Coronavirus isnt the only problem facing EU officials this fall.
After the global crisis put a lengthy hold on life in Brussels, the back-to-school season is a chance for the EU to regain momentum — in some cases because it has to. There are several policy files on which the bloc needs to make progress this year, even as many officials and diplomats continue to work virtually.
Heres POLITICOs guide to 11 files set to dominate the remainder of 2020.
1. Reforming migration
A long-awaited Commission proposal for migration reform is expected to be presented at the end of September after repeated delays. Asylum regulation is one of the most sensitive issues in European politics, putting the EU under severe strain since 2015, and the subject no less delicate now.
Diplomats say the new proposal will tackle all the most problematic aspects, including some sort of redistribution mechanism for asylum seekers; a stronger procedure at the borders to assess asylum requests; and the responsibility of countries for asylum claims.
Migrants wait to take tea for free at the makeshift camp next to the refugee camp of Moria, Lesbos | AFP via Getty Images
Currently the most frequently applied criterion is irregular entry, which means the country through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU is responsible for examining the asylum claim. But coastline countries in the south say that puts an unfair burden on them.
Southern countries say that Eastern countries should show solidarity. Eastern countries say they are ready to do so, but not in a mandatory form.
Key dates: The strategy is expected by the end of September, and to be discussed by EU interior ministers at meetings in October and December.
Key people: Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, and Margaritis Schinas, the Commission vice president whose portfolio includes migration.
2. Saving digital trade
After Europes top court this summer struck down the transatlantic data flows agreement between the EU and the U.S., the pressure is on the European Commission to come up with another mechanism to keep data flowing across the Atlantic and prevent billions of euros worth of digital trade falling into legal limbo.
Yet any deal that fails to address deep concerns about surveillance will be seen as a capitulation by Europes privacy hawks.
Washington and Brussels are now in talks to strike an “enhanced EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework” that complies with the July ruling. It looks unlikely that the U.S. will overhaul its surveillance regime, so a new agreement is likely to shore up EU customers ability to seek judicial redress against U.S. surveillance powers rather than move the needle on those powers themselves.
In the same period, the Commission must decide whether to accept the U.K.s data protection regime as adequate. The decision is a tough one to call, with Brussels under pressure to be harder on foreign surveillance regimes following the July ruling.
Key dates: Dont expect any meaningful progress on a U.S. deal before the November 3 presidential election. For the United Kingdom, the Commission is hoping to wrap up an adequacy decision before the December 31 Brexit deadline.
Key players: Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Vice President Věra Jourová are the go-to officials on the EU side, and data protection mandarin Bruno Gencarelli is the blocs man at the table. The U.S. side is led by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Oliver Dowden heads the U.K. government department responsible for an adequacy decision.
3. Making investment moral
The Commission is eyeing green finance standards to channel funds toward investments in line with its climate goals — but has said a new sustainable finance strategy coming in 2020 will also go broader, targeting investment in social projects and biodiversity as two examples.
The plans are likely to include tightening so-called taxonomy rules, agreed this year to classify sustainable economic activities for investment purposes; new green bond standards and labels for investment funds; as well as an EU database to compare companies green credentials. As national governments and the EU plow billions of euros into the pandemic recovery, Brussels wants in particular to screen those investments for their impact.
The stock exchange in Frankfurt am Main | Torsten Silz/AFP via Getty Images
The financial industry says Brussels risks setting the bar too high for green standards. But the Commission says that even if too few banking products and investments qualify initially, it will provoke change, pointing to environmental labels for refrigerators in the 1990s as a similar example whereby something that seems extreme can become mainstream.
Key dates: End of Q4 for the renewed sustainable finance strategy.
Key players: Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis and the Commissions finance department head John Berrigan.
4. Managing the fallout from Brexit
Talks on a future trade deal between the EU and the U.K. have turned into a game of chicken, increasing the chances of a no-deal outcome by the end of the year when the transition period agreed as part of the divorce package comes to an end.
The two sides remain at an impasse on various issues, the thorniest being so-called level playing field rules, designed to prevent the U.K. from undercutting the EU in the future, and fisheries. And while there has been progress on other aspects of the negotiations, the EU insists on “parallelism” — blocking progress in one area as long as there isnt progress in others to prevent a series of mini-deals that would benefit the U.K.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Castle Rock school in Coalville | Pool photo by Jack Hill via Getty Images
Timing is tight. The EU and U.K. must come to an agreement on their future relationship by October so that it can be ratified before December 31. There is now continuous contact between Brussels and London between formal rounds of talks.
Meanwhile, the Commission is preparing contingency legislation in case no deal is agreed. But it wants to hold off at least until the European Council summit at the end of September before publishing, to avoid suggesting its lost faith in the negotiations.
Key dates: EU officials say the next formal round of talks in London in the week of September 7 will be crucial to ruling out a no-deal scenario before December 31. To have a deal in place by the end of the year, the EU and U.K. must reach an agreement by the European Council summit on October 15-16.
Key players: EU and U.K. officials hope the involvement of national and EU leaders — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, among others — might prevent a worst-case scenario. Some officials on both sides are also counting on German Chancellor Angela Merkels leadership, as Germany currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. But unless and until that happens, its still up to the chief negotiators — the EUs Michel Barnier and the U.K.s David Frost — to find a compromise within their current mandates.
5. Taking on the chemicals industry
Brussels wants to majorly reduce the harm caused to humans and the environment from dangerous chemicals, but is also desperate to keep its industries going strong. That tension is causing problems for a big rethink of the EUs chemicals policy due this fall.
An early draft of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, seen by POLITICO, sought to move toward a system that stops companies putting harmful chemicals into products in the first place, for example by changing the design, rather than trying to minimize exposure when they do.
A sugar beet farm in Oye-Plage, northern France | Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images
But that set off alarm bells in the Commissions industry department, teeing up a dispute with the environment department over how ambitious the final version now due in October will be. The strategy wont just affect companies that produce industrial chemicals but pretty much every company making goods in Europe, from clothes to electrics to personal care products.
Key dates: The original plan was to publish the strategy in June but that was pushed back to October due to coronavirus-related delays.
Key players: Cristina de Avila — whos been working on EU chemicals policy since 2004 — is the head of the unit at DG Environment thats responsible for drafting the document. Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius will have the difficult task of selling the strategy to the public and environmentalists, who will question any compromises to industry.
6. Taming tech giants
The European Commission plans to regulate platforms such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon via the Digital Services Act, a legislative package expected by the end of the year.
One piece of legislation would “clarify a common set of responsibilities” for platforms as part of the effort to limit the appearance of illegal content, products and services online — and the Commission must decide whether it wants the legislation to also cover disinformation.
Another bill will set rules that would curb the power of the largest platforms that often act as gatekeepers between businesses and consumers. Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager is worried about their dual role as both platform and competitor to the companies they host, and said Brussels was considering a list of prohibited behaviors such as self-preferencing.
European Union Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton Pool photo by Kenzo Tribouillard via Getty Images
An expected charge sheet over allegations that Amazon discriminated against external sellers could prove influential. But those who were hoping the much-anticipated verdict of the EU General Court on the Commissions €2.42 billion Google Shopping fine would come in the fall may have to wait longer. The ruling is not expected before the spring of next year, a person familiar with this type of procedure said.
Key dates: Commission consultation closes September 8; European Parliaments civil liberties, internal market and legal affairs committees vote on their respective initiative reports September 28; Parliament plenary votes in October.
Key players: Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton and Commission head of unit Prabhat Agarwal; Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba, German MEP Tiemo Wölken and Belgian MEP Kris Peeters.
7. Reforming farm funds
The German Council presidency is aiming to (finally) wrap up a reform of the EUs mammoth farm subsidies scheme, the Common Agricultural Policy, by 2021 — putting to bed negotiations that have dragged on for two years.
But reimagining the CAP is a politically touchy topic as Brussels seeks to balance the interests of farmers whose revenues have been squeezed by the coronavirus crisis, and the blocs new goals for tackling climate change, which likely mean new environmental conditions for farmers to access funding.
Harvest at the Chateau de Jasson vineyard in La Londe les Maures, France | Getty Images
Getting a deal on the legislation this year wont be easy given the number of open questions, ranging from the schemes so-called greening architecture to governance mechanisms. Either way the new scheme wont be ready in time to launch from January 1, meaning the Commission proposed a so-called bridging law to ensure farmers can keep getting paid.
EU ministers want this transitional period to last two years, but the Commission says any longer than one year could delay the start of the new CAPs eco-schemes.
Key dates: Parliaments agriculture committee meetings September 2 and 7; Agriculture and Fisheries Council September 21-22.
Key people: Julia Klöckner, Germanys agriculture minister; Elsi Katainen, Finnish MEP from Renew Europe.
8. Building trade defenses
Brussels will press ahead with constructing a new trade weapon to shoot back at President Donald Trump and go after Americas most prized firms, while awaiting the results of Novembers U.S. presidential election.
The proposed law would allow the EU to hit back more strongly and more quickly in trade wars. In September, negotiations will resume between representatives from the European Parliament, Commission and Council to finalize the bill.
MEPs from different political families agreed they want to extend the plans to cover services and intellectual property, but the Commission is more cautious and wants to ensure new retaliation powers are consistent with World Trade Organization and EU rules.
The Volkswagen factory in Zwickau, Germany | Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
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