These policy areas of great interest are discussed below: 1) Digital Single Market; 2) Energy & Climate Change; 3) Internal Market & Financial Services; 4) Life Sciences & Healthcare Policies; and 5) Trade.
1. Digital Single Market Policy
The European Commission has set for itself the goal of eliminating all barriers for the delivery of digital products and services within the EU, to shape a more positive environment for all digital services, and to create a European digital economy and society. This will require touching on many sensitive issues such as copyright and data protection. It will also entail fostering a single telecoms market, including spectrum allotments, infrastructure investments and the creation of industry-wide standards. Other policy areas that will need to be addressed include cross-border consumer and contract rules, and the simplification of VAT arrangements. Given the complexity of the issues and the numerous stakeholders involved, we expect progress to be slow and difficult.
Commissioner Ansip, who leads the EU’s Digital Single Market strategy and has repeatedly criticised the practice of geo-blocking, also appears to have support from the Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp). Last week DG Comp launched a sector enquiry into contractual and technical barriers to cross-border sales of digital content and goods, which will include looking into geo-blocking practices by companies operating across the EU, among other issues. These investigations are spearheaded by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager who is one of eight Commissioners tasked with improving access to digital goods and services.
At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Commission together with several leading tech companies announced the launch of the 5G-Public-Private-Partnership, aiming to deliver solutions, architectures, technologies and standards for the next generation communication infrastructures. This reflects the Commission’s ambition to take a leading role in developing and standardising 5G technology, especially in light of its importance for the expansion of the “Internet of Things”. It also appears to be an attempt by the Commission to centralise the policy discussion concerning new radio wave spectrum allotment at the European level, rather than leave decision-making to Member States.
March also saw the Council of the EU depart significantly from the Commission’s original proposals on the “Telecoms Package” by advocating for the retention of roaming charges after July 2016 (contrary to Commission proposals to eliminate intra-EU roaming fees altogether). The Council of the EU also seems to have weakened the Commission’s proposals on open Internet access or “net neutrality” by failing to clearly prohibit internet service providers and mobile network operators from prioritizing the delivery of certain types of digital content over others. The Latvian presidency of the Council will now begin negotiations with the European Parliament on roaming charges and net neutrality.
2. Energy & Climate Change Policy
At the European Council meeting of March 19-20, the heads of state and government of the EU Member States discussed the European Commission’s Climate and Energy Union package, focusing in particular on energy security and the internal energy market. Among other things, the EU leaders agreed that gas contracts with third country providers should be more transparent and fully compatible with EU energy security rules. In this context, the Commission is putting significant emphasis on the need to liberalize exports of LNG as part of the TTIP negotiations with the U.S. The Commission expects that the U.S. will liberalize its LNG exports by the end of the year.
The European Council also called for the full implementation and enforcement of existing EU energy efficiency legislation. The Commission has followed promptly by initiating infringement procedures against 27 Member States (all except Malta) for not having transposed the Energy Efficiency Directive into national law. This Directive imposes an overall EU energy efficiency target of 20% by 2010 and specific targets per Member State. The EU has recently agreed to an indicative overall EU energy efficiency target of 27% by 2030, with the possibility to revise this by 2020.
The European Council meeting also highlighted important differences in energy policy priorities among Member States. One of the most divisive issues will continue to be the EU’s position on nuclear power. While the EU cannot dictate Member States choice of energy sources, the Commission can influence the role of nuclear energy indirectly through, for example, its powers to supervise state aid. The omission of atomic energy in the Energy Union package presented by the Commission has led several pro-nuclear Member States, including France and the United Kingdom, to request from the Commission continued support for the nuclear sector.
Some EU Member States are likely to reject any reinforcement of the EU role in the management of energy supplies and in particular in negotiations with third country suppliers. For example, Hungary benefits from advantageous prices due to its close ties with Russia, and in the United Kingdom, Mr Cameron may not want to be perceived as surrendering further national sovereignty to Brussels.
According to officials of the Directorate for Energy, the Commission is considering the possibility of presenting a legislative proposal to regulate hydraulic fracturing by the end of this year.
3. Internal Market & Financial Services Policies
The European Banking Authority (EBA) announced its plan to postpone new banking stress tests until 2016. Instead, the financial regulator will conduct a transparency exercise, which should provide detailed information on the balance sheets and asset portfolios of banks. This decision gives Europe’s largest banks one more year to reinforce their capital base.
On 4 March 2015, the EBA published new draft guidelines on remuneration for firms caught by CRD IV, which encompasses banks and certain other financial institutions including some fund managers. One of the main changes is that all relevant firms should now apply for compulsory deferral, payment in shares or other instruments, claw back and bonus capping.
On 27 March, 2015, the European Securities and Markets Authority (“ESMA”) published Draft Technical Standards under Article 10a (8) of MiFID on the assessment of acquisitions and increases in qualifying holdings in investment firms.
4. Life Sciences & Healthcare Policies
The inclusion of healthcare in the TTIP negotiations clearly seems to aim at improving regulatory cooperation between the US and the EU. As a first step, the focus of the talks is to intensify the exchange of information between regulators, with a longer term view of establishing the groundwork for further regulatory cooperation between the two trade blocks.
The EU Health Policy Forum held the closing event of its 2009-2013 cycle on 19 March and announced a new format for the Forum, with an internet platform to facilitate daily discussion, regular meetings and a high level annual summit that would allow in depth targeted discussions. Dr. Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, presented his vision for health centred on four priorities: prevention, promotion, protection and participation. He also stressed the importance of future work on chronic diseases.
5. Trade Policy
On 25 March, the EU announced that it will impose anti-dumping duties on flat-rolled steel imports from China (around 25%) and Taiwan (10%) for six months. This new trade dispute follows previous clashes over alleged dumping of steel pipes, telecom technology and solar panels.
The EU leaders have extended the current economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia beyond July until the end of 2015 and requested full implementation of the Minsk agreement. The agreement includes a roadmap for Ukraine’s full control over its border with Russia by the end of the year.