Protecting and promoting our fragile and precious rural cultural heritage

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

Participating in the workshop on Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development at the Closing Conference of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 #EuropeForCulture, organised under the outgoing Austrian presidency in December in Vienna, Tom Jones emphasised that the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) had fully supported the designation of the thematic year and the initiatives around it .  He also recalled that public investment must be “rural-proofed”, to maximise support to rural creative sectors and local groups working to enhance the infrastructure of our rural heritage.

Our cultural heritage is one of our greatest assets, serving as a link between the past and the present, reminding us of the creativity, exchange of goods and people, inventions and innovations, but also of the conflicts, wars and social changes that have shaped our history. Through our wonderful and unique cultural sites, our history becomes tangible and it is in all our interests to preserve famous and less famous places and hand them down to future generations.

However, our cultural heritage is more than historic sites: it includes Europe’s picturesque landscapes – from high mountains to beaches – as well as typical regional handicrafts and folklore.

“Unfortunately our cultural heritage is more fragile than sustainable”, warned Mr Jones at the beginning of the workshop. “The maintenance of our cultural sites is dependent on private and public funding, tourism and voluntary support. As regards nature, we are losing biodiversity and habitats due to farming practices but also as a result of climate change. We are losing rare plants which may have as yet undiscovered medicinal properties. Last but not least, we are losing traditional craft workers and their precious skills.”

Cultural heritage – a responsibility for all of us

Europeans need to be aware of these dangers and it is the responsibility of all of us to reverse this trend.

The current EESC presidency has made culture a priority, alongside peace, sustainability and youth, since all these topics are interlinked.

“The European Union, national and regional governments are important as they can provide incentives and financial support, but it is first and foremost the local communities, the people on the ground – the men and women, young people and children – with their ideas, vision and engagement, who need to take responsibility for our heritage,” said Mr Jones, outlining in his address the main findings of the EESC’s own-initiative opinion The contribution of Europe’s rural areas to the 2018 Year of Cultural Heritage ensuring sustainability and urban/rural cohesion.

“It is Europe’s rural cultural heritage which – with all its richness and diversity – contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of all European citizens and therefore needs to be recognised and valued”, he added.

For the EESC, it is important for public investment to be “rural-proofed”, meaning that funding should be designed to support family farms and agricultural workers – the farmers and foresters who have been managing the countryside and have thus maintained, protected and promoted its biodiversity – but also the creative sectors and local groups working to enhance the infrastructure of our rural heritage.

Our landscape will be endangered if no more resources are provided. Therefore it is important to raise awareness of the contribution of the rural population in promoting sustainable nature. Cultural events such as farm open days, school visits to rural areas, shows, crafts and other fairs as well as cultural festivals can also help urban citizens to better understand why public support is needed.

Reviving old skills through training and incentives for young people

Another danger is the loss of craft skills. Increased investment in training is necessary to enable intergenerational transfers, but also innovation and adaptation to new requirements. Young people – all of them, not only farmers – should be encouraged and supported to become rural entrepreneurs, filling e.g. the gaps for professions in the craft and restoration and repair sector.

Rural cultural heritage should also be promoted through sustainable tourism. The production and marketing of regional products and the promotion and revitalisation of our gastronomic heritage are crucial in this respect.

The European Year for Cultural Heritage can only be the kick-off of a development which we are fortunately already witnessing in some rural communities with good leadership – villages and towns that have shown remarkable resilience in caring for their inhabitants and their environment, sustaining themselves socially and economically as well as culturally. They should become a role model and their strategies for maintaining rural economic and social cohesion rolled out over the whole continent.

MIL OSI

Digitalisation is an opportunity to unlock the potential of "cognitive minorities"

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

At the January meeting of the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN), the members of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) discussed how to tap into the potential of “neurodiversity”, which could also help people within these so-called cognitive minorities to integrate socially.

The digital revolution offers an opportunity to unlock the potential of people considered to belong to cognitive minorities and help them better integrate into society. People with autism, a high IQ, hyperactivity, dyslexia and dyspraxia find it difficult to fit into society due, mainly, to general prejudices and their particular verbal communication difficulties. Nevertheless, although they may not have standard social skills, they are able to acquire highly technical skills. This could undoubtedly help many European companies bridge the technological gap, providing at the same time an opportunity for social integration.

At its January meeting, the EESC’s TEN section hosted a roundtable on neurodiversity and digitalisation. Hugo Horiot, author of the book Autisme, j’accuse! and autistic himself, set the tone of the debate and referred to the potential that the digital revolution holds for “unusually skilled” people. “Neurodiversity is a generic term covering all cognitive specificities of the human species, the so‑called neurofamily,” he said. “There are many niche areas where certain highly technical skills are necessary but very hard to find, because the system rejects the cognitive group that provides those skills. An example is hacking. We need good hackers to counter cybersecurity issues. We see 18‑20‑year-olds who have excellent skills in this field, but at the same time have not managed to get a diploma or another official recognition. We need to encourage business and institutions to set other recruitment and evaluation methods than the standard models that are based on social skills.”

The recognition that all human beings are complementary and able to contribute to our society in multiple ways is fundamental. “We are all different to each other,” declared the president of the TEN section, Pierre Jean Coulon. “However, there are differences that are considered to be acceptable because they do not bother and affect anyone and, on the other hand, there are differences that we do not accept, such is the case of neurodiversity,” he continued.

Awareness-raising is essential, otherwise there is no recognition and visibility for people belonging to these cognitive groups. Ariane Rodert, president of the EESC’s INT section, stressed that we must aim at a more inclusive society, with diverse forms of businesses and companies in the EU. “We are facing enormous societal challenges,” she maintained. “It is crucial to pull together all resources in our society to make sure that we come up with the right solutions.”

The very specialised skills that people belonging to atypical cognitive groups may develop are key in the field of artificial intelligence, where challenges are both social and ethical, but also very technical, highlighted Catelijne Muller, president of the EESC’s Temporary Study Group on artificial intelligence. “It is my strong belief that people with disabilities are people with extraordinary abilities,” she pointed out. “The skills gap is now one of the pressing issues we are facing and abilities like higher intelligence, stronger concentration and attention to detail, and greater resilience to working long hours without being distracted are all fundamental when it comes to artificial intelligence.”

People must remain at the centre of digital development, added Ulrich Samm, president of the EESC’s Permanent Study Group on the Digital Agenda, but we must assess how new technologies can help. “The idea of positive discrimination is something that we have to keep in mind,” he said. “We need to capitalise on highly-skilled people and use new technologies to cater for what is missing.”

It is important to bear in mind that, according to a number of estimations, approximately 65% of today’s school pupils will be called upon to perform jobs that do not currently exist and that companies will find it increasingly difficult to find the skills they need in schools. Tapping into the potential of cognitive minorities would not only provide a vital contribution to our society, but would also represent an opportunity for social integration for people who have an intelligence that is different in nature. “A group in society that is deprived of any prospects would be offered the opportunity to contribute to our society in innovative ways,” concluded Mr Horiot.

MIL OSI

A European retail sector fit for the 21st century

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

Brussels, 19.4.2018

COM(2018) 219 final

COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS

FMT:BoldA European retail sector fit for the 21st century/FMT

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1.Strengthening the competitiveness of the European retail sector

A dynamic and competitive retail sector is important for consumers, businesses and hence the whole EU economy. The sheer magnitude of companies and jobs involved as well as the contribution to the EU value added make retail key for boosting long-term economic growth.  

Driven by evolving consumer needs and technological progress, the sector has been rapidly transformed and is a catalyst for innovation and productivity. 

EU households spend up to one-third of their budgets on goods distributed by retailers. Through price, choice and quality of the products on offer the retail sector has an impact on the quality of life of those living in the EU.

The 3.6 million companies active in the retail sector (mainly SMEs) interact with other economic sectors such as wholesalers and product manufacturers as well as transportation and logistics and other business services. A better performing retail sector will as a result generate positive spill-over effects on the entire economy.

The Single Market enables retailers to access some 500 million potential consumers. However, this requires a favourable business and regulatory framework that is fit for the needs of both on-line and off-line retailers and which assists in responding to challenges affecting the retail sector at a global level.

The rapid growth of e-commerce is transforming the sector. E-commerce has become a fact of life for most EU citizens. This brings both new opportunities as well as challenges for the sector. The development of multi-channel retail and the blurring boundaries between off-line (physical premises) and on-line (e-commerce) promotes competition and fosters innovation in the sector. However cross-border e-commerce in the EU still has much room for improvement. In addition, not all companies find it easy to keep pace with the emergence of new business models – 80% of retailers do not yet sell on-line. Many small retailers, in particular, find it difficult to adapt.

For the Single Market to deliver, appropriate action must be taken at national, regional and local level. In the context of the European Semester, several Member States have already carried out reforms aiming to improve the regulatory environment for retailers.  

Still, the productivity of the EU retail sector has been lagging behind other sectors and is less dynamic than in other comparable economies. Retail has also been less profitable than other sectors. Accumulation of regulation has a negative impact on its performance. Retailers must comply with an accumulation of diverse and often complex regulatory frameworks set at the national, regional and local level. Such restrictive regulations lead to less dynamic retail markets with fewer entries and exits of retail businesses and lower employment prospects.

Source:    Own calculations based on information collected from Member States, from Eurostat and through dedicated studies

A modern retail sector needs more investment and a favourable business environment. The Investment Plan for Europe supports a further deepening of the Single Market, notably by removing barriers to investment, fostering greater regulatory predictability and reducing excessive regulation.

With the implementation of the Digital Single Market Strategy , the Commission took steps to make the Single Market fit for the digital age. Boosting cross-border e-commerce was one of the main objectives. The Commission proposals on geo-blocking , cross-border parcel delivery services , modernisation of the VAT system , digital contracts rules and the forthcoming initiative on on-line platforms will help retailers to seamlessly operate on-line. The Commission is also proposing actions for a fair and effective taxation of the digital economy  and to ensure the independence of payment card schemes and processing entities.

New opportunities are emerging for start-ups active in the sector. The start-up and scale-up initiative aims specifically at removing barriers for start-ups to scale-ups in the Single Market, by creating better commercial opportunities and facilitating access to finance.

The New Skills Agenda for Europe proposed a number of actions, which will help equip EU citizens with the right skills to meet the challenges of the fast-changing global economy. Retail needs skills matched to the requirements of digitalisation. In addition, Erasmus+ offers new opportunities for long-term apprenticeships abroad in a wide range of economic sectors including retail.

The Single Market for goods is of particular importance for the retail sector. In December 2017, the Commission tabled two legislative proposals to make it easier for companies, especially SMEs, to sell their products across the EU , and to strengthen controls to prevent unsafe products from being sold to EU consumers. In addition, the Commission tabled a proposal to eliminate key contract law-related barriers hindering cross-border trade. The Commission is also taking further initiatives to improve the legal framework for consumers and businesses.

The Services Directive enables retailers to establish outlets throughout all Member States more easily. In its judgment, in the Visser case , the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) confirmed that retail is a service and as such is covered by the Services Directive. The Directive ensures that certain very restrictive market access requirements are prohibited and others may only exist where they are non-discriminatory, justified by a legitimate public policy objective and proportionate. In that regard, the Directive also aims to guarantee efficient, objective and non-discriminatory procedures for market access within a reasonable time period. Similar requirements are imposed by the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU in situations falling outside the scope of the Services Directive, such as operational restrictions.

The European Council stressed that the enforcement of existing legislation is key for the functioning of the Single Market.  In the implementation of the Services Directive, Member States made a number of adjustments to the regulatory frameworks for services. Full compliance with EU rules would improve the regulatory environment for retail and allow companies and therefore also consumers to reap the benefits of the Single Market.

The Single Market Strategy pointed at retail establishment restrictions and restrictions affecting day-to-day retail operations as significant impediments to a better performing retail sector. The Commission committed “to set out best practices for facilitating retail establishment and reducing operational restrictions in the Single Market… [to] provide guidance for Member States reforms and priority-setting for enforcement policy in the retail sector“.

This Communication aims to contribute to unlocking the potential of the retail sector for the EU economy by identifying best practices. The best practices will support the competitiveness of the retail sector without undermining the public policy objectives pursued by Member States. As emphasised by the European Council, the EU needs to keep working towards a future-proof Single Market, fit for the digital age.  The retail sector is increasingly relying on multi-channel distribution and this trend will continue. Several Digital Single Market initiatives aim at ensuring that on-line retailers are able to sell cross-border effectively. This Communication addresses restrictions more prevalent in off-line retail.

On the 25th anniversary of the Single Market,  we should celebrate its achievements but also look forward. The retail sector deserves our attention and analysis. Efforts are needed by the EU institutions and Member States to support the competitiveness of the sector at a time when the rapid growth of e-commerce is transforming it.  

2.Restrictions in retail affecting market performance

Retailers face numerous restrictions in varying degrees in terms of the establishment of shops (e.g. on the shop’s size and location or the procedure to obtain a specific authorisation) and operations (e.g. on opening hours, sales promotions and distribution channels, taxation, sourcing). Many of these restrictions may be justified by legitimate public policy objectives, yet their accumulation may create disproportionate barriers for new entrants and therefore negatively affect the productivity of the sector. Retailers emphasise that regulatory frameworks should be future-proof and flexible to allow businesses to swiftly adapt to a changing reality.

Reducing restrictions has positive effects on the functioning of the market. A less restrictive regulatory environment encourages more firms to enter the market, to reap the opportunities it gives and to succeed. Retailers have more flexibility in investing in the right location and format of their shops, and to respond better to the needs of local consumers. All this, together with the thriving of e-commerce increases competition and leads to the success of more efficient and innovative firms.

As a result, productivity of the sector improves, also for the benefit of consumers. Consumers can enjoy more variety, more innovation and higher quality of both products and services offered. They are also likely to pay lower prices. In addition, a stronger retail sector can offer additional employment opportunities. More and better jobs would be created not only in retail but also in supporting services such as transportation, storage and logistics.

The Commission has developed a retail restrictiveness indicator that illustrates the various restrictions to retail establishment and the day-to-day operation of shops. Its components capture the complexity and diversity of the regulatory frameworks in place in the Member States. Overall, the indicator is a factual snapshot and shows a highly divergent restrictiveness picture across the EU. Both establishment and operational restrictions are present in all Member States. However, the specific type of restrictions and the restrictiveness level differ significantly. This level can be up to five times higher in some Member States than in others. While in the least restrictive regulatory frameworks only few types of restrictions are present, the most restrictive ones can accumulate up to 12 different types of restrictions. This affects the environment in which retail businesses operate.

The task of regulating the retail sector lies primarily with Member States. However, when they set rules, Member States need to comply with EU law and not unduly restrict the freedom of establishment or the free provision of services. As a result, some restrictions are prohibited, whereas in other cases they may be maintained or introduced as long as they are non-discriminatory, justified on the ground of legitimate public policy objectives and proportionate. Less restrictive regulatory environment would support the competitiveness of the sector. In that context, regard should be paid to the fact that, due to their nature, establishment and operational regulations mainly affect off-line retailers. Furthermore, the restrictions add up and Member States should consider their cumulative effects.

3.Facilitating retail establishment

Opening new shops is a retailers’ way to access a market. As multi-channel retail develops, it is important for retailers to be able to pursue a consistent strategy of market access, which combines an on-line and off-line presence. Moreover, such market access should be possible within a sensible time frame and without undue or disproportionate burdens. Timely and swift access to the market is a prime issue for retailers. They are concerned about restrictions on locations for new shops, product-related conditions or a general lack of legal certainty. Retailers indicate that establishment procedures are too long, too complex and too uncertain.

Establishment restrictions amount to serious market entry barriers and as such have been repeatedly raised in the context of the European Semester.

Establishment conditions

All Member States regulate the establishment of retail outlets. Very often, retail establishment is regulated at regional and/or local level, which adds to the diversity of rules retailers have to comply with.

The Services Directive, by codifying the case law of the ECJ regarding the freedom of establishment, prohibits certain requirements such as economic needs tests. Information requests to evaluate the offer (e.g number, the types and the formats of existing shops) or to measure market demand (e.g purchasing power or household consumption in the relevant establishment areas) fall in this category. Such requirements have been prohibited by the EU legislator because they either pursue purely economic interests or can be replaced by less restrictive means. Many Member States, when implementing the Services Directive, reviewed their conditions for establishment and removed requirements for an economic assessment. Yet, in some Member States in law or in practice economic information is still required or used.

Rules on the establishment of retail shops are guided by town and country planning considerations, often with the objective of maintaining the vitality of city-centres or the protection of the environment. For example, these rules may limit establishment in the periphery of towns. These objectives are as such shared by the Commission which, under the Urban Agenda for the EU, is working together with Member States, cities and other stakeholders to promote more urban-friendly, effective and efficient policies and to contribute to territorial cohesion. At the same time, the pursuit by Member States of those objectives must be done in a proportionate manner.

The ECJ confirmed that the Services Directive applies to retail establishment irrespective of the way Member States regulate retail establishment, whether through an authorisation scheme or through town and country planning. The ECJ confirmed that the Services Directive allows public policy objectives to be duly taken into account and that Member States have a margin of discretion in the way legitimate public policy objectives are fulfilled. However, to be compatible with the Services Directive in that regard, Member States need to ensure that regulatory requirements relating to retail establishment are not only justified by an overriding reason relating to the public interest, but are also proportionate.

Proportionality is an important feature of the Single Market freedoms. Proportionality is essential in retail. The Services Directive requires that retailers are not subject to restrictions that would be disproportionate. This is the case of some requirements explicitly referred to in the Services Directive, which include territorial restrictions. An example of these could be highly detailed spatial plans, specifying the types of goods to be sold. The ECJ in the Visser judgment recalled the obligation for Member States, under the Services Directive, to screen their regulations and practices to check the proportionality of territorial restrictions applying to retail establishment.  

In the services sector more broadly, the Commission proposed a Directive on a proportionality test in the field of the regulated professions. Similarly, in the Commission proposal regarding the notification procedure for certain restrictions under the Services Directive , a structured and uniform approach to proportionality is required.

Member States, by setting size thresholds, often apply different rules to retail establishment projects depending on the size of the planned retail shop. This can result in artificially shaping the retail landscape by affecting the formats and sizes of the shops opened , ultimately impacting productivity.

Economic needs tests

In accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities must review their rules and practices to ensure that economic data is neither required nor used for the purposes of establishment.

Example: In most Member States economic data is not used in retail establishment procedures, whereas in some other Member States economic needs tests are still de jure or de facto in place.

Location-specific rules

If applying location-specific rules, including with the objective of keeping city centres vibrant, in accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities need to assess the proportionality of these rules, in particular to ascertain whether less restrictive rules would be equally effective.

Example: In France, the rules concerning retail establishment allows retailers to select the optimal location for their shop without placing constraints on the shop format and products assortment.

Local spatial zones

When designing local spatial plans, public authorities are encouraged to allow for a broad range of commercial activities to take place in commercial zones. Moreover, in accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities, under the principle of proportionality, must avoid overly prescriptive rules.

Example: By indicating zones for broad range of business activities in local plans (“commercial use”), the Romanian authorities allow for flexibility in the use of the space.

Size thresholds

If setting size thresholds for retail establishment, in accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities under the principle of proportionality, must assess the consistency of thresholds’ level with the public policy objectives pursued. Moreover, public authorities are encouraged to consider their effects on the market structure.

Example: In Latvia, no threshold applies and regardless of the size of a shop, a single retail establishment process applies, as long as the project is planned in an area designated for “commercial use”. Also in Denmark and in Finland, as a result of reforms of the retail establishment regulatory frameworks, higher size thresholds for shops have been set and certain floor caps have been removed. The reforms have been carried out with the aim to improve the functioning of the sector, increase productivity and provide consumers with greater choice and lower prices.

Keeping vibrant city centres is a legitimate policy concern for national, regional or local authorities and the number of vacant shops is growing. To address this concern, some of these authorities apply restrictions to retail establishment outside city centres. If applied, these restrictions need to be justified and proportionate. In this context, relevant national authorities should consider a more comprehensive policy going beyond retail-specific rules. They should also take into account the e-commerce dimension and changing consumer shopping preferences, both of which affect retailers’ presence in city centres.

New approaches to promote vitality of city centres

Public authorities are encouraged to consider a wide range of actions and measures to attract consumers to city centres which do not rely exclusively on restrictions on retail establishment.

Example: In a part of Amsterdam (Netherlands), known as the ‘9 streets’, retailers came together to create a thriving community, building on the identity and cultural heritage of the area. Using a community manager, retailers are encouraged to coordinate common marketing and promotional activities linked to this heritage that can attract tourists or other consumers to the area, promoted via a website. This, together with other initiatives led by the competent authority such as the introduction of a car-free zone, has bolstered retail activity and demand for retail space in the ‘9 streets’.

In parallel to this Communication, the Commission is publishing a Guide for fostering the revitalisation and modernisation of the small retail sector. This guide contains success stories of cities that have restored the vitality of their city centres and should help competent authorities assist small retailers in adapting to the new realities of the digital age.

Establishment procedures

Simple, transparent and efficient establishment procedures (“cutting red tape”) offer opportunities for the retail sector to improve its productivity. Respondents to the open public consultation emphasised the need for streamlining the establishment process, more transparent procedures and a better and more systematic use of on-line procedures. Digital technologies should be used to facilitate this access. The EU eGovernment Action Plan aims at accelerating the digital transformation of government to make businesses’ interactions with public administrations more efficient, transparent, faster and less costly.

Finding relevant and accurate information regarding legal requirements and procedures in a format that is easily understandable, as well as being able to access and carry out administrative procedures on-line, is crucial for all those willing to make use of the benefits of the Single Market and particularly for SMEs. To better address these needs the Commission has presented a legislative proposal to set up a single digital gateway.  

In practice, brick-and-mortar retailers still face important delays because of many procedural obstacles. Such delays have a negative impact on the start and viability of a project – which may be designed for a specific market setting – and cause significant costs.

The full implementation of the Services Directive alone would allow for an ambitious programme of administrative simplification and cooperation. In view of the Visser judgment, Member States should assess whether the administrative simplification in the retail sector has been ambitious enough or if more work is required. In the Directive, Member States are required to set up Points of single contact, to provide for the possibility to complete procedures at a distance and by electronic means and to make information on national requirements and procedures easily accessible. Applications must be processed as quickly as possible. The sector and public authorities would benefit from more efficient, more transparent and shorter establishment procedures.

Simplified procedures

Simplified procedures are less time and resource intensive. In accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities must facilitate brick-and-mortar retailers’ access to the market through simplified retail establishment procedures with fewer permits which can be applied for through a single on-line point of contact.

Example: In Belgium, to simplify the administrative process, the Regions introduced integrated procedures and one-stop-shops for retail establishment. These changes enable retailers to apply for a single integrated permit in one place.

Transparency

Transparency at all stages of the retail establishment procedure is beneficial for retailers. In accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities must make sure that all the necessary information about retail establishment procedures is made available to the retailer beforehand through a dedicated website. They are also encouraged to make publicly available all establishment decisions, whether positive or negative.

Example: In Lithuania, both positive and negative establishment decisions are published electronically.

Length of procedures

Shortening the length of establishment procedures helps retail projects start swiftly. With the development of on-line trade, it is important to shorten deadlines for brick-and-mortar retailers to access the market. This would also support multi-channel development. In accordance with the Services Directive, public authorities must process applications as quickly as possible. They are encouraged to consider all options to shorten the time needed for a retail activity to start, including through measures to avoid opportunistic appeals.

Example: Recent reform in Finland aimed at simplifying and thus shortening the procedures for retail establishment.

4.Reducing operational restrictions

On top of regulations affecting the establishment of retail shops, retailers face a number of regulations linked to their daily operations (e.g. on opening hours, sales promotions, distribution channels and sourcing).

Operational restrictions have often been put in place to fulfil public policy objectives, such as the protection of employees, consumers, the environment and public health. E-commerce is changing consumer shopping habits (consumers are used to shopping anytime, anywhere, including cross-border). This makes the case for Member States to assess and modernise, as necessary, their regulatory frameworks, taking inspiration, where relevant, from well-functioning and less disruptive solutions developed in other Member States.

Operational restrictions usually affect mainly brick-and-mortar retailers.  For example, because of their nature shop opening hours restrictions or retail-specific taxes based on the size of the selling space do not apply to on-line retailers. Public authorities should assess the proportionality and efficiency of operational restrictions affecting brick and mortar retail to ensure a level playing field with e-commerce.

Operational restrictions may become a significant burden for businesses, affecting their productivity and as such have been repeatedly signalled in the context of the European Semester.

Ensuring a level playing field in retail

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to take into account new consumption patterns and adapt their commercial strategy accordingly.  Small retailers may find it difficult to adapt to the digital evolution of the market. They do not always easily embrace technology and generally have fewer resources, less knowledge and less capacity to design and implement structural changes.

Help transition for small retailers

Public authorities are encouraged to facilitate the adoption of digital technologies by small retailers.

Example: In Belgium, to improve small retailers’ knowledge of how to use digital technology, the Walloon Digital Agency developed a self-diagnostic tool that helps small retailers assess what digital technology suits their means and experience and the type of solutions they need in the short term to facilitate their adoption of digital technologies.

The Guide for fostering the revitalisation and modernisation of the small retail sector should help competent authorities assist small retailers in adapting to the new realities of the digital age.

In Member States that have rules on promotions and discounts, consumers can usually take advantage of promotions and discounts that are offered by on-line shops located in Member States with more flexible rules (for example, those that do not impose strict end-of-season sales periods or allow sales below costs).

E-commerce enables consumers to buy products on-line for which, when sold off-line, some Member States impose specific distribution channels. This may create different conditions for off-line and on-line retail.

Regulations designed predominantly for off-line retail limit retailers’ abilities to adapt and react to the changes brought by e-commerce. This is the case for example of restrictions on shop opening hours. These restrictions had often been put in place to protect employees as well as SMEs, which not always can afford sufficient staff to cover long opening hours. These concerns should be addressed while supporting off-line retailers in adapting to new consumers’ habits.

The existing retail-specific taxes and fees based on the size of the selling space are only applicable to brick-and-mortar shops, which may put them at a disadvantage compared to on-line shops and other businesses.

Sales promotions and discounts

Sales promotions and discounts can be part of a retailer’s strategy in a multi-channel environment or for entering a new market. Public authorities must comply inter alia with the principle of non-discrimination, justification and proportionality when setting rules on sales promotions and discounts; this would also contribute to ensuring a level playing field with e-commerce.

Example: A recent reform in Luxembourg aimed at facilitating end of business sales and authorising sales below cost. Greece extended the end-of-season sales periods in 2014.

Specific sales channels

Public authorities are encouraged to introduce a level playing field with e-commerce.

Example: In Portugal, Italy, Sweden and Denmark, reforms have taken place to allow for the sale of certain non-prescription medicines in other places than pharmacies.

Shop opening hours

Shop opening hours are an important factor influencing consumers’ accessibility to a retail shop. E-commerce is significantly changing consumers’ shopping habits and brick-and-mortar retailers may have difficulties keeping up with competition by on-line retailers. Public authorities are encouraged to provide for flexibility to adapt to consumers’ changing preferences and aim at a level playing field with e-commerce.

Example: In Finland, the shop opening hours have recently been fully liberalised, with a significant positive impact on competition and employment.

Retail specific taxes

Public authorities are encouraged to ensure a level playing field with e-commerce as well as with all business sectors, ensuring that any specific tax is justified and does not unduly put at a disadvantage ‘brick-and-mortar’ retailers.

Example: In most Member States, taxes are not specific to the retail sector and hence they do not discriminate this sector against the others.

In Hungary, a retail specific tax introduced in 2010 was withdrawn in 2014, which improved the balance not only between different sectors, but also between domestic and foreign operators.

Ensuring fair and efficient supply chains

Retail brings the Single Market to consumers. The EU Single Market allows retailers to buy products from anywhere in the EU. This increases efficiency, can be more productive and reduces costs to the ultimate advantage of consumers. The Single Market has had the effect of increasing the choice of products available. Regulatory barriers restricting the possibility to source products cross-border risk fragmenting the Single Market and run counter the Treaty principle of free movement of goods.

Efforts are also being made at EU and national level to promote balanced supply chains to reduce the environmental impact and to encourage sustainable consumption. The EU has already taken steps to tackle the issue on plastic waste. In its January 2018 strategy for plastic in the circular economy, the Commission is planning further work on this issue. The Commission is also proposing measures to promote the prevention of food waste. Many Member States have also introduced regulations that aim to promote fair trading practices, in particular in the food supply chain. The Commission supports these efforts including through the proposal for a Directive concerning unfair trading practices in business-to-business relationships in the food supply chain. However, it is important not to prevent suppliers and retailers from mutually beneficial cooperation.

The Commission is also aware of territorial supply constraints set by private operators which may limit retailers’ possibilities to purchase products from whom and from where they want, having a detrimental effect on the Single Market. It appears that in some cases, retailers based in one Member State and dealing with a multi-national supplier are not given the choice to decide from which national entity of the supplier the goods should preferably be sourced and are instead referred to a specific national subsidiary. Retailers face the same barrier, if the supplier prevents its network of independent wholesalers from delivering its products cross-border with an effect of market foreclosure or market partitioning along national lines. If the supplier imposing territorial supply constraints is in a dominant position or if they are applied as part of an agreement between the supplier and an independent wholesaler, competition law can under certain circumstances be used to sanction these constraints as anti-competitive behaviour. It does not, however, catch situations when such instructions are given by vertically integrated suppliers to their national subsidiaries. Currently, some suppliers use the fact that competition rules do not apply to such situations.   

Territorial supply constraints drive market segmentation, limiting competition and resulting in likely significant discrepancies between wholesale and consumer prices or the choice of products offered to consumers across the EU.  

Such behaviour should be prevented, so that parallel imports by retailers become possible for all products allowing them to bring the Single Market even closer to European consumers. The Commission will undertake further fact-finding on the effects of such practices on the Single Market. Further action may be needed, if the situation does not evolve as a result of suppliers’ voluntary change in approach.

Regulatory sourcing restrictions

In accordance with the Single Market for goods, retailers need to be able to enjoy the freedom to set up their supply chains, including cross-border, to enhance consumers’ access to a wide choice of products at competitive prices.

Example: The Czech Republic and Slovakia removed regulatory requirements for certain retailers to report on the proportion or percentage of turnover from the sale of food sourced or produced domestically.

Contractual practices of modern retail

If public authorities regulate practices to protect vulnerable operators, in accordance with the freedom of establishment, they should not prohibit those contractual practices between retailers and suppliers which are mutually beneficial.

Example: In Ireland, if a supplier expressly agrees in a contract to make a contribution to marketing costs, this is not prohibited, subject to safeguards such as requiring an objective and reasonable estimate of such a contribution.

Territorial supply constraints

Private operators should not prevent retailers from exploiting fully the possibilities of the Single Market to source products cross-border. Retailers should be able to offer consumers access to a wide choice of products, including different versions of the same product, at potentially lower prices.

Example: Retailers should be given the choice to decide from which national entity of the supplier the goods should preferably be sourced.

5.Alleviating the cost of compliance

Complying with regulations has a cost – the cost of compliance – which may amount to 0.4% to 6% of retailers’ annual turnover. For micro-companies, this is a particularly heavy burden.

Respondents to the open public consultation identified areas where improvement could be made: reporting business information, notifying changes, inspections , more proportionate fines and sanctions.

The Commission made a strong commitment to promote better regulation principles in recent years both at EU and at Member States level. There is also a need for Member States to check whether national regulations are well-targeted, evidence-based and clearly drafted. Less complex regulations, better awareness of the sector’s specificities and policy support would help the retail sector to be flexible and innovative.  

Fostering the development of the retail sector to the ultimate benefit of consumers requires a broad approach: simplifying regulatory frameworks, ensuring that they are fit for a multi-channel environment as well as reducing the overly burdensome and costly measures and procedures imposed on retailers to ensure compliance with these rules.

Administrative burden and sanctions

When designing and applying regulations, in particular governing the day-to-day operation of shops, public authorities are encouraged to take into account the implied costs of administrative tasks and necessary equipment. This is particularly important for SMEs as well as public authorities.

Example: Facilitating applications or reporting through on-line tools, as well as simplified administrative procedures and streamlined inspections lead to important savings and allow in particular small retailers to shift resources from administrative tasks to their core business, including innovation.

6.Conclusion

A well-functioning Single Market and a modernised regulatory environment are indispensable for an EU retail sector fit for the 21st century. The legal guidance and best practices set out in this Communication should assist Member States in their reforms towards a more open, more integrated and more competitive retail market without putting at risk the pursuit of legitimate public policy objectives.

Reducing restrictions in retail would also have positive spill-over effects in other sectors of the economy, in particular upstream in manufacturing. A more efficient retail sector and lower consumer prices create more demand and steer the upstream manufacturers towards more innovative products.

While the rise of e-commerce offers unprecedented opportunities for the retail sector as well as consumers, restrictions affecting brick-and-mortar retailers do not enable them to adapt to changing consumers’ habits. On-line consumers are used to shop anytime and anywhere. It is therefore crucial that, when designing and implementing relevant regulations, national regional and local authorities take into account that multi-channel retail will remain the trend for retail in the coming years.

The legal guidance and best practices set out in this Communication should help public authorities assess their regulatory frameworks and identify less restrictive measures. Member States must continue assessing the existing and proposed measures for the retail sector to ensure that they are non-discriminatory, duly justified and proportionate. They are also encouraged to ensure that these measures are effective for the public policy objectives pursued, address their urban development concerns in a proportionate way, and are fit for the quickly changing retail environment. The national competition authorities should play a role in this assessment.

The retail restrictiveness indicator will be used as a dynamic monitoring tool to measure Member States’ efforts in reducing retail restrictions, while taking into account justified public policy objectives, such as public health, and the impact of such reforms on market performance, including productivity, prices, innovation as well as the spill-over effects on other sectors.

The Commission will continue to monitor the evolution of the relevant regulatory frameworks and the trends in the retail sector. This monitoring will feed the Commission’s economic analysis within the framework of the European Semester. It will also provide basis for priority-setting in the framework of the Commission’s enforcement policy in the retail sector.

An effective partnership between relevant EU and Member States’ actors at all levels is necessary to improve the overall policy framework for the retail sector. The Commission will continue the dialogue between the EU institutions and the national, regional and local authorities as well as the representatives of the retail sector on the future of this sector.

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Ensuring maximum diversity of its retail landscape is Europe’s best bet, says EESC

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

The EU should create the conditions for a positive coexistence between online and offline, large, medium-sized, small and micro retailers, says the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in its response to the Commission’s communication A European retail sector fit for the 21st century. Quality, consumer choice and awareness together with impact on society should shape its vision of retail’s future.

While there is no denying that e-commerce has changed the face of shopping, it is important to ensure that Europe has a vibrant and diversified retail sector. Too much focus on price is neither in the best interest of consumers nor of society as a whole. In an opinion adopted at its December plenary, the EESC argues for a holistic approach factoring in other key aspects such as product quality and durability, value for money, information and service before and after purchase, shop proximity and accessibility along with environmental impact.

In the EESC’s view, the Commission’s approach is skewed in favour of large retailers. Instead, it should ensure that in the future European consumers still have choice, countering the increasing concentration on the market, where big online traders such as Amazon take it all.  

Despite lagging behind other sectors, retail is a leading player in Europe’s economy. In 2016 it accounted for a 9 864 468.4 million EUR turnover and 33 399 447 jobs.  In 2015 there were 6 205 080 retailers, generating a value of 2 687 115 million EUR.

Nevertheless, e-commerce has had some dire effects of on the urban landscape of some regions. Opinion rapporteur Ronny Lannoo paints a bleak picture: “There are countries where shops have closed down. Cities have hollowed out and there is no commercial choice. The idea is to offer consumers the cheapest goods. But the truth is that someone is always going to pay the price at the end of the day. Think of agriculture, for instance. What we are witnessing is a rush to the bottom that has a negative impact on large chunks of society.”  

Workers are among the hardest hit. They must be guaranteed fair remuneration and decent conditions: “We need to defend adequate work contracts for thousands of those invisible workers working for online businesses that are not covered by collective bargaining and people who work for large retailers with casual contacts, where for instance weekends or nights do not count as overtime,” says co-rapporteur Gerardo Larghi.

One other key aspect of the Commission communication that the EESC focuses on is retail establishment. The EESC’s view is that full liberalisation does not ensure the necessary balance between large companies, SMEs and family businesses. National and subnational authorities are best placed to take decisions when it comes to opening commercial outlets, regulating sizes and locations and fixing working times and days. Much can be done to simplify the procedures for starting a business without touching restrictions designed to protect the urban environment and ensure vital city centres, says the EESC.

Going online can be a viable option for brick-and-mortar retailers looking to expand their business, but it should not be an obligation, advises the EESC. For SMEs and micro companies, cross-border expansion means facing a number of hurdles (adapting their organisation, learning languages, understanding legal information, establishing an efficient and competitive delivery system, dealing with VAT fraud and counterfeiting, etc.). Traditional shops are also key to the social cohesion of local communities and cater for the needs of non-native digital consumers, recalls the EESC.

Background

The European Commission’s communication A European retail sector fit for the 21st century aims to boost the productivity of Europe’s retail sector, specifically offline outlets. Accumulation of national, regional and local regulations is the main cause of it lagging behind other parts of the economy. Best practices from across the EU are offered as inspiration to Member States taking a broad approach which includes simplifying regulations, ensuring that they are fit for a multi-channel environment and reducing the burden of compliance, the cost of which is estimated at between 0.4 % and 6 % of retailers’ annual turnover.

The Commission focuses on restrictions to the establishment and operation of shops which, while they may be justified by public policy concerns, raise barriers to the opening of new commercial outlets. The Commission advises screening these restrictions for proportionality and efficiency to ensure a level playing field with e-commerce.  Combining an online and offline presence is also recommended as a way to make the most of Europe’s single market.

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Addressing the situation of Roma women is a key duty for European democracies, says the EESC

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

As a result of the long-term focus on the situation of Roma women, at its December plenary session the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted an exploratory opinion in which it called for a major push to implement policies in their favour. The opinion highlights specific problems for Roma women in a number of areas and proposes stringent measures, for instance stipulating that Member States which fail to reduce segregation of Roma children in schools should have EU funds withdrawn.

Too many Roma women and girls still face unfair challenges when exercising their rights within their own community as well as in all sectors of society. They fare far worse than Roma men when it comes to education, employment, housing and access to healthcare. Rising discrimination and an inefficient integration system mean that Roma women are still the most vulnerable minority group in the EU. 
According to the EESC, too little progress has yet been achieved. “This discrimination is systemically harmful to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, radically weakening the European ideal,” said Ákos Topolánszky, rapporteur for the opinion.

The EESC supports the EU framework strategy’s objectives along with the geographical extension and implementation of JUSTROM by the European Commission; nonetheless, it recommends improvements in specific areas.

Education as a neutraliser of segregation

It is imperative that school segregation is brought to an end without delay, ensuring that Roma girls also have access to all aspects of high-quality state education. The EESC proposes to withdraw European funds for countries where school segregation is not reduced or even increases. 

Ensuring healthcare

The EESC says it expects the Member States to prioritise the eradication of health practices that infringe service standards meeting reasonable ethical requirements and the relevant legislation. It also suggests addressing the issue from a social perspective, and points out that healthcare mediators, health information points, training and public health initiatives may play a key role in reaching out to those living in ghettoised communities.  
Member States should do everything in their power to classify illegal practices such as forced sterilisation, denial of healthcare on the grounds of ethnic origin or lower-quality services as criminal offences. Equal treatment and healthcare should be guaranteed for people living in segregated situations. 

Opening up the labour market to fight social exclusion 

If we all agree that women have the right to be ambitious, then this must not exclude Roma women who are entitled to the same opportunities. Gender equality is a key value of the labour market, and this applies even more to the Roma communities. For instance, with regard to community projects and business start-ups, the EESC recommends specific measures to be taken not only to empower Roma women, but also to support their initiatives. The opinion underlines that so far, no Member State has come up with a specific policy to support Roma women and calls for them to step up their commitment. 

Discriminatory forms of employment should be abolished immediately and structured policies implemented so as to increase Roma women’s chances of finding jobs as well as balancing work and family life. In addition, vocational training and micro-credit programmes are expected to be provided to facilitate the economic empowerment of Roma women and combat social exclusion.

More legal protection 

The opinion draws attention to the violence to which Roma women are subject from both society in general and their own community. Hate crimes, human trafficking and exploitation are all serious criminal offences to which Roma women and children are exposed. For this reason, ensuring easy access to free legal protection in these cases is more important than ever. The EESC stresses in particular that forced marriages should be ranked alongside human trafficking in national and international law. It states that victims of forced child marriages are entitled to benefit from the same prevention and protection tools used to combat human trafficking. 
The EESC recommends stronger collaboration with independent and credible Roma community organisations, with a view to drawing up white papers cataloguing systematic infringements of Roma women’s rights. Structured dialogue is now crucial for the implementation of better and efficient policies. The EESC suggests that specific legal institutions be established in order to fill the gap created by the underrepresentation of Roma women, such as women’s committees within national Roma platforms or an independent ombudsman for Roma women. 
Addressing the situation of Roma women, especially with a view to post-2020, is a key duty and obligation for European democracies. The EESC calls on Member States to make this a priority as it clearly states in the opinion that “to promote their empowerment is not only an obligation for the institutions and Member States of the EU, but is also a litmus test of the quality of their democratic structures and the maturity of the rule of law in them.”
 

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The EESC calls for more comprehensive measures to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

In a recently adopted opinion, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the European Commission’s proposal to amend the European System of Financial Supervision (ESFS) with the objective of better tackling money laundering and terrorist financing in the European banking and financial sector, but calls for more comprehensive measures. These issues are, in its view, becoming increasingly dangerous in terms of the stability, safety and reputation of financial institutions and the financial sector as a whole. Additional measures are therefore of the utmost importance.

“The latest series of banking scandals has shown that previous improvements in the legislative framework covering financial supervision in these matters did not strengthen the regime enough to meet the rapid technological change and financial innovations that provide new tools for perpetrators to exploit the system for criminal ends. We therefore welcome the Commission’s agility in response to this issue”, said Petr Zahradník, EESC rapporteur.

The EESC, a consultative body at EU level, giving a voice on EU issues to Europe’s socio-occupational interest groups, among others, believes that additional measures should limit or eliminate existing risks and prevent future risks. The proposed step-by-step approach to their implementation would be preferable to avoid significant disruptions to the stability and functioning of the existing system.

Despite its general support for the Commission proposal, the Committee believes that the proposal does not go far enough and that several aspects must be clarified, like the scope of the European Banking Authority’s (EBA) mandate. Coordination between supervisory bodies should not only be strengthened and procedures streamlined but operations should also be coordinated with other relevant parties.

Rapporteur Petr Zahradník said in this regard: “This problem is increasingly important in relation to third countries. Money laundering is not only taking place within the EU and across internal borders, but also involves third countries. Thus, we urge the Commission for a more detailed outline of the new relationships between the EBA and other EU supervisory authorities, as well as national and, especially, third countries’ supervisory authorities.”

A balanced relationship between all parties involved should be established, allowing for the best use of all capacities and synergies to effectively resolve the problem. The subsidiarity principle must be respected.

In its opinion, the EESC also stresses the need for effective communication on how the problem is being tackled. Communication between supervisory bodies should be improved and better protected and the public concerned should be provided with information and made aware of the different ways that this crime may present itself. Improving this external communication could have a preventive effect.

In addition, the EESC is of the view that more comprehensive measures would be needed to address this very dangerous problem effectively, precluding and limiting the means available for committing these crimes or legalising its proceedings and keeping financial institutions and the financial system healthy and stable.

Background:

The Commission’s amendments to a legislative proposal on the reform of the ESFS, in co-decision with Parliament and Council since 2017, want to centralise supervisory tasks relating to preventing and combating money-laundering and terrorist financing, basing them at the EBA. Doing so will optimise the use of expertise and resources dedicated to these issues and improve the effectiveness of supervision. The EBA will become the EU’s central institution for coordination as regards anti-money laundering efforts within the EU and for cases that cross into third countries. Furthermore, the EBA will be given authority to investigate weaknesses in measures taken by national authorities and financial institutions to prevent money-laundering and terrorist financing. Information gathered will be made available to relevant competent authorities as appropriate. The EBA will also be allowed to request that national authorities investigate possible breaches of rules regarding money laundering and terrorist financing and in certain cases will be able to interact directly with financial sector operators.

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EESC supports reform of ISDS and addresses fundamental questions on the establishment of a multilateral investment court

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

At a time when major global players have initiated a trade war and protectionism is back in many parts of the world, the European Commission is promoting the establishment of a multilateral court for the settlement of investment disputes. In relation to this initiative, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) calls for fundamental questions on scope, protection of public interest, accessibility and relations with domestic courts to be addressed.

In an opinion approved at its December plenary session, the EESC welcomes the Commission’s efforts towards a multilateral reform of investor-state dispute settlement under the auspices of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). These efforts include a commitment to transparency, which has allowed non-governmental organisations to take part in the discussions. However, the EESC calls on the Commission to step up its efforts to involve civil society, and in particular the EESC, more actively in the process.

Philippe De Buck, rapporteur of the EESC opinion, emphasised that “while there is general agreement that investments abroad need some kind of protection, the multilateral investment court is a long-term political project that would need the support of a critical mass of countries in order to come into existence”. Indeed, the opinion states that foreign investors must have global protection against direct expropriation, be free from discrimination and enjoy equivalent rights to domestic investors. However, it also points out that “the right of States to regulate in the public interest must not be undermined”.

In the same vein, co-rapporteur Tanja Buzek considered “it vital that the EU remains open to all approaches and ideas that have surfaced regarding ISDS reform” and stressed that the question of a multilateral investment court had many aspects, both procedural and substantial, that had to be taken into consideration.

Among these fundamental questions, the EESC considers it vital that the multilateral investment court does not affect the ability of the EU and its Member States to fulfil their obligations under international environmental, human rights, labour and consumer protection agreements, and therefore insists on the introduction of a hierarchy clause and a public interest carve-out. In this sense, it is important to note that none of the agreements concluded by the EU or its Member States would be automatically placed under the jurisdiction of the multilateral investment court and that a transition period would be agreed to guarantee a high level of protection of investments.

Autonomy of EU law

The EESC’s opinion also highlights that the establishment of a multilateral investment court should not negatively affect the EU’s judicial system and the autonomy of EU law. To tackle this issue, the EESC encourages the Commission to further investigate the issue of the exhaustion of local remedies and how it could work in the context of the multilateral investment court.

The opinion also stresses the importance of the independence and legitimacy of judges. According to the text drafted by Philippe De Buck and Tanja Buzek, the appointment of judges on a permanent basis is key in building case law and improving predictability. Finally, the EESC insists that SMEs should enjoy the same level of protection granted to big companies as well as access to dispute settlement at reasonable conditions and costs. It also insists that all decisions of the multilateral investment court should be enforceable and made public.

Background

The EU is the world’s largest source and recipient of foreign direct investment. Worldwide, there are more than 3200 existing (bilateral) investment agreements – including over 1400 agreements concluded by EU Member States. It is therefore important for the EU to ensure that the resolution of investment disputes operates effectively at international level.

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Civil society representatives ask Montenegro to step up its efforts in the areas of migration and media freedom to accelerate its accession to the EU

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

Representatives of civil society bodies discussed in Brussels the current situation of Montenegro’s EU accession negotiation at the 12th meeting of the EU-Montenegro Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC). All the participants welcomed in a final joint declaration the accelerated growth of Montenegro’s economy in 2018, as well as the fall of unemployment.

This positive trend has allowed bringing the number of open chapters to 32, three of them provisionally closed, which led Bojan Šarkić, Head of the Permanent Mission of Montenegro to the EU, to declare that the country would be “ready to become a member of the EU” before the expected date, set in 2025. In this context, the JCC supported the Commission’s proposal of a Regulation establishing the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA III) and called on the EU institutions to provide Montenegro with sufficient funding, including through Pre-Accession Assistance, to help it meet the criteria for EU accession.

On the other hand, the JCC noted that the political scene in Montenegro remains fragmented and marked by lack of political dialogue. It also showed its concerns relating to media freedom in Montenegro and the political interference in the work of the national public broadcaster, and pointed out to the lack of progress in dealing with cases of violence against journalists. Lidija Pavić-Rogošić, Co-Chair of the JCC and member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), underlined that when it comes to readiness for EU accession “it is not just a matter of adopting rules; an increased capacity is also needed to put things into practice”. Regarding the right of establishment and the freedom to provide services, the JCC acknowledged Montenegro’s significant progress in aligning its national legislation with EU law, but urged Montenegrin authorities to pay attention to the ongoing discussions within the EU on the services package.

The JCC also welcomed the establishment of the council for cooperation between government institutions and NGOs and emphasized the importance of civil society organisations’ involvement in all aspects of policy-making and in EU accession negotiations.

Migration

Migration was other key topic debated by JCC members. Montenegro’s national legislation alignment with the acquis communautaire in the area of legal and irregular migration and asylum was very much welcomed. But the joint declaration also states that Montenegro must further “strengthen its migration management capacity to avoid overstretching of systems, constraints on national resources and the challenges of managing migration flows in compliance with international standards and protection of human rights in the event of a sudden influx of migrants”.

The JCC also commended Montenegro’s support to the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, recently signed in Marrakech. In the same vein, it called for a number of actions related to migration management, as the full support to the established inter-agency task force to address the smuggling of migrants, build capacity and train staff in the public bodies dealing with asylum legislation. It also urged EU institutions and Montenegrin authorities to improve mechanisms for managing Montenegro’s border and the exchange of information while ensuring that the human rights of persons in transit are respected.

Context

The EU-Montenegro Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) is a civil society platform established between the EESC and civil society in Montenegro (social partners and other civil society organisations). It complements, with a civil society point of view, the EU institutional framework related to the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Montenegro. The JCC comprises members from each side and allows civil society organisations to monitor the path of Montenegro towards the EU, and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the government of Montenegro and the EU institutions.

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A strong democracy must allow criticism

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

An EESC visit to Poland finds the country increasingly divided and its civil society hampered in the exercise of fundamental freedoms

On 5 December, the European Economic and Social Committee’s (EESC’s) Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL) held a public hearing in Warsaw in which a large number of Polish civil society representatives participated, including social partners.

The aim was to discuss freedom of association and assembly in Poland and the way this has evolved, as well as exploring best practice and the outlook for the future.

The hearing, held as part of an exploratory visit to Poland by a delegation from the FRRL Group, revealed early warning signs of polarisation in Polish society, with people encountering more and more difficulties in enjoying their fundamental rights. Furthermore, the shrinking space for civil society organisations (CSOs) is making it increasingly difficult for the latter to carry out their important work of signalling potential flaws in national legislation and policies.

The event was opened by the FRRL president, Mr José Antonio Moreno Díaz. Speakers at the hearing – in addition to many from Poland itself – included Prof Morten Kjærum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Sweden, and Mr Marek Prawda, head of the EC Representation Office in Poland.

The speakers warned that freedom of association and freedom of assembly in Poland were being hampered by newly introduced legislation. There had been a general backslide in the rule of law, with the governing majority trying to change the foundations of the state without changing the constitution. “In Poland, we are moving from the rule of law, towards “rule by law” in order to secure the power of the government,” said one of the speakers.

As for freedom of association, CSOs were feeling the pressure due to changes in the distribution of public funds. Legislation which provided for centralised distribution by an institute which came under the Prime Minister’s Office risked having a negative impact on CSOs’ ability to criticise government policies, and thus on their independence.

Most speakers agreed that there was a strong and positive tradition in Poland for protests, but now freedom of assembly was being curbed under the new Law on Assemblies, which favoured certain types of assemblies over others. Trade unions were complaining that it was now “next to impossible” to strike legally in Poland, although the constitution did allow it. In this context, trade unions in Poland were playing an important role in the civil society landscape.

Another problem raised by some speakers was the ongoing process of polarisation in the country, both within society as such and within civil society itself.

“The polarisation that exists in Polish society is dangerous for our freedoms, as it curbs public debate and limits those freedoms even more than a terrorist threat,” explained Mr Prawda. “Views and ideas presented by certain groups of people are automatically rejected by others who think differently.”

However, it was pointed out that this process was a global one, and Poland was by far not the only country where polarisation existed. All the social organisations, including the new social movements, informal groups, grassroots initiatives and others active in Poland were proof that “we can find hope in Poland”, said one of the speakers.

Prof Kjærum noted that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year marking a decline in human freedoms in the world. He suggested that the EU seriously consider setting up a mechanism or platform for civil society protection in order to foster constructive dialogue, with Member States acting jointly to create a safe space.

Former EESC President, Mr Georges Dassis, closed the event, emphasising the importance the Committee attached to the preservation of fundamental freedoms.

“Fighting for fundamental freedoms is a permanent struggle by all citizens, whether we live in Poland, Greece, Portugal or Malta”, Mr Dassis said.

He recalled that, as was already known in ancient Athens, a strong democracy had to allow its citizens to speak critically about its rule.

“All countries in Europe must feel strong enough to finance associations, even if they are critical of the government, because it is thanks to this criticism that governments follow democratic rules. Without the struggle for the respect of fundamental freedoms, there will be no hope for a united Europe,” concluded Mr Dassis.

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Nuclear energy: EESC endorses Commission’s proposal on dismantling nuclear plants but calls for closer monitoring

Source: European Economic and Social Committee

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) fully supports the Commission’s proposal on decommissioning nuclear facilities and managing radioactive waste. However, the Committee recommends adopting a more sustainable approach and closer monitoring of activities in sensitive areas such as the protection of workers from radiation. Involvement of civil society in the monitoring process is central. The social and economic consequences should also be assessed.

In the opinion on dismantling nuclear reactors, adopted at the December plenary session and drafted by Rudy De Leeuw, the EESC urges the Commission to adopt a more sustainable development-oriented approach in the choice of energy sources and calls for safe and sustainable management of waste generated. “Closing power plants is not the end of the nuclear energy cycle,” said Mr De Leeuw. “The long-term disposal of nuclear waste is a key challenge for the EU. Nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste should be carried out on the basis of a sustainable energy mix approach, in accordance with the Paris Agreement,” he continued.

  • Improving the monitoring process, including the social dimension

It is essential to strengthen the key performance indicators used to monitor the progress of decommissioning and radioactive waste management as well as their financial costs and risks. Performance in relation to protecting workers from radiation needs to be included. Activities funded by the EU should promote high-quality jobs and at the same time comply with the highest safety and radiation protection levels. In addition to experts and authorities, civil society organisations should be involved and provided with assistance to enable them to participate in this monitoring process.

  • Impact at the social and economic level

The EESC also highlights the importance of measuring the economic and social consequences of dismantling. The impact on the labour market, health indicators and the structural development of Member States’ regions should be assessed. It is also important to seize the opportunity presented by these dismantling activities for providing additional theoretical and practical training to local workforces in areas that are critical for the future. However, training requires funding. The knowledge acquired in the area of dismantling and on the issue of training workers should therefore be spread right across the EU.

  • Concerns over reactor dismantling in Lithuania

Specific concern is expressed by the Committee in relation to the dismantling of the Ignalina plant in Lithuania. The budget set by the Commission only covers 70% of the needs for the period after 2020, indicating a lack of solidarity and financial assistance for an operation that is also affecting neighbouring countries. The successful dismantling of this reactor is the most significant challenge facing the European Union in terms of nuclear safety and the priority should be to ensure that the risk to EU citizens is reduced.

 

 

Background

For more information on the EESC’s recent work on nuclear energy, you can visit our website:

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