vulnerable people. However, these benefits need to be balanced against the significant risks posed by these technologies to fundamental rights.

Despite progress regarding biometric identification technologies, the accuracy of the results still varies across technologies and depends on contextual factors. Even the relatively well-established fingerprint identification applications face challenges, in particular at the stage of the collection of biometric data (related to, for example, subjects’ age and environmental conditions). The reliability of face recognition technologies in ‘real world’ settings is highly dependent on the quality of the images captured and on the quality of the algorithms used for biometric matching. The quality of the algorithms depends, in turn, on the quality of the training datasets (including the quality, completeness and relevance of training images) and the various optimisation techniques. Serious doubts exist about the scientific basis and reliability of emotion-detection algorithms. Concerns about data accuracy have been raised with regard to many EU information systems and information exchange frameworks for borders and security.

Face recognition technologies have come under increased scrutiny due to concerns about fundamental rights, in particular risks related to bias and discrimination, data protection and mass surveillance. Whereas great attention has been paid to the issue of bias and discrimination, it must be noted that even accurate and unbiased AI systems may pose significant other risks, including to data protection and privacy. The increased use of biometric data in EU information systems amplifies the risk of unlawful profiling (for example, facial images may reveal ethnic origin). Even when profiling is not based on biometric or personal data, other types of data or combinations thereof used for algorithmic profiling may lead to discrimination based on prohibited grounds. Existing safeguards, such as the human-in-the-loop safeguard (requiring human interaction) and the right to explanation may not be sufficient to tackle these risks. As transpired in the case of an EU-funded research project focused on developing emotion-detection technologies, there is a need to enhance the transparency and oversight of EU funding on AI research, in particular in highly consequential areas such as borders and security.

Finally, the development and adoption of powerful AI technologies would benefit from a full understanding of and reflection on broader aspects, including the historical roots of technologies and the prevailing social and political views and expectations. Adopting technologies without confronting pitfalls such as technological determinism and the myth of technological neutrality would further weaken fundamental rights, transparency and accountability.


Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Artificial intelligence at EU borders: Overview of applications and key issues‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Overview of the European information systems for borders and securityOverview of the European information systems for borders and security
Overview of the European information systems for borders and security

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