State of the Union: Spring 2019 [What Think Tanks are thinking]

Written by Marcin Grajewski,

European Union colorful brush strokes painted national country EU flag icon. Painted texture.

© rea_molko / Fotolia

The run-up to the European Parliament elections on 23-26 May has intensified debate about the state of the European Union, the challenges it faces and the reforms needed, both to strengthen its resilience and to enhance its international role. Many analysts focus on the rise of anti-establishment movements and a perceived divide between the east and west of the Union regarding adherence to EU values and the rule of law. Some others discuss whether the EU should have more competence in areas such as defence, international relations, migration and taxation.

This note offers links to reports and commentaries from some major international think-tanks and research institutes on the state of the Union, proposed reforms and other issues being discussed ahead of the European elections.

Studies and commentaries on Brexit can be found in a previous item in the series. Papers on economic challenges faced by the EU and the euro area are available in still another. Some further analyses on the European elections can be found in a ‘What think tanks are thinking’ published in January.

The state of Europe
Friends of Europe, March 2019

The EU Global Strategy 2020
Egmont, March 2019

The changing global order and its implications for the EU
Finnish Institute of International Affairs, March 2019

L’Union européenne, grande absente des journaux télévisés
Fondation Jean Jaurès, March 2019

Germany’s options for European policy reform: Instruments for progressive EU economic and social policy
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, March 2019

No end in sight for the EU’s democracy and rule of law crisis
German Marshall Fund, March 2019

Hungary’s systematic threat to the EU core values
Clingendael, March 2019

Is Europe doing enough to protect its democracy?
Carnegie Europe, March 2019

La triste dérive de la France et de l’Allemagne
Institute Montaigne, March 2019

What comes after the last chance Commission? Policy priorities for 2019-2024
Centre for European Policy Studies, February 2019

Élections européennes 2019: Les grands débats
Institut français des relations internationales, January 2019

The 2019 European election: How anti-Europeans plan to wreck Europe and what can be done to stop it
European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2019

Shaking up the 2019 European election: Macron, Salvini, Orbán, and the fate of the European party system
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, February 2019

The European Council’s strategic agenda
Clingendael, February 2019

Joining forces: The way towards the European Defence Union
European Political Strategy Centre, February 2019

The European Court of Justice: Do all roads lead to Luxembourg?
Centre for European Policy Studies, February 2019

Shaping power: A strategic imperative for Europe
European Policy Centre, February 2019

Sleeping with the enemy: The dangers for Europe of accommodating nationalists
European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2019

Consultations citoyennes: Transformer l’essai
Confrontations Europe, February 2019

Italy in the EU: Shared priorities, provocative politics
European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2019

Austria’s toughest EU presidency
European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2019

Europa: Brauchen wir das noch oder kann das weg? Wie schauen junge Deutsche vor der Europawahl 2019 auf Europa und die EU?
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, January 2019

The resurgence of bilateral diplomacy in Europe
Egmont, January 2019

Is the EU a Union of values?
Clingendael, January 2019

A European Security Council: Added value for EU Foreign and Security Policy?
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, January 2019

What political role for the EU’s fundamental rights agency?
Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, January 2019

The Treaty of Aachen: New impetus for Franco-German defense cooperation?
Institut français des relations internationales, January 2019

Vers une intégration des économies française et allemande? Les ambitions du traité franco-allemand d’Aix-la-Chapelle
Institut français des relations internationales, January 2019

Non-euro countries in the EU after Brexit
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, January 2019

Euros for oil: A first step, but towards what?
European Policy Centre, January 2019

The German-French Treaty: Sign of strength or of weakness?
LUISS School of European Political Economy, January 2019

Voting methods and issues at stake in the European elections of May 2019
Fondation Robert Schuman, Centre Kantar, December 2018

Taking stock on future of the EU according to Macron: Perspective from the V4
EUROPEUM, February 2019

An EU New Year’s resolution: Keep boosting the Single Market
European Policy Centre, December 2018

When populism meets nationalism: Reflections on parties in power
Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, December 2018

EU agencies after 25 years
Clingendael, December 2018

Reconnecting European political parties with European Union citizens
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, December, 2018

Safeguarding democracy in the European Union: A study on a European responsibility
Heinrich Böll Stiftung, December 2018

Europe in disarray
Council on Foreign Relations, December 2018

Populism in Central Europe 2018
Austrian Society for European Politics, December 2018

The future of EU science diplomacy: Conceptual and strategic reflections
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, December 2018

Security and defence policy: An agenda for 2019-2024
Wilfried Martens Centre, November 2018

Direct democracy in the EU: The myth of a citizens’ union
Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2019

Getting Europe’s direct democracy right
Carnegie Europe, November 2018

The European citizens’ consultations: Evaluation report
European Policy Centre, November 2018

Millennial dialogue on Europe: Shaping the new EU agenda
Foundation for European Progressive Studies, November 2018

Was 2018 der Demokratie in der EU gebracht hat : Und worauf es jetzt ankommt
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, November 2018

Shadows over the European elections: Three scenarios for EU-sceptical parties after the 2019 elections
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, November 2018

Angela Merkel’s gradual retreat: What does it mean for Europe?
European Policy Centre, November 2018

Reconciling core state power integration with market regulation? The potential of the Macron-Rutte alliance
Center for European Neighborhood Studies, November 2018

EU scenarios for 2027
Real Instituto Elcano, October 2018

The power of the past: How nostalgia shapes European public opinion
Bertelsmann Stiftung, October 2018

Strengthening cohesion in the EU: How can structural reforms contribute?
European Policy Centre, October 2018

The four ‘classical federalisms’
Wilfried Martens Centre, October 2018

Attentes et ressentis, l’état des opinions publiques avant les élections européennes
Notre Europe, October 2018

The Nordic-Baltic region in the EU: A loose club of friends
Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, October 2018

Spitzenkandidaten and shifting electorates: towards the 2019 EP elections
Institute for Development and International Relations, September 2018

State of the Union 2018: Our destiny in our hands
European Political Strategy Centre, September 2018

One size does not fit all: European integration by differentiation
Bruegel, September 2018

Read this briefing note on ‘State of the Union: Spring 2019‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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European Parliament Plenary Session, March II 2019

Written by Clare Ferguson,

Strasbourg - Plenary session November 2015

European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

European citizens are running out of patience with companies and people who do not pay their fair share of the taxes that support services for everyone. The agenda for Parliament’s second plenary session of March opens with a debate on Monday evening on the report of Parliament’s TAX3 Special Committee on the progress made and the work still to do to tackle financial crimes, tax evasion and tax avoidance. In response to successive scandals highlighting the extent of the issue, the committee proposes greater scrutiny over Member States’ tax systems, including the role of loopholes such as letterbox companies; stronger investigatory capabilities; and greater recourse at national level against money laundering activities.

With a view to reassuring EU citizens that taxpayers’ money is properly managed, all EU institutions are required to present their ‘accounts’ for scrutiny on an annual basis. Parliament then makes its ‘discharge’ decisions based on Budgetary Control (CONT) committee reports on the European Court of Auditors’ annual assessment and the Council’s recommendations. Most of Tuesday afternoon will therefore be taken up with a joint debate and vote on 53 reports recommending whether or not to agree to discharge the 2017 budget for the European Commission and all executive agencies, as well as EU joint undertakings (public-private partnerships) and decentralised agencies and the other EU institutions. This year, CONT proposes to grant discharge to the Commission and to all six executive agencies, as well as to all eight joint undertakings – subject to some improvements in financial management. The committee recommends granting discharge to all but one of the 32 agencies – the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) – in the light of irregularities uncovered by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

While the focus on economic, single market and climate change, external relations and disinformation had to make way for further discussion on Brexit at the European Council meeting of 21 and 22 March 2019, (Members are due to hear European Council and Commission statements on the conclusions on Wednesday morning), Parliament will debate a number of salient issues during this session.

One of these, possibly bringing two years of negotiation to a close, concerns a debate on a compromise agreement on copyright in the digital single market on Tuesday morning. This highly contentious file deals with the opportunities and drawbacks of creating, producing, distributing and exploiting content online, and the balance to be struck between remunerating creators and publishers, and protecting consumers. Between them, proposed Article 11 on the status of hyperlinks (press publishers’ rights) and Article 13 on the value gap (best known for the controversy over memes) have generated quite a few headlines. Although a text has been agreed, some EU Member States continue to oppose the compromise on the proposed new directive.

Members are also due to debate three sensitive files relating to overhauling the current legislation on road transport on Wednesday morning. Parliament had previously referred the three reports, on driving times, posting and cabotage, back to the Transport committee. However, the committee could only reach agreement on the cabotage file, which seeks to clarify the rules for international haulage operations, particularly on minimum turn-around times. Nevertheless, political groups will be able to table amendments to the proposals on social and market rules that seek to level the playing field between posted and local drivers and improve working conditions.

In a joint debate on Monday evening, Members debate compromise agreements on four proposals for new rules regarding the internal market for electricity. Squeezed between the necessity to respond to climate change and the need to guarantee affordable fuel supplies for citizens and businesses, the electricity market faces multiple challenges. The proposed changes to the rules would give consumers stronger rights when dealing with electricity suppliers, and provide extra protection for vulnerable consumers. Still on consumer rights, Parliament will also consider proposals to harmonise the EU rules on representative actions for the protection of the collective interests of consumers later on Monday evening. Although the proposed rules do not provide for the type of class action seen in the USA, they seek to make it easier for groups of consumers whose rights are violated to launch a collective action for redress, and to obtain compensation if successful. Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee is keen to ensure that the qualified representative entities that would be authorised to mount such actions (rather than lawyers) are required to disclose publicly how they are financed, organised and managed.

On Wednesday afternoon, Members return to the legislative proposals on reducing the impact of plastic products on the environment, particularly plastic marine litter. An agreement reached with Council extends bans on products beyond cutlery, plates, and straws to include oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene packaging. The proposals also set out annual collection rates for recycling plastic fishing gear, among other measures, which could ultimately become binding. Members are also likely to vote to formally adopt an agreement on a Commission proposal to transpose recommendations from the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean into EU law on Tuesday. The measures, supported in a Fisheries committee report, aim to encourage fish stock recovery and protect vulnerable habitats in the Adriatic, Alboran and Black Seas.

In another initiative to deter harmful effects on the environment on Wednesday afternoon, Members will debate an agreed text on CE-marked fertilising products. While inorganic fertilisers increase crop yields, they can also contain harmful chemicals, such as cadmium. The agreement proposes gradual reduction of the heavy metal content in fertilisers, with a longer transition, and to extend legislation to cover organic or recycled waste alternatives, ensuring a high level of protection of human, animal, and plant health, safety and the environment. Parliament will also vote on formal adoption of the next in a series of proposals to amend the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive to protect workers against exposure to a further number of cancer- or mutation-causing chemical agents on Wednesday. The five priority chemical agents include formaldehyde, cadmium and arsenic, among others, and the measures seek to provide clarity in the workplace for workers and employers alike.

As it becomes more common for investors to consider the environmental sustainability of their economic activity, Members will debate the establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment on Thursday morning. A joint report from Parliament’s Economic Affairs and Environment committees agrees that gradual harmonisation of what ‘environmentally sustainable’ actually means will help investors throughout the EU to ensure that their investments take account of the environmental impact over the entire value chain and the life-cycle of technologies. However, the committees’ report also warns against creating unnecessary administrative burden.

Finally, central counterparties provide guarantees on financial performance. In the light of the financial crisis, Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs wishes to ensure that this important role is fully supported with effective recovery plans. On Wednesday Members are to vote on proposals that central counterparty recovery and resolution include comprehensive stress-testing to avoid that central counterparties themselves become a systemic risk.

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EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Agriculture [Policy Podcast]

Written by James McEldowney,

Bales on field and solar panels farm in background

© aerostato / Fotolia

The common agricultural policy (CAP) is one of the oldest common policies in the EU. Its significance is reflected in the proportion of the EU’s budget devoted to it, representing approximately 40 % of the total. Developed at a time when Europe was unable to meet most of its own food needs, it was necessary to encourage farmers to produce food by means of guaranteed prices. The policy has undergone regular reform and has evolved over the years. These reforms have sought to improve the competitiveness of the agricultural sector, promote rural development and address new challenges in areas such as the environment and climate change.

Evidence from a series of Eurobarometer surveys indicates how EU citizens have a high level of awareness of this policy area. There is a recognition that it is succeeding in meeting citizens’ expectations in terms of delivering healthy high-quality food as well as contributing to the protection of the environment.

When it comes to agriculture, Parliament’s eighth term has focused on taking forward not only implementation of the last CAP reform in 2013 but also a series of significant legislative achievements. The areas covered include, for example, animal health, plant health and the organic sector, as well as a range of policy-related simplification measures that entered into force on 1 January 2018. On the non-legislative front, Parliament has pursued its scrutiny role rigorously.

Looking to the future, there are still a number of substantial issues for the current Parliament to address. These include determining in co-decision with the Council the future policy direction of the CAP for the post-2020 period, negotiations over the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) including the overall budgetary allocation for the next CAP, and the associated legislative framework.

Read this complete briefing on ‘EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Agriculture‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Security and defence [Policy Podcast]

Written by Elena Lazarou,

Soldiers shaking hands with flag on background - European Union

© niyazz / Fotolia

Security and defence policy in the European Union is predominantly a competence of the Member States. At the same time, a common security and defence policy, which could progressively lead to a European defence union, is enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. Since 2016, there has been significant progress in that direction, with several initiatives in the area of security and defence having been proposed and initiated under the current mandate of the Commission and the European Parliament.

The idea that the European Union should deliver in the area of security and defence has become more and more popular with EU citizens. The crises in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods, such as the occupation of Crimea and conflicts in the Middle East, have created an environment of insecurity in which the EU is called upon to do more. Following the Council decision of 2013 and particularly since the launch of the EU global strategy in 2016, the EU had been working to respond to these needs predominantly by implementing in full the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. In recent years, it has begun the implementation of ambitious initiatives in the area of security and defence, such as permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), the European defence action plan including a new defence fund to finance research and development of EU military capabilities, closer and more efficient cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a plan to facilitate military mobility within and across the EU, and a revision of the financing of its civilian and military missions and operations to make them more effective.

These new initiatives are illustrated in the relevant proposals in the new multiannual financial framework (2021-2027) and the accompanying off-budget instruments. Given EU leaders’ current support for further initiatives in EU security and defence policy, important debates are likely to take place in future on the possible progressive framing of a European defence union.

Read this complete briefing on ‘EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Security and defence‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Future financing of EU policies [Policy Podcast]

Written by Matthew Parry,

plant growing out of coins with filter effect retro vintage style

© TK99 / Fotolia

The principle of subsidiarity means that the European Union (EU) should act where it can do so more effectively than its constituent Member States individually, and this also holds true in the area of public finance – the EU’s budget together with off-budget tools for financing EU policies. At €160.1 billion in 2018 – or approximately 1 % of Member States’ collective gross national income (GNI) – the EU budget is a great deal smaller in relative terms than EU national governments’ budgets. It serves mainly as a vehicle for investment, particularly in the areas of rural and regional development, industrial research and support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and political and economic development in neighbouring countries. These policies are designed to yield European public goods, with benefits that go beyond the national borders of individual EU countries. The Commission calculates that they do so for less than the cost of one cup of coffee a day per citizen.

During the 2014-2019 parliamentary term, the EU has been buffeted by challenges to its capacity to act, including financially, by geopolitical instability in the wider region, the migration and refugee crisis, and unresolved questions about the future of the euro, linked to the legacy of the economic, financial and sovereign debt crises. However, the EU has also seen several notable achievements. These include the update to the financial rules governing the use of EU funds, simplifying the rules and strengthening the focus on performance and results; the creation of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office to help address the roughly 0.35 % of the EU budget at risk of fraud; a mid-term revision of the multiannual financial framework (MFF), enhancing its flexibility to provide for a more responsive EU; the development of proposals for new sources of revenue in time for negotiations on the post-2020 MFF; and policy innovation in the field of financial engineering, helping EU finance go further by leveraging private investment.

The 2019 elections will mark a turning point in the future financing of EU policies, as negotiations on the next multiannual spending plan gather pace. The Commission has proposed a 2021-2027 MFF totalling 1.11 % of the post-Brexit EU-27’s GNI, and new sources of EU revenue to reduce the burden on national treasuries and forge a clearer link between revenue and policies. It also proposes to consolidate progress made in the current term with regard to budgetary flexibility, financial integrity and the rule of law, and in encouraging private investment in Europe.

Read this complete briefing on ‘EU policies – Delivering for citizens: Future financing of EU policies‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Figure 5 – EU budget and general government public spending (aggregate of EU Member States') in the EU (2017, € billion)

EU budget and general government public spending (aggregate of EU Member States’) in the EU (2017, € billion)

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EU policies – Delivering for citizens: The migration issue [Policy Podcast]

Written by Joanna Apap and Anja Radjenovic,

Green wooden boat of migrants and Mediterranean Sea in Portopalo di Capo Passero, Sicily island, Syracuse, Italy, south Europe

© Alberto Masnovo / Fotolia

Refugee movements and migration are at the centre of global attention. In recent years, Europe has had to respond to the most severe migratory challenge since the end of the Second World War. The unprecedented arrival of refugees and irregular migrants in the EU, which peaked in 2015, exposed a series of deficiencies and gaps in EU policies on asylum, external borders and migration. In response to these challenges, the EU has embarked on a broader process of reform aimed at rebuilding its asylum and migration policies based on four pillars: reducing the incentives for irregular migration by addressing its root causes, improving returns and dismantling smuggling and trafficking networks; saving lives and securing the external borders; establishing a strong EU asylum policy, and providing more legal pathways for asylum-seekers and more efficient legal channels for regular migrants.

The record migratory flows to the EU witnessed during 2015 and 2016 had subsided by the end of 2017 and 2018. However, in order to deliver what the Commission calls an effective, fair and robust future EU migration policy, the EU, based on the Treaties and other legal and financial instruments, has been implementing both immediate and longer-term measures. Europe, due to its geographic position and its reputation as an example of stability, generosity and openness against a background of growing international and internal conflicts, climate change and global poverty, is likely to continue to represent an ideal refuge for asylum-seekers and migrants. This is also reflected in the growing amounts, flexibility and diversity of EU funding for migration and asylum policies inside as well as outside the current and future EU budget.

See also the parallel Briefing on ‘EU support for democracy and peace in the world’.

Visit the European Parliament homepage on migration in Europe.

Read this complete briefing on ‘EU policies – Delivering for citizens: The migration issue‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Mobile phones and health: Where do we stand?

Written by Nicole Scholz,

doctor holding her mobile

© Carlos David / Fotolia

Mobile phones are an integral part of everyday life, and it is hard to imagine a world without them. There are nevertheless health concerns, and the debate is ongoing.

There is a vast body of research on the potential risks from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields such as those emitted by mobile phones. Yet scientific opinion remains split over the possibility of a link between mobile phone radiation and health problems. The results of research in this area have been interpreted in a variety of ways, and studies have been criticised for their methodological flaws, lack of statistical significance, and bias.

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classified radiofrequency electromagnet fields as possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans. The European Union defined basic restrictions for limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields in Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC, setting maximum values that should not to be exceeded. Moreover, in view of the scientific uncertainty, the European Environment Agency advises taking a precautionary approach.

Two sets of large-scale experimental studies involving laboratory animals, one from the United States National Toxicology Program and another from the Italian Ramazzini Institute, have recently brought the debate to the fore again. Both found varying levels of evidence of certain tumours in some of the animals tested. The results have nevertheless prompted diverging conclusions.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Mobile phones and health: Where do we stand?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Brexit: Understanding the withdrawal agreement and political declaration

Written by Carmen-Cristina Cîrlig,

Alarm clock with the colors of the EU flag and one UK star. Representing the countdown for Brexit in march 2019.

© tanaonte / Fotolia

In November 2018, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) endorsed, at leaders’ level, an agreement that would ensure an orderly UK withdrawal from the EU on 30 March 2019, as well as a political declaration setting out the main parameters of the future EU-UK relationship.

The withdrawal agreement is an extensive legal document aiming, among other things, to preserve the essential rights of UK nationals living in the EU-27 and EU citizens living in the UK; to ensure that all financial commitments vis-à-vis the EU undertaken while the UK was a Member State are respected; and to conclude in an orderly manner ongoing processes in various areas (e.g. circulation of goods already on the market and ongoing judicial procedures). Importantly, the agreement establishes a 21-month transition period, extendable once, to help businesses and citizens to adapt to the new circumstances, and the EU and UK to negotiate their future partnership agreements. During this time, the UK will be treated as a Member State, but without any EU decision-making and representation rights. Furthermore, one of the agreement’s three protocols, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland contains a legally operational ‘backstop’, aiming to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the future. It has long been the most contested aspect of the withdrawal deal. The political declaration, by contrast, is a non-binding text, providing the basis for future EU-UK economic and security cooperation, taking into account both sides’ red lines and principles.

With just days to go to the Brexit deadline, the procedures to approve the withdrawal deal have still not been finalised, due to continuing opposition within the UK Parliament. While extending the Article 50 negotiating period now appears highly likely, all scenarios are still possible, including the UK leaving the EU without a deal at the end of March 2019.

This Briefing updates the earlier EPRS paper on The EU-UK withdrawal agreement: Progress to date and remaining difficulties, of July 2018.

Please also visit the European Parliament homepage on Brexit negotiations.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Brexit: Understanding the withdrawal agreement and political declaration‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Outlook for the meetings of EU leaders, 21-22 March 2019

Written by Ralf Drachenberg and Marko Vukovic,

highway board, options HARD or SOFT BREXIT

© kamasigns / Fotolia

On 21 and 22 March 2019, the European Council was due to focus primarily on economic, single market and climate change issues, as well as on external relations and disinformation. Due to the second negative vote in the House of Commons on the withdrawal agreement, on 12 March, Brexit is now expected to dominate the agenda of EU Heads of State or Government again. An extra meeting of the European Council (Article 50) has been added to the programme, to discuss possible next steps in the process, including possibly deciding on an extension of the negotiation period.

Regarding jobs, growth and competitiveness, the European Council is expected to discuss the future development of the single market, the capital markets union, industrial policy and European digital policy, in preparation for the next strategic agenda. In the external relations field, the focus will be on the forthcoming EU-China summit.

1. Implementation: Follow-up on previous European Council commitments

The Leaders’ Agenda identified economic issues and trade as topics for the March 2019 European Council meeting. This is more or less reflected in the annotated draft agenda, which puts emphasis on jobs, growth and competitiveness. However, the issue of economic and monetary union (EMU), which was due to be discussed in a Leaders’ Agenda session at this European Council meeting, will most likely not be addressed. Moreover, this will be only the second formal meeting of EU Heads of State or Government since April 2015 at which migration is not on the agenda.

At the start of the meeting, following the address of the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, whose country currently holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers, will provide an overview on the progress made in implementing previous European Council conclusions. In terms of previous European Council commitments, the most relevant for this meeting are the call for an in-depth discussion on the future development of the single market, and for the provision of guidance on the overall direction and political priorities on climate change.

2. European Council meeting

Strengthening the economic base of the EU

At the March 2019 meeting, the Heads of State or Government will discuss the future development of the single market in all its dimensions. Building on the Commission’s communication on the internal market in a changing world, requested by the European Council to gauge progress on single market strategies, EU leaders will prepare the ground for the next strategic agenda for the single market, the European digital policy, capital markets union and industrial policy. A year ago, in its March 2018 conclusions, the European Council called ‘for increased efforts to deliver’ on the various single market strategies, and set yet another deadline for their completion by the end of the current legislative cycle. As underlined in the above-mentioned Commission communication, with only one third of the 67 legislative proposals already adopted as of November 2018, there is a need for renewed political commitment to the project.

Industrial policy is likely to be centre stage in the debate on competitiveness. In a Manifesto for a European industrial policy fit for the 21st Century, France and Germany called for a radical overhaul of the EU’s competition policy, to allow for the creation of European industrial champions. This initiative from February 2019 was triggered by the European Commission’s decision to block the merger of rail businesses owned by Germany’s Siemens and France’s Alstom. It also highlights the need for investment in new technologies (through InvestEU, the European Innovation Council and IPCEI) and the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in Europe.

Another contribution to the debate was provided in a February letter of 17 Heads of State or Government, from predominantly smaller Member States, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, as an input to the European Council’s next strategic agenda. It calls for an ‘offensive industrial policy to innovate and remain globally competitive in key technologies and strategic value chains’. Although, France and Germany stand out as not being among the signatories, both the manifesto and the letter focus on the challenges of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, where the EU needs to lead by unleashing the data economy, and the importance of integrated capital markets to finance investment and innovation.

The 17 also call for proper implementation and enforcement of the Services Directive. Professional qualifications should be guaranteed and Member States should commit to improving their performance in reducing service restrictiveness. As a contribution to the debate on services, Ireland, Finland, Denmark and the Czech Republic commissioned a report, ‘Making EU trade in services work for all’, published last November, which argues for more ambitious measures to remove obstacles to the cross-border provision of services in the EU. The report calls for full implementation and enforcement of the services directive which could, on a conservative estimate, add at least two per cent to the EU’s GDP.

The European Council is also expected to endorse the Council recommendation on the economic policy of the euro area, which is part of the 2019 European Semester exercise.

Climate change

The European Council is expected to give guidance and set the EU’s overall political priorities on climate policy. Climate change has regularly been on the agenda of the European Council in recent years, with EU leaders repeatedly reaffirming the EU’s commitment to the full implementation of the Paris Agreement. In response to a request formulated by the European Council in December 2018, and based on the European Commission communication, ‘A Clean Planet for all’, as well as a Presidency background note, the Council held ‘a policy debate on the EU’s long-term strategic vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy’. The Romanian Presidency undertook to inform the President of the European Council of the outcome of the policy debate held in the Council.

External relations

EU-China summit

The European Council will discuss the preparation of the forthcoming EU-China Summit, to be held in Brussels on 9 April 2019. The summit, which takes place annually, might address a wide range of issues of mutual interest, including security, trade, climate change, research and cultural cooperation, as part of the comprehensive strategic partnership defined by the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation. Ahead of the European Council meeting of 21-22 March, on 12 March 2019, the European Commission and the High Representative published a joint communication entitled ‘EU-China – A strategic outlook’. They call for ‘full unity’ of the EU and its Member States in their relations with China, and invite EU leaders to endorse a set of ten actions. Some of the actions have a broad scope, which would require strategic reflection on the rules and functioning of the internal market. This is notably the case for rules applicable to EU industrial policy, where several Member States have recently put forward a set of proposals (see above). China was previously on the agenda of the European Council in March 2017, as part of a broader debate on trade. EU leaders then stressed that trade relations ‘should be strengthened on the basis of a shared understanding of reciprocal and mutual benefits’.

Other items

Fighting disinformation

Disinformation has been a regular item on the European Council agenda over the past year. In response to a request made by the European Council in June 2018, the European Commission and the High Representative presented an ‘action plan against disinformation‘ in December 2018. EU leaders then mandated the European Commission to start implementing the action plan and to continue work on countering disinformation, in particular through ‘decisive action at both European and national levels on securing free and fair European and national elections’. The Heads of State or Government are expected to take stock of progress made in the meantime, ahead of the European elections in May 2019.

25th anniversary of the European Economic Area (EEA)

EU Heads of State or Government will also hold an exchange of views with the prime ministers of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, to mark the 25th anniversary of the EEA.

3. European Council (Article 50) meeting

On 21 March 2019, EU-27 leaders will also meet in a European Council (Article 50) format to discuss the latest developments in the process following the United Kingdom’s notification of its withdrawal under Article 50 TEU.

On 11 March 2019, in Strasbourg, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, agreed on an instrument relating to the draft withdrawal agreement and on a joint statement supplementing the political declaration. President Juncker stressed that the instrument ‘provides meaningful clarifications and legal guarantees on the nature of the backstop’, thereby complementing the withdrawal agreement without reopening it.

On 12 March 2019, the withdrawal agreement, including the additional instrument, was defeated by 391 votes to 242 in the House of Commons. Following this second rejection of the negotiated withdrawal agreement, on 13 March, Members of the UK Parliament also voted to rule out a no-deal scenario. On 14 March, MPs voted by 413 to 202 in favour of a requesting an extension of the Article 50 negotiation period from the EU.

Following these developments, the European Council (Article 50) is now expected to assess the next steps, and possibly decide upon the request for an extension of the Article 50 negotiation period, if so requested by the UK Prime Minister. The Treaty on European Union (TEU) stipulates that the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, can decide unanimously to extend this period. President Tusk indicated that he would ‘appeal to the EU-27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it’.

Attending the European Parliament’s plenary debate, in advance of this upcoming European Council meeting, the Romanian Secretary of State for European Affairs, Melania Gabriela Ciot, representing the Council Presidency, stated that the European Council will require ‘credible justification’ by the UK government for a technical extension of the Article 50 negotiations. Similar reactions came from other EU leaders, including the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. The European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, reiterated that, if the UK wants to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, the negotiated withdrawal agreement is the only possible way. He also stressed that ’the responsibility for the Brexit decision belongs solely to the United Kingdom, and today the responsibility to find a way out of the impasse that the negotiations are in, lies fair and square with the United Kingdom’.

During the plenary debate, some MEPs expressed their regret that yet another European Council meeting would be dominated by the Brexit debate, and that, as a result, other more pressing issues for the EU would not receive the necessary attention. MEPs also stressed that a prerequisite for a prolongation was for the UK Government to specify concretely what it intends to use the time for

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Does technology exacerbate social polarisation?

Written by Philip Boucher,

Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it became clear how technologies such as social media and techniques such as psychological profiling can be combined in election campaigns with worrying effects. Digital forms of personalised political messaging can be highly automated. They start and end with social media, which provides both the data for categorising users and the medium for targeting them with personalised messages. Messages might be designed to favour a particular candidate or to encourage widespread discord and mistrust. In either case, it could lead to more polarised societies in which citizens share less common ground and are less understanding of those with different political ideologies, attitudes to populism, or perspectives on specific topics such as immigration.

These same technologies and techniques also shape trends in news production and consumption. As newspaper sales dwindle, outlets increasingly rely upon advertising revenue generated by clicks, making extensive use of social media platforms and user profiling. Public debate increasingly occurs via these social media platforms in which citizens, politicians, companies and bots communicate directly to each other without the traditional filters of journalistic standards and editorial oversight. It has been suggested that, where citizens increasingly rely on such platforms for news, they risk entering ‘filter bubbles’ in which they are exposed to a narrow range of perspectives oriented around their own profiles, shielded from contrasting views, in a broad trend that could also lead to more polarised societies. In this context, STOA launched two studies to explore the mechanisms by which these technologies and techniques may foster polarisation in Europe, and published an accompanying Options Brief.

One study, conducted by Richard Fletcher and Joy Jenkins of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, considered the effects of technology on news production and consumption across Europe and their potential to lead to more polarised societies. One of its key messages is how little we understand about the mechanisms that link news production and social polarisation. The internet has created more consumer choice, to the point where most people select their own news sources based on their ideologies and preferences. Yet, the review found little evidence to support the ‘filter bubble’ thesis, or that exposure to populist material has a significant effect on citizens with mainstream views. However, there are key exceptions to these findings at the fringes, with evidence that people who already hold extreme ideological views or attitudes to populism tend to develop even stronger perspectives when exposed to news with which they either strongly agree or strongly disagree. The authors suggest that individuals’ basic interest in current affairs is a key factor as – in today ‘s high-choice media environment – some users may opt-out of news consumption entirely. Such news aversion could be a worrying trend if healthy democracies rely upon citizens understanding their political system.

The other study was conducted by Lisa Maria Neudert and Nahema Marchal of the University of Oxford, and focused on trends in political campaigning and communication strategies. It highlighted a trend towards more emotionally charged content – particularly negative material that provokes fear, hatred or disgust – in political communications. While such highly charged and targeted messages may be effective, they can also escalate mistrust and tensions between groups with different perspectives and, thus, foster social polarisation. The review also highlighted that some ‘clickbait’ based on political issues may be designed for purely financial purposes, but have the side-effect of increased polarisation. In other cases, polarisation has been the deliberate aim of manipulative political campaigns by hostile foreign and domestic political actors, making use of automated bots and ‘dark ads’ to amplify disagreement, provoke hostility between different groups, and undermine social cohesion.

Hasty policy action that attempts to control communications directly – for example by restricting some media content or political expression – could do more harm than good, and could even have ‘chilling effects’ on democracy. However, both studies present policy options that could help to foster healthier digital environments and mitigate trends towards social polarisation. These are combined and further developed in the STOA Options Brief, which includes options targeting news consumption, digital divides, political communications, news producers and governance institutions.

The authors of both studies presented their work during the STOA Panel meeting on 14 March 2019, which can be viewed here.

tech and social polarisation poster

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