Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.
It is July 1 and Slovenia is taking over the rotating EU presidency (for the second time since its 2004 accession to the bloc), with the European Commission set to approve its national recovery plan while in Ljubljana later today.
Also, in just two weeks’ time, more than a dozen pieces of legislation will be unveiled by the EU’s Mr Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, who is our profile this week.
We will also explore another piece of legislation already in the work, the Digital Services Act, which is facing some predictable pushback from Big Tech companies.
Meanwhile in Rome, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who was supposed to save the Five Star Movement and bring it into the Social Democrats’ fold, has been cast aside. We will look at why this happened and what it means for Mario Draghi’s government.
And as more people across Europe are packing their suitcases for summer holidays, Euroconsumers has looked into how practical the EU digital certificate being introduced today really is. Their conclusion: it is still quite complicated and expensive to travel, especially with kids.
July is gearing up to be a defining month for the European Commission’s green ambitions, with an unprecedented 13 legislative measures landing in the middle of the month, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.
The clunkily named “Fit for 55 package” will be fronted by one of Brussels’ more familiar faces, Dutchman and first executive vice-president Frans Timmermans. The 60-year-old, who is serving his second term at the EU’s executive, is the face of the European Green Deal, a “moonshot” attempt to drive carbon emissions to net zero over the next three decades.
The July package will contain the central planks of the Green Deal, including an overhaul of the EU’s carbon pricing market, a border tax on polluting imports and stricter rules for car emissions to ensure the lofty targets can become reality.
Timmermans for one is not understating the potentially epochal nature of the legislative bonanza. “In terms of the direction Europe is taking, it could actually be of the same nature as the internal market or the [creation of the] euro”, he told Europe Express.
The Social Democrat may be front and centre for Brussels’ green agenda, but his role as the commission’s de facto number two was a consolation prize after he was tipped for Brussels’ top job by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.
In the now-infamous “Osaka compromise” of 2019, Merkel proposed that Timmermans become commission president as part of a fiendishly difficult deal she floated with a handful of EU leaders during a G20 meeting in Japan.
The tentative agreement blew up in spectacular fashion when Merkel’s centre-right European People’s party rebelled against her wishes, junking Timmermans and eventually retaining the EPP’s grip on the EU executive.
The Green Deal and ensuring its success is arguably the best way for Timmermans to shrug off any bitter memories from 2019. His penchant for pithy turns of phrase, flawless English and polyglotism make him ideally suited as Europe’s envoy for environment policy.
A former foreign minister for the Netherlands, he boasts friendship with his US counterpart John Kerry and has won plaudits for pushing the commission to pursue aggressive emissions targets that he candidly admitted would be “bloody hard to do”.
Timmermans is likely to depart the commission at the end of this mandate in 2024. He said the success or otherwise of the Green Deal would be secured only if Europe was “firmly on track for at least a 55 per cent reduction” in carbon emissions by the end of the decade. “I think that’s the measure of success.”
Applications for asylum within the EU declined 32 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019 as countries across Europe imposed lockdowns and restrictions on movement, according to the annual report published by the European Asylum Support Office. The report also found that resettlements dropped 58 per cent in 2020, but most migrants were able to stay in Europe as the pandemic halted return operations.
In the debate over rules governing online platforms, Big Tech is pushing back, demanding a narrow definition of what a platform actually is. The leading MEP on the file has been advocating for search engines to face the same obligations as social media and online shopping platforms, but some big players, including Google and Yahoo, are not having it, writes Javier Espinoza in Brussels.
Brussels is debating draft proposals for the Digital Services Act designed to increase the responsibility of big platforms when it comes to policing the internet and taking down illegal content — be it in breach of copyright or other laws. Proponents argue these companies have the power (and resources) to do so, and they should.
Christel Schaldemose, the MEP steering the debate on the DSA, has suggested in a draft report that search engines should be classified as platforms, increasing their responsibility as “hosts” of this content.
“Online platforms, such as search engines, social networks or online marketplaces should be defined as providers of hosting services that not only store information provided by the recipients of the service at their request, but that also disseminate that information,” said the draft report seen by Europe Express.
But a letter signed by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others pushed back on this idea.
The tech giants claimed that the rules shouldn’t apply to their search engines as they only store data “in a temporary and transient way, in order to make the transmission of the information more efficient”.
Despite the fact that Google owns a series of other services in addition to its search engine, including Gmail and YouTube, and collects and sells user data across services for its ad business, the company claims that it does not have the same ability as hosting services to remove content from the web. Neither does Microsoft, which has bought business-oriented social media platform LinkedIn. In the letter, they focus solely on the search engine aspect of their business:
“Even if an online search engine removes links to web pages from its index or results, those web pages will still exist and users will still be able to visit them on the web.”Ultimately, the letter, which was sent to the MEP and the commission, argued that the companies will not be able to comply technically with this requirement if it became law.
As the parliament and member states are actively debating what the rules of the internet will look like, many similar position letters and lobbying efforts are expected in the months to come.
What does Italy’s Five Star Movement actually stand for? It is a question that has become not only increasingly taxing for political scientists but also the formerly anti-establishment party’s own lawmakers and supporters, writes Miles Johnson in Rome.
For the past few months, it appeared that Giuseppe Conte, who was Italy’s prime minister until his coalition collapsed at the start of the year, was poised to take charge of Five Star and remodel it into a more conventional social democratic party.
This would have marked only the latest transformation of Five Star from an online protest movement against Italy’s political elites, to teaming up with Matteo Salvini’s anti-migration League and later moving on to a coalition with its once-sworn enemies, the centre-left Democratic party.
Yet this week, Beppe Grillo, the comedian and still influential co-founder of the party, declared that Conte was unsuitable as a leader, all but ending the former PM’s chances of taking charge. Conte, Grillo wrote in a blog post, “doesn’t have a political vision”.
No one, including Grillo, however, appears to have a clear answer to what that vision should be. The Five Star Movement is not only now part of a government led by a symbol of the technocratic elite it once despised, but it has even gone into a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the epitome of the politics it was formed to get rid of.
The future of the party, which remains the largest in Italy’s parliament but has collapsed in opinion polls, is anyone’s guess. For now, Prime Minister Mario Draghi will probably need to retain the support of its MPs to keep his reform programme on track. Conte’s exit and Five Star’s identity crisis make that coalition slightly less stable.