The plenary session on 21 and 22 January 2015 was attended by MsVaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former Latvian President, who gave a statement on economic growth and social solidarity in Europe, and by MsZanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica, Parliamentary Secretary, Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who presented the work programme of the Latvian presidency-in-office of the EU Council.
The following opinions were adopted at the session:
Rapporteur: Paulo Barros Vale (Employers – PT)
References: COM(2014) 473 final – EESC-2014-04756-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The report bears witness to European efforts to make Europe a better place but it also indicates the difficulty of achieving this. The crisis has increased economic and social disparities, worsening the differences between Member States.
Cohesion policy should continue to pursue its original objective, enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, of promoting social, economic and territorial cohesion, placing cooperation and solidarity at the service of harmonious development and creating prosperous communities.
In many cases, cohesion policy will be the main source of investment; it needs to be more ambitious, or even radically reviewed, pending an upturn in growth and employment. Cohesion policy resources are manifestly insufficient to solve the real problems. Alternative forms of convergence financing will thus have to be found to bring cohesion policy to a new stage.
Cohesion policy must continue to strive to promote economic growth and competitiveness, while not forgetting social objectives in support of smart and inclusive growth.
Contact: Magdaléna Carabin Belarova
Human and veterinary medicines / European Medicines Agency
Rapporteur: Renate Heinisch (Various interests – DE)
References: COM(2014) 557 final – 2014/0256 (COD) – EESC-2014-06070-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The EESC generally endorses the Commission proposal while believing that a number of points could be improved upon to ensure that the objectives of improving the availability of veterinary medicines, reducing red tape and promoting innovation and competitiveness, as well as enhancing the functioning of the internal market, are really achieved.
Contact: Claudia Drewes-Wran
Rapporteur: José María Espuny Moyano (Employers - ES)
References: COM(2014) 556 final – 2014/0255 (COD)
COM(2014) 558 final – 2014/0257 (COD) - EESC-2014-05960-00-00-AC-TRA Key points: The EESC believes it is necessary and appropriate to update European legislation on medicated feed so as to ensure uniform conditions for manufacturing, placing on the market and using medicated feed, while protecting the health and welfare of animals and the expectations of consumers. The EESC urges that minor species and aquaculture, where the availability of veterinary medicinal products is a problem, should have access to medicated feed and that barriers preventing manufacturing and distribution from running smoothly be lowered. The EESC realises that there will be carry-overs to non-target feed of the active substances contained in medicated feed, although these carry-overs must take place in accordance with the ALARA principle (As Low As Reasonably Achievable). The EESC also underlines the need to establish criteria, such as target values, to ensure the appropriate homogeneity of medicated feed.
The Committee notes that vets or skilled qualified professionals must comply with their duty not to carry out routine preventative treatments using antimicrobials, although there are cases where such treatment is needed to ensure the health and wellbeing of animals and ultimately, public health.
Animal health has a strategic importance given its impact on animal wellbeing and welfare, public health and food safety, the environment and the rural economy. Therefore, the availability of authorised veterinary medicinal products is crucial so that vets or skilled qualified professionals have at their disposal sufficient tools to control, prevent and treat animal diseases. The EESC considers that access to safe and effective antibiotics is a key element of the tools that vets rely in this context.
The EESC believes that the current legislation entails significant red tape for industry, which has a negative impact on the innovation that is needed; it therefore welcomes the introduction of streamlined rules to be applied during the authorisation procedures as well as during the subsequent oversight, the changes to the marketing authorisations, etc. which are aimed at reducing these administrative constraints, though there is room for improvement in the proposal.
Effective, accessible and resilient health systems
Rapporteur: José Isaías Rodríguez García-Caro (Employers – ES)
References: COM(2014) 215 final - EESC-2014-05569-00-01-AC-TRA
Key points: The EESC calls on the Commission and the Member States to work together as fast as possible on the strategic guidelines the communication proposes, coordinating their efforts.
In the interests of the greatest well-being of the EU citizens, the Member State health systems must remain firmly rooted in principles and values such as universality, accessibility, equity and solidarity. Without these fundamental principles we cannot create a social dimension for Europe, and they must therefore be safeguarded and protected in all EU policies connected with citizens' health.
We firmly believe that the economic crisis cannot be resolved with measures that ultimately reduce the European citizens' rights to health protection. Despite healthcare costs and prices, health is not a commodity, and it must not, therefore, depend on people's purchasing power.
Increasing the effectiveness of health systems means ensuring the value of resources, linking the concept of scientific and technical quality with that of efficiency and sustainability as the basic vision of health organisation and professional practice, while still fully respecting the patient.
The EESC considers it unacceptable that, in the early 21st century, we still have to admit that we lack comparable data. We call on the Commission and the Member States to press ahead with the adoption of a set of reliable indicators that will enable measures to be studied and adopted at EU level.
The EESC considers the fight against health inequalities to be a priority. The differences between social, economic and political environments are decisive factors in the distribution of illnesses. Member States must therefore commit to ensuring that healthcare is delivered in an equitable way.
High-quality technical and scientific training is indispensable if we are to have highly-trained professionals who can successfully meet the healthcare needs of the EU public.
We believe that promoting primary care as a fundamental component of the healthcare provided by health systems can help improve the health results of these systems and reduce costs, thus making them more financially sustainable.
The EESC considers that efforts to contain pharmaceutical costs and the costs of high technologies are needed, as these are elements which have a decisive impact on the sustainability of health systems.
Land grabbing – a warning for Europe and a threat to family farming
Rapporteur: Kaul Nurm (Various interests - EE)
Own initiative opinion: EESC-2014-00926-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: Some EU policy areas have direct or indirect effects on land grabbing in the EU and worldwide. These include the bioeconomy, trade and agricultural policy. A prime example is the EU requirement to increase the share of biofuels and permitting of duty-free and quota-free sugar imports, which are behind certain land grabbing projects in Asia and Africa.
According to data from various sources, in Romania up to 10% of agricultural land is now in the hands of investors from third countries and a further 20-30% is controlled by investors from the EU. In Hungary one million hectares of land was acquired in secret deals using capital primarily from EU Member States. Although foreigners will not be allowed to buy land in Poland until May 2016, it is well known that 200 000 hectares have already been acquired by foreign investors, mainly from EU countries.
To protect family farms so that small-scale farming can offer a viable alternative to industrialised agriculture and to the land grabbing that this entails, active measures must be taken to protect family farms, including aid measures for producer organisations and measures to combat unfair trading practices. Policy measures at EU and at national level can help to make family farming more sustainable and more resilient.
The EESC calls on all EU Member States to implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance on Tenure (VGGT) and to report to the European Commission and the FAO on the use and application of the VGGT in their land governance policies.
The EESC calls on the European Parliament and the Council to discuss whether the free movement of capital in respect of the alienation and acquisition of agricultural land and agribusinesses should be guaranteed, particularly in relation to third countries, but also within the EU.
Situation after the expiry of the milk-quota system in 2015
Rapporteur: Padraig Walshe (Various interests - IE)
Own initiative opinion: EESC-2014-05123-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The EESC considers the abolition of the milk quota system from 31 March 2015, as decided in 2008, to be a fundamental change. Since the introduction of this comprehensive method of guiding production on 1 April 1984, it has over time become increasingly clear that dairy prices and farmers' incomes have not been sufficiently effectively supported and stabilised and that dairy production in the EU has decreased, while rising significantly worldwide.
The EESC argues that EU dairy policy after expiry of the milk quota system, i.e. post-2015, must not only allow for growth and expansion but should also be obligated to avoid abandonment of dairying and to provide support for smaller farmers especially in disadvantaged areas and mountainous regions. It must allow EU farmers and ultimately the EU economy to benefit from growing global dairy markets, while recognising and fostering the equally valuable economic and social contribution made by small-scale disadvantaged dairy farms in many European regions.
However, the EESC considers that the Pillar II budgets and measures, or the measures in the Milk Package which now forms part of CAP 2014-2020, will certainly not suffice to protect vulnerable dairy farmers whether within or outside disadvantaged or mountainous areas. Additional measures may be required to ensure those farmers receive viable incomes and a fair share of market returns. They should also benefit from advisory services on production efficiency, diversification and re-orientation to help them make the best decisions for their future and that of their successors, bearing in mind the limitations of disadvantaged enterprises in terms of income generation capacity.
The EESC considers it equally critical to ensure that commercial and competitive dairy farmers in all areas, including those more suited to sustainable and competitive dairy production for export are allowed to grow their enterprises to respond to fast rising global demand, and in so doing generate increased employment and revenue for the economy in rural areas of the EU. However, the main challenge for these farmers will be the massive income variations related to the volatility of both dairy commodity prices (and hence producer milk prices) and input costs. It is essential that the EU facilitate the development by Member States and industry of taxation solutions and simple hedging instruments, such as fixed-margin contracts, easily accessible by farmers.
The EESC urges that the inadequate level of the "safety net" provisions built into the new CAP be revised, and kept under ongoing review, to ensure they bear a closer relation to actual production costs.
Rapporteur: Béatrice Ouin (Workers - FR)
Own initiative opinion: EESC-2014-04856-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The purpose of this opinion is to supplement the work carried out by the EESC on immigration and integration, by examining specific issues relating to the position of migrant women on the labour market. Increasing the employment rate of these women is a priority for the European Union, and can only strengthen their integration in society and contribute to economic growth and social cohesion.
On a labour market which remains disadvantageous for women in general (with regard to pay, leadership positions, etc.), immigrant women face two-fold problems, both as women and as immigrants.
The EESC opinion urges the Member States and European to take positive action that takes account of immigrant women's situation, their qualifications, knowledge of the language of the host country and whether they are first- or subsequent generation immigrants.
At EU level, the EESC calls for better use to be made of the European Semester and country-specific recommendations, together with the post-2015 strategy for gender equality, in order to improve the position of migrant women on the labour market, including through support for entrepreneurship.
The EESC also calls for European instruments to be harmonised to ensure that any person residing legally on European territory has immediate access to employment and individual residence rights, irrespective of their matrimonial status.
In addition, the opinion makes a number of specific recommendations to the Member States, including:
organising language courses that meet the specific needs of migrant women, are accessible and oriented towards finding work;
speeding up the process of recognising qualifications and experience gained abroad to enable women to find jobs corresponding to their skills and aspirations;
avoiding de-skilling, which represents a waste of human capital;
considering work in some sectors (such as cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, hotels and catering and agriculture) as offering opportunities for less-qualified migrant women, provided that steps are taken to ensure that these sectors are legalised, professionalised and upgraded and that women are given training in these areas and enabled to develop their careers;
involving the social partners and civil society in policy-making and delivery;
Lastly, the EESC calls on the social partners to ensure that aspects specific to migrant women are incorporated more effectively into the European social dialogue work programme, and to facilitate the recognition of women migrants' qualifications in collective agreements.
Rapporteur: Anna Nietyksza (Employers - PL)
References: COM(2014) 442 final – EESC-2014-05300-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The EESC welcomes the Commission's communication, which calls for the establishment in the European Union of a thriving data-driven economy and thus a digital economy using information technologies.
The EESC stresses that the broad dissemination of information technologies in all areas of society and the economy, culture and education will provide enormous development opportunities, but it is necessary to support IT-related research and development in the technical, economic and social sciences. The EESC regrets the substantial reduction in funding for the financing of digital infrastructure under the Connecting Europe Facility and strongly advocates drawing appropriate conclusions. A new investment plan presented by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in December 2014, aimed at mobilising at least EUR 315 billion in the form of additional public and private investment in key areas such as digital infrastructure, is in this context a welcome policy response.
Finally, the EESC stresses that, in order to protect data and information security, cooperation is needed between national and European level public administrations and electronic communications regulatory bodies and consumer and competition bodies.
Contact:Luca Venerando Giuffrida
Rapporteur: Bernardo Hernández Bataller (Various interests - ES)
Own-initiative opinion: EESC-2014-05117-00-01-AC-TRA
Key points: The EESC acknowledges and is concerned about the prevalence of EHS. It notes that SCENIHR has been extensively analysing this issue in recent years and will shortly be completing its latest opinion, having engaged extensively in public consultation.
The EESC understands that the main conclusions of this report will not differ substantially from the preliminary opinion of 2013 which stated "Overall, there is evidence that exposure to radio-frequency fields does not cause symptoms or affect cognitive function in humans. The previous Scientific Committee’s opinion concluded that there were no adverse effects on reproduction and development from radiofrequency fields at exposure levels below existing limits (…)."
This SCENIHR preliminary opinion also noted that new evidence, compared to its previous opinion of 2009, adds weight to the conclusion that radiofrequency exposure is not causally linked to symptoms.
However, to allay continuing public concern and to uphold the precautionary principle the EESC urges the Commission to continue its work in this area particularly as further research is still needed to accumulate evidence concerning any potential health impact from long-term exposure. For some individuals the prevalence of EMF is seen as a threat – in the workplace, to their families and in public spaces. Similar groups are equally concerned over multiple chemical exposure, widespread food intolerance or exposure to particles, fibres or bacteria in the environment. Such individuals need support, not only in dealing with actual illness symptoms but with the concerns they express about modern society.
The EESC notes that EHS sufferers experience real symptoms. Efforts should be made to improve their health conditions with a focus on reducing disability as detailed in Biomedicine and Molecular Biosciences COST Action BM0704.
Category C opinion References: COM(2014) 318 final – 2014/0164 (COD) – EESC-2014-07101-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: Since the Committee unreservedly endorses the content of the proposal and feels it requires no comment on its part, it decided to issue an opinion endorsing the proposed text.
Situation and operating conditions of civil society organisations in Turkey
Rapporteur: Arno Metzler (Various interests - DE)
Own-initiative opinion: EESC-2014-01568-00-00-AC-TRA
Key points: The own-initiative opinion is partly based ona fact-finding mission organised in July 2014 to consult Turkish civil society organisations. The recommendations of the opinion are providing guidelines to the other EU institutions, especially to the Commission, on how to better support Turkish civil society organisations and improve their working conditions.
The opinion stresses the following points:
The EESC encourages particularly the Turkish government and administration to recognise civil society organisations as an important part of society. The Turkish government and administration are also invited to engage civil society in a formal discussion process (Economic and Social Council), and to enshrine this in the constitution through the constitutional reform process.
The separation of powers between the legislative, judiciary and executive is a key prerequisite in ensuring that civil society organisations can operate. An independent judiciary, in particular, is the basis for any rule of law.
Particular attention should also be paid in EU-Turkey dialogue to the effective implementation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression without fear of individual discrimination or punishment; media freedom; freedom of association and assembly; women's rights; trade union rights; rights of minorities -including religious, cultural or sexual minorities, consumer rights. Turkish civil society organisations should be recognised as a key player in Turkey's approximation process with EU values and acquis.
Certain occupational groups – specifically the liberal professions, such as lawyers, doctors, tax advisors – have a particularly important role to play in making a free society under the rule of law a reality. Accordingly, these professions need effective self-regulation, for example by professional organisations that ensure that they can fulfil their particular responsibilities towards society and individuals without political interference.
Finally, the EESC stresses that social dialogue at national, branch and enterprise level is desirable in Turkey to allow employees and employers to become partners on equal terms. The goal should also be to improve working conditions and occupational health and safety, which must translate into comprehensive rights for workers.
The Committee warmly welcomes this review as an opportunity to deepen EU relations with the five Central Asian countries1 into an effective partnership.
Any attempt by the EU to deepen its relations with the five Central Asian countries must remain on a pragmatic basis and adapted to the changing political, economic and social realities of the region, whilst not neglecting key human rights values and principles.
There is no real sense of regional affinity between these countries, which must be dealt with individually. Any deepening or widening of its involvement here will inevitably affect the EU's wider relations with Russia. The EU must take into account existing power structures in the region, whilst reserving the right to act independently.
The Committee notes that Chinese involvement in the region is growing exponentially. The region is therefore important for EU-China relations and presents a key opportunity to strengthen the EU-China Strategic Partnership, especially through greater cooperation in the areas of energy and transport.
Indeed, the EU's existing Partnership Strategy recognises energy and transport as a priority area. The Committee feels that the viability of EU links with Central Asia's considerable potential energy reserves be based on practical and economic considerations. The Committee strongly recommends that the EU's considerable expertise in enhancing cooperation to improve energy efficiency and deploy renewable energy sources be deployed, as there is significant untapped potential in the region.
The Partnership Strategy places emphasis on human rights, the rule of law, good governance and democratisation. It must encourage confidence building within the existing power structures. Here, the partnership strategy underlines, in particular, the EU's ability to offer "experience in regional integration leading to political stability and prosperity", with specific reference to Member States which joined the EU in 2004 or later. The Committee therefore strongly urges the Latvian presidency to encourage its fellow Member States to share their experiences in handling the transition from command economies, especially if connected with efforts to strengthen the rule of law.
Business and unions have a key role to play in encouraging Central Asian governments to recognise more fully the positive role played by civil society. In this respect, the Committee regrets that the role of the traditional, more rural ashar/hashar forms of community/self-help associations, which are deeply rooted in both nomadic and settled areas of Central Asia, have so far been largely overlooked by the EU, which would appear only to provide funding to well-established professional NGOs. This needs urgent rectification.
The Committee is particularly concerned at reports that the role of the EU Special Representative has not been renewed, and strongly recommends that this post be reinstated as soon as possible.
Youth and Education are particularly important. Here the Committee welcomes the revised, highly sought after EU ERASMUS+ programme, which helps develop even deeper educational ties and mobility at tertiary level, to be accompanied by visa facilitation and fee waivers for the region's most gifted students.
Secondary level education is as important as tertiary level education. The Committee urges increased EU activity and support here, not least through the provision of textbooks (where there is a shortage at secondary level) and wider EU information in local languages. Greater support for teachers should also be considered.
The Committee also recommends the provision of an enhanced media presence in the region through European television and radio networks, such as Euronews or Euranet, with programmes in local languages.