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The EU Needs More Common Solutions

Austrian Parliament, 19 November 2018

COSAC Plenary and Austrian EU Council Presidency: Discussions Revolve around the Issue of Migration

Vienna (PK) – Austria fully supports the efforts of EU Brexit Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, stressed Austrian State Secretary in the Ministry of the Interior Karoline Edtstadler today at Session 1 of the Plenary Meeting of the Conference of the Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC), chaired by Austria at the Austria Center Vienna. She outlined the objectives for preventing a disorderly or “hard Brexit” and for preserving the unity of the remaining 27 EU Member States. While Brexit currently dominates the to-do list of the Austrian EU Presidency, other Presidency issues under the motto “A Europe that protects” are not falling by the wayside: combating illegal migration, expanding the Digital Single Market, strengthening neighbours in the Western Balkans, establishing the Multiannual Financial Framework after 2020 and reinforcing subsidiarity.

Combating illegal migration

On the issue of combating illegal migration, Ms. Edtstadler touched on the informal summit in Salzburg and the European Council in October after the tipping point at the European Council in June 2018. At present effective protection of the external borders, as well as the internal and external dimensions, are at the centre of efforts to shape a functioning migration policy. The internal dimension is focusing on new approaches to the Dublin Regulation. “The Austrian Presidency has been working intensively on these approaches since July,” Ms. Edtstadler stated. Bilateral meetings in the summer were followed by a “tour des capitales”, with high-level meetings among experts. The Council agreed “that there must be effective protection of the common EU external border,” stressed Ms. Edtstadler. She also said that she hopes for at least a partial agreement on the European Commission's proposal to strengthen the European Border and Coast Guard by the end of the year.

With regard to external issues, Ms. Edtstadler reported on contacts with Egypt and other North African countries aimed at establishing a “broader partnership”. She also mentioned the planned high-level "Forum Africa-Europe" to be held in Vienna on 18 December 2018. The external dimension will also take further steps on digitisation in the near future, for example in the area of cyber security, interoperability between EU databases or the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) for judicial cooperation.

Digital Single Market

Reforms to improve competitiveness are currently being weighed against the backdrop of the Digital Single Market. “In recent weeks a number of key proposals have been successfully formalised,” said Ms. Edtstadler. She mentioned the rules on the free movement of non-personal data and the Directive on the provision of audiovisual media services. There was a convergence of positions on the issue of a digital tax at the informal meeting of finance ministers in Vienna in September. “Tangible results” are expected to emerge by the end of the year, and a “breakthrough” on several VAT dossiers has been achieved, reported Ms. Edtstadler.

Common position for World Climate Summit

The Environment Council agreed on a common position on CO2 emissions from new cars and light commercial vehicles. A common EU position was also staked out in light of the upcoming World Climate Summit to be held in Katowice, Poland, at the beginning of December. Ms. Edtstadler also reported on successes in the area of employee protections, namely the negotiation of the Carcinogens II Directive, which expands the ban on carcinogenic substances in the workplace.

Stabilisation in the Western Balkans through integration

Ms. Edtstadler stressed the importance of political stability and positive economic development in the countries of the Western Balkans and South East Europe. Austria is fully committed to pursuing the relevant negotiations. “We hope that further negotiation chapters can be opened and/or closed with Serbia and Montenegro under the Austrian Presidency,” Ms. Edtstadler reported. She also stressed the progress made on the “name dispute” between Skopje and Athens. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Minister for the EU Gernot Blümel and Ms. Edtstadler herself have recently begun in-depth talks with Serbia and Kosovo.

Multiannual Financial Framework

Meetings at Council working group level for the Multiannual Financial Framework for the period beyond 2020 have been held on a weekly basis since July, and the issue is also on the agenda of all of the other bodies. Ms. Edtstadler stressed that it is important to define specific goals for the next seven years without wasting any time. However, it is not realistic for a conclusion to be reached during Austria's Presidency. “Our aim is to lay the groundwork as well as we can for Romania, the next country to hold the presidency,” explained Ms. Edtstadler.

Subsidiarity as an EU building principle

Ms. Edtstadler also pointed to subsidiarity as one of the main issues. “We want an EU that is strong when it comes to the major challenges, but also one that holds back on issues where the Member States or regions themselves can make better decisions.” At last week's conference “Subsidiarity as a Building Principle of the European Union” in Bregenz, discussions focused on how the role of the national parliaments could be made more efficient in practice, how the regional and local levels could be better integrated into the development processes, and how more transparency in the legislative process could be achieved.

Comments for and against Austria's rejection of the UN Global Compact for Migration

A participant form Romania stated that his country would continue to advance the issues on the agenda of the Austrian Presidency. The majority of the parliamentarians’ speeches, however, focused on the issue of migration. There were also comments both supporting and opposing Austria's stance on the UN Global Compact on Migration. In response to the critical remarks, Ms.Edtstadler replied that the rejection of the compact was a sovereign decision by Austria and had nothing to do with its Council Presidency.

Support for Italy and Greece

The discussion on migration in general was also lively. The parliamentarians were only able to agree that no one country can cope with the migration situation alone and that even the EU needs partners in the countries of origin. Italy and Greece emphasised that the EU must not leave them to deal with refugees all by themselves. A member of parliament from Italy pointed out that the countries along the Balkan route were being supported successfully, but that “we have yet to move past words when it comes to the Mediterranean route.” He called for more resources, more border and coast guard officials, hotspots for the initial reception and support for returnees. He reminded the Visegrad countries that EU membership not only entails rights, but also “obligations and responsibilities”. In her concluding statement, Ms. Edtstadler stressed that Austria was working towards a consensus solution and that she is putting great hopes in the announced “tour des capitales”.

Several countries called for a reform of the Dublin system and the distribution of refugees. Slovenia called for a return to Schengen rules and in particular questioned border controls between Austria and Slovenia. A Swedish parliamentarian stressed that Germany, Austria and Sweden must not be left to bear the entire refugee burden alone; the EU Member States must tackle the situation together standing “shoulder to shoulder”. Austrian MEP Othmar Karas analysed that the EU now finds itself in a dilemma: “We would have an easier time of it if our basic principles, such as compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the eco-social market economy or the ban on discrimination, were not in dispute. But we violate these principles all too often.”

Progress in Western Balkan countries

There were a number of interventions on the integration of the Western Balkan countries, one of the priorities of the Austrian Council Presidency, with many of the comments coming from the Western Balkan countries themselves. Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia stressed that the value process in their countries is progressing apace, praising Austria's initiatives in this area. A Serbian parliamentarian, for example, emphasised that Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka have visited his country.

An Albanian legislator described the “most radical judicial reform in the region” in her country. Another Albanian participant stressed that much had been done to combat organised crime and, above all, its links with the political sphere. In Montenegro, too, the implementation of democratic values, the rule of law and fundamental rights is making progress. The integration of the Western Balkan countries is important for the stability of the region and also for the EU’s global image. A Polish MP warned against failures in South East Europe, stating, “This could lead to destabilisation or could be dangerous for the cohesion of the EU.”

Subsidiarity remains an important key

Some parliamentarians also raised the issue of strengthening the subsidiarity principle. A British MP cited the lack of clarity regarding this basic requirement of the EU as the reason for the UK’s leave vote in 2016. A Spanish participant warned, “There is no greater enemy for the economy than a return to nationalism.” An Italian parliamentarian stated that subsidiarity results have fallen short. “We need a workable solution for the distribution of responsibilities.”

Digitisation paving the way to the future

Digitisation was also pinpointed as an important issue. A Slovenian parliamentarian stressed the importance of digitisation in health care and research, for example, research on the human genome. It is necessary to work toward making the systems interoperable and ensuring data protection as well. A French participant pointed out that Europe lacked high-powered computers such as those found in the US, while a British MP stated that digitisation is critical for competition, pointing to competitors, particularly from Asia, in data management and artificial intelligence.

The possible introduction of a digital tax proved to be a polarising issue at the conference, with a Swedish parliamentarian speaking out against such a tax, saying that it would entail more risks than benefits, and that it could slow down innovation in smaller Member States. Austrian State Secretary Edtstadler stressed that fair taxation of both digital and traditional companies is a must. (Continuation COSAC)

PLEASE NOTE: Photos of this event can be found at the website of the Austrian Parliament at www.parlament.gv.at/SERV/FOTO/ARCHIV.

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