Ministers are outlining the priorities of the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the EU to parliamentary committees, in a series of meetings.
Finland holds the Presidency of the Council until the end of 2019. The first series of hearings took place in July. A second set of hearings is taking place in September. This press release will be updated regularly.
Agriculture and Forestry Minister Jari Leppä, on Wednesday 4 September, told MEPs that his priorities include implementing fishing efforts (Total Allowable Catches and quotas) well, as recently agreed, and overhauling the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to reduce red tape and improve the allocation of funds. On the latter, negotiations are expected to start soon, as part of the 2021-2027 budget framework. The fight against illegal fishing and enhancing the role of regional fisheries management organisations were the other two priorities outlined.
MEPs called for funds going to the EMFF not to be cut, even after Brexit takes place. The Minister committed to work to find a fair balance on the EMFF amid the different positions of member states on this file. Members also questioned the Presidency on international fisheries agreements, namely the soon-to-expire deal with Mauritania as well the ones with Guinea-Bissau and Morocco, all of which represent important opportunities for the EU fleet.
Economic and Monetary Affairs
ECOFIN Chair and Finance Minister Mika Lintilä said, on Wednesday 4 September, that the Presidency plans to make progress on the capital markets union and the banking union, including tackling banks’ non-performing loans as well as work on the European deposit insurance scheme (EDIS). Also high on the priority list is the fight against tax fraud and profit shifting, together with harmonised digital taxation in the EU and a financial transaction tax. Finally, the Presidency wants to make the EU’s financial infrastructure more resilient to cyber threats and intertwine economic and environmental policies to fight climate change.
MEPs were pleased with the priorities presented to them, but insisted on EU action against climate change, money laundering and tax evasion. They expect concrete proposals on digital taxation and green finance. Finally, committee members were more sceptical about completing the banking union and the EDIS, pointing out the lack of political will and resistance to risk sharing.
Culture and Education
Education Minister Li Andersson presented on Wednesday 4 September three key priorities: lifelong learning, removing all existing barriers to mobility in the culture sector as well as making education more effective and improving the quality of education. MEPs asked the Presidency to step up support for vocational training, development of digital skills in education, as well as inclusion and the fight against discrimination. They also insisted that Erasmus must be adequately financed during the negotiations for the next budgetary period of the programme.
Science and Culture Minister Hanna Kosonen, during the same meeting, highlighted the Creative Europe programme as the main priority in this field. She said that her work will focus on further developing the audiovisual sector, including new technologies, high quality content, engagement with the audience and digital transformation. In the field of youth, Kosonen underlined the quality of youth work, training for young workers and digital youth work as main priorities, while the fight against corruption and doping are the priorities for the sport sector.
Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
Finland is determined to move forward with the Article 7 procedures against Hungary and Poland, said Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson to the Civil Liberties Committee on Wednesday 4 September. She stressed that “rule of law is the glue that keeps the European Union together”. Henriksson also highlighted the importance of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and promised to work closely with the Parliament to ensure that a European Chief Prosecutor is appointed swiftly.
Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo underlined that “the European asylum system needs to be reformed” and assured MEPs that Finland will do its utmost to build trust among member states. Regarding the situation in the Mediterranean, Ohisalo stated that “we have to stop the deaths; we are not doing well at all”. Assuming that a permanent mechanism will take time, she proposed a temporary scheme to ensure quick disembarkation of people rescued at sea, involving many member states on a voluntary basis.
MEPs welcomed the presidency’s priorities, but demanded further explanation on the review of the rule of law tool box and the measures to be taken to find solutions in the field of migration management. They also quizzed the ministers on internal security topics, specifically the possible extension of the exchange of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data to rail and ship passengers.
Trade Minister Ville Skinnari, replying to International Trade Committee Members’ questions on enforcing trade and sustainable development chapters in trade agreements, in particular the Mercosur deal with Latin-American countries, emphasised that trade policies must be value-based and handled taking into account the environment, gender equality, human rights and rights of employees. “A mercantilistic win-lose attitude to trade is the wrong way of looking at it,” he said.
Trade Committee MEPs also asked the minister about the reform of the World Trade Organisation, a future trade deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom, and the Council’s progress on dual use regulation.
Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson said the Presidency’s goal is to strengthen the rule of law and justice toolbox, which includes joint training of legal professionals, support for civil society and reinforcing the European justice scoreboard. “In the future, digitalisation and technological advances can help contribute to speeding up and improving access to justice”, she said.
Priorities include ensuring a fair and predictable environment for companies, combating tax evasion and finding a way to take the proposal on country-by-country reporting forward in the Council. The Presidency will also work to reach an agreement on the representative action directive ( part of the New Deal for Consumers) by the end of the autumn. MEPs welcomed the Presidency’s ambition to prioritise rule of law as a main concern and raised questions ranging from Artificial Intelligence to the impact of climate change on human rights, tax evasion and gender balance.
Internal market and consumer protection
“Our priorities are closely linked with the objective of achieving sustainability”, said the Employment Minister Timo Harakka to Internal Market and Consumer Protection MEPs on Monday, 2 September. He highlighted in particular the sustainable growth agenda and its importance from an economic, environmental and social perspective. The digital economy, including digital services, implementing consumer protection laws efficiently and the MFF files related to the single market and customs are also high on the Presidency’s programme, the Minister confirmed.
Digitalisation, artificial intelligence, support for SMEs, geoblocking, digital skills, product safety, customs and dual quality of products were among the issues discussed further with MEPs. On Brexit, Mr Harakka said: “We are prepared for many outcomes, but unexpected things can happen”.
Strengthening EU ties with Africa, working together in the Arctic, boosting common action to counter hybrid threats, while continuing to combat climate change were some of the priorities outlined by Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto, on Monday 2 September. He also advocated the introduction of qualified majority voting when making decisions on foreign policy in the Council, to ensure the EU has a more united voice internationally. On enlargement, the Minister said he was in favour of opening accession negations with Albania and North Macedonia, while still keeping the dialogue with Turkey open, despite the latter having drifted in the wrong political direction for many years.
MEPs questioned the Minister on Iran, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Russia, the Amazon, Ukraine and the Western Balkans. While some Members criticised the EUs’ efforts to tackle irregular migration and welcome potential new member states, most support the Presidency’s proposals to strive for qualified majority voting in the Council. They also called on the Finnish government to support maintaining sanctions against Russia.
Hearings held between Monday 22 and Thursday 25 July:
Industry, Research and Energy:
Economic Affairs Minister Katri Kulmuni underlined on Tuesday that Finland will promote a modern industrial policy driven by the digital economy, with a strong focus on research and innovation to create sustainable growth in the EU. This will also be significant in the transition towards a climate-neutral economy. She also said that an agreement among member states on the EU’s 2021-2027 budget is an important objective. Transport and Communications Minister Sanna Marin told MEPs that building citizens’ trust in new technology should also be a priority, for instance on artificial intelligence.
MEPs welcomed the presentation, but stressed the need to be ambitious on the EU’s long-term budget, as an increase in funds, not least for research and technology, is needed to promote jobs and growth. The Committee Chair also urged the Presidency not to cut EU funding for research and innovation in the 2020 budget, as proposed by the Council.
Economic Affairs Minister Katri Kulmuni also presented on Tuesday the priorities in the field of regional development, which include making EU cohesion policy more result-oriented, efficient and thematically focused. She also stressed the important role it has in boosting research and innovation as well as in creating resilience to globalisation.
MEPs welcomed the announcement of the minister that the Presidency is ready to resume inter-institutional negotiations as soon as possible, with priority given to ensuring a prompt start of “next generation programmes”.
Employment and Social Affairs:
Employment Minister Timo Harakka told MEPs on Wednesday that the most important goal of the Presidency is ensuring a sustainable future. To achieve this goal, Finland will promote “an accelerated transition to a climate-neutral economy in a way that is socially sustainable”, he added.
Improving workers’ skills as well as protecting workers were among the issues debated. Questioned by MEPs on measures to assist people with disabilities into work, the Minister said they are currently drafting Council conclusions on promoting the employment of persons who have difficulty accessing the job market. Mr Harakka told MEPs that he is looking forward to further work on a possible EU minimum wage, while Social Affairs and Health Minister Aino-Kaisa Pekonen stressed that the European Semester and the EU Social Pillar should integrate the aspect of wellbeing.
Development and EU-ACP Relations:
The Minister of Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari stressed the importance of climate action, implementing the 2030 Agenda, values-based foreign policy, in particular gender equality and a partnership with Africa, on Wednesday. Given the extremely worrying context, the minister highlighted the need to defend humanitarian action based on the principles and respect of international law, as well as on support for vulnerable populations.
MEPs welcomed the minister’s focus on climate and stressed the importance of addressing gender inequalities and sexual violence in conflicts, as well as examining how to respond to the increasing number of forced displacements caused by climate change and the need for greater coherence of other EU policies with development goals.
Transport and Tourism:
Europe needs a broader offering of transport services, and automation will be key to solve environmental and safety challenges, Transport and Communications Minister Sanna Marin told MEPs on Wednesday. Regarding the legislative proposals tabled so far, the Presidency will try to reach a position on rail passenger rights and Eurovignette, will continue working on summer time arrangements and is ready to negotiate on the Mobility Package. They would also like to put air passengers’ rights back on the agenda.
Economic Affairs Minister Katri Kulmuni, responsible for tourism, said that the main priority in this field will be to boost digitalisation of the tourism sector to accelerate growth and employment.
MEPs voiced support for concluding the legislative work on the Single European Sky and Eurovignette proposals. They also quizzed the ministers on rail transport, how to overcome differences on the mobility package, the proposal to open up coach and bus markets, how to ensure that there is a reduction in traffic levels with increasing automation as well as financial support for the tourism sector under the new EU long-term budget.