On behalf of the European Parliament, I should like to express our deep regret at the latest developments in the United Kingdom and our disappointment that the UK Government has not yet succeeded in securing a majority for the proposed deal in the House of Commons.
The Member States and the EU institutions, under the leadership of Michel Barnier, have shown great unity and a sense of responsibility in dealing with this issue over the last two years.
We have conducted difficult negotiations, in which we have gone as far as it is possible to go without endangering the internal market which, as Michel Barnier always makes clear, is our most precious asset.
We have shown great patience, given additional assurances and drawn up legal interpretations, as we have been asked to do. And all for nothing, it would seem.
Today, with the deadline of 29 March one week away, it is up to the United Kingdom to find a way out of the impasse.
We must acknowledge that throughout the course of the negotiations the fundamental problem has been the red lines set by Mrs May after the referendum. And it would also appear that these red lines are the main obstacle to securing a majority in favour of the Brexit deal in Westminster.
If the UK Parliament can succeed in changing the red lines, for example by asking to retain membership of the Customs Union, then the backstop too will cease to be such a thorny issue (assuming that it is the real issue).
In any case, as things stand, the European Parliament continues to regard the agreement negotiated as the only solution which can guarantee an orderly Brexit and limit damage to ordinary people and businesses.
Yesterday, I met with representatives of the 3.5 million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and the UK citizens living on the continent.
I don’t need to tell you how worried they are for their future and that of their families.
This is understandable, as they will be the people who bear the brunt of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
They are asking the Union to find a solution that affords them protection, deal or no deal.
Businesses also face a period of great uncertainty, that must be kept as short as possible.
In her letter to President Tusk, Mrs May asks for the deadline for leaving to be extended to the end of June.
As you know, legally the European Parliament is not required to give its consent to an extension. Politically, however, I can assure you that it will make its voice heard.
Above all, we must be told what the purpose of the extension is. The UK Parliament has voted a dozen times ‘against’ something. I believe it is now time for the United Kingdom to start telling us what it wants, and not just what it ‘doesn’t want’.
The purpose of an extension cannot simply be to allow more time to pass, and certainly not to provide an opportunity to renegotiate the agreement. Unless, as I said earlier, the UK Government changes its infamous red lines. Of course, it is clear that this extension cannot be used, under any circumstances, to leverage negotiations on the treaty on the future relationship, as some may imagine.
The issue, therefore, is not its duration. The choice is not between a long extension and a short one, but between an extension that useful and one that is useless.
However, I must point out that, as regards the ratification of the agreement, the last European Parliament sitting before the elections will take place on 18 April. It would of course be possible to convene an extraordinary part-session, which we will do if necessary. But our margin for manoeuvre is rather limited.
Furthermore, from 23 to 26 May the European elections will take place.
It is imperative that the arrangements are made clear before people go to the polls, in order to avoid legal issues, linked not only to the composition of the European Parliament, but also to the electoral laws in force in Member States and the voting rights of their citizens. I will give you just one example: if, at the time of the elections, the United Kingdom has not yet left the Union, will UK citizens resident in Spain have the right to vote for Spanish lists or not? In all likelihood yes, because the United Kingdom would still be a Member State. But Spanish citizens resident in the United Kingdom would not have that possibility, because, if I understand correctly, the imminence of the United Kingdom’s departure would obviate any need for that country to elect its representatives.
The European Parliament would thus like to see two things happen.
First and foremost, it hopes that any extension will be as short as possible bearing in mind that 11 April is the deadline by which the United Kingdom must decide whether or not to organise European elections.
Secondly, in our view such an extension only makes sense if next week the House of Commons votes in favour of the Brexit agreement.
If it does not, a short extension would be pointless. In that event, let the UK request an open-ended extension and organise the election of its Members of the European Parliament.
Looking ahead to the EU-China Summit, I should like to tell you where the European Parliament stands.
The Union has always championed free competition and markets that are open to investment and trade – provided that everyone plays by the same rules.
As you know, the European Parliament does not regard China as a market economy. In fact, Beijing makes systematic use of state subsidies to boost the competitiveness of its firms, many of which are state-controlled. It also uses illegal practices to get its hands on European technologies. For example, it forces anyone wishing to invest in China to transfer technologies and industrial know-how; or, it buys up European firms in order to gain access to patents and innovations.
There is no reciprocity in the area of public procurement either. While Chinese-controlled firms can take part in procurement procedures in Europe, in some cases even benefiting from Union funding, European firms in China repeatedly suffer discrimination.
The Chinese Government has just launched a public investment and subsidy programme for firms that make up 40% of its manufacturing base. The stated aim of the Made in China 2025 Plan is to ensure that 70% of the products purchased and consumed in China are made in China.
European firms are quality and technology leaders. As a result of these illegal practices, however, the EU has a trade deficit of EUR 150 billion with China.
The European Parliament’s position is very clear. We have called for and secured stringent anti-dumping rules which place the burden of proof on those accused of illegal practices. Today, the EU regulation on the screening of foreign investments in Europe has been published in the Official Journal. Its provisions, as advocated by Parliament, will make it possible to determine whether the purpose of a foreign investment is to gain access to European technologies and patents by underhand means.
The development of the 5G network and standards is fundamental to our security and to advances in digital applications. It will revolutionise communications, the way we deal with personal data and the digital economy as a whole.
Those who devise and build this infrastructure can potentially gain control over many processes, and not only business ones. That control could also offer scope for measures that undermine our security.
A decision that has such significant and controversial implications cannot be based solely on the quality of the technical services on offer or their cost. Assessments and checks are needed before we can place our trust in Chinese technologies and firms.
For precisely that reason, last week in Strasbourg, the European Parliament adopted a resolution by a large majority that expresses serious concern at the possibility that the development of 5G might be entrusted to Chinese firms. It also calls on the Member States to introduce rules and certification procedures to ensure that there are no gaps in the security of European digital infrastructure.
I believe that the European Union must continue to show unity and determination in protecting its own citizens and firms against illegal Chinese practices, which have already cost us jobs and competitiveness.
Risk of disinformation in the run-up to the European elections
Last week in Strasbourg, the European Parliament adopted by a large majority a resolution declaring that in recent years Europe has been the victim of propaganda and disinformation campaigns conducted by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
The resolution stresses the absolute need to guarantee the freedom of choice of European voters.
The risk of interference in the forthcoming European elections was also raised during my recent visit to the United States.
We must protect voters against disinformation tactics which seek to divide and weaken both individual Member States and the European Union as a whole.
The European Parliament is calling for measures to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. In particular, we need rules which force social networks to remove content designed to manipulate public opinion. We also need to ensure that the online platforms work with the law-enforcement authorities to pinpoint sources of foreign disinformation. Lastly, we need to be able to impose penalties on all organisations, which make illegal use of citizens’ personal data to influence their voting intentions.
The European Parliament is in the front line in combating climate change. We must be responsible and act immediately if we are to safeguard the future of our planet. The EU must lead the way in environmental policy and set an example to the rest of the world.
We want to develop greater synergies between industry and the environment, combining social responsibility, innovation, work and sustainable growth.
Last week in Strasbourg we adopted a major resolution on climate change. We want a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy. We support de-carbonisation with the aim of zeroing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and urge the Member States to commit to achieving that goal.
Parliament is aware of the serious risks posed by climate change. According to the European Environment Agency, the EU lost around EUR 12.8 billion on average each year in the period from 2010 to 2016 as a result of extreme weather and climate conditions.
Unless further measures are taken, in a high-emissions scenario flooding could be costing the Union as much as EUR 1 trillion by 2100.
The Agency also believes that by 2030, 50% of the populated areas in the Union will be at serious risk of water shortages.
That is why we are calling for a fair energy transition fund, and for the mainstreaming of environmental concerns into all EU policies, including trade policy.
All the trade agreements signed by the EU must be fully compatible with the Paris Agreement, in order to enhance global action against climate change and to ensure a level playing field for our entrepreneurs.
The European Parliament believes that economic prosperity, global industrial competitiveness and climate policy, far from being incompatible, are in fact complementery.
Hence the need to invest more in industrial innovation, digital technologies, clean technologies and energy efficiency in order to stimulate growth, enhance competitiveness and promote future skills and hence create new jobs.
Let me briefly mention something that is not on the agenda.
As I have said before, the European Parliament wants the web giants to pay their taxes. Last December in Strasbourg we adopted by a large majority two opinions on proposals for Council directives on the taxation of digital businesses operating in the EU.
We are calling for tax justice, with everyone paying their share. Taxes must be paid where a company creates its value, irrespective of whether the enterprise is a digital one or a traditional one.
It was disappointing to see the Member States fail to reach agreement on this at the most recent ECOFIN meeting last week.
Our citizens and our businesses want readily available digital services, but they do not want the web giants to enjoy preferential tax arrangements or to engage in unfair competitive practices. It is time for the EU to take a strong and united stance in their dealings with the big digital platforms and ensure fair and effective taxation. We must also take firmer action at a global level, and start by seeking a solution at the OECD.
25th anniversary of the European Economic Area
Finally, today marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the European Economic Area, which has helped to ensure economic development, consumer protection and social and environmental rules and standards of the highest level.
Today, around three quarters of the trade conducted by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, in monetary terms, is with the EU.
We must stay on that track.
I especially welcome the participation by the EFTA-EEA countries in programmes to which they have contributed financially under the Multiannual Financial Framework.
I am referring in particular to the Horizon 2020 research programme, to Erasmus+ in the field of education, and to Creative Europe in the cultural and audiovisual sectors.
I hope that the EFTA-EEA states can continue to play an active role in EU programmes during the next financial framework period. I regard that participation as a means to develop, strengthen and expand our cooperation.
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