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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 26 Jan 2018

posted by eucentresg

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Social media promise to do more on privacy and blocking hate speech in the EU
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, on Tuesday (23 Jan) said the US social media giant is rolling out a new global privacy centre as part of its initiative to meet the criteria of the EU´s tougher data protection regulation, to be implemented in May. According to Sandberg, the new privacy centre will put the core privacy settings for Facebook in one place and make it much easier for people to manage their personal data.

Her statement came ahead of an ongoing Irish court case initially triggered by Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems against Facebook Ireland for violating the privacy rights of European users and helping a US spy agency. The Court of Justice, the EU highest court, ruled on Thursday (25 Jan) that Schrems could bring a case against the US company as an individual, but could not bring claims on behalf of the more than 25,000 signatories to his lawsuit (i.e. class action lawsuits).Schrems was claiming 500 euros ($620.55) in damages for each of the signatories to his lawsuit.

While common in the US as a way to keep corporate behavior in check, class action lawsuits, in which claims shared by an entire class of people are heard in a single case, are rarely recognised in Europe. Nevertheless, the legal battle will have major implications for data transfers to the US.

The privacy centre is also part of the Facebook’s reflection on the role of it should play in modern democratic life. In a rare admission on Monday (22 Jan), Facebook acknowledged that the explosion of social media poses a potential threat to democracy, and pledged to tackle the problem head-on and turn its powerful platform into a force for “good”.

In particular, Facebook has been criticised widely for failing to stop the spread of misinformation among its two billion users – most strikingly leading up to the 2016 US election. After investigation, Facebook recently concluded that Russian actors created 80,000 posts that reached around 126 million people in the US over a two-year period. Now the social media promised to end voter meddling before the 2018 mid-term elections.

As with foreign meddling, the spread of hate speech is also seen as a threat to the well-functioning of democracy in Europe. In 2016, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube signed on to a EU code of conduct, agreeing to review all reports of hate speech on their platforms within 24 hours and taking down flagged posts if necessary. (Google+ and Instagram will sign the code of conduct as well.) The EU has since kept close tabs on the companies’ performances and EU officials reported late last week that the tech giants had improved substantially since May of last year. EU Commissioner Vĕra Jourová said in a press conference that the social networks had together reviewed 81 percent of hate speech reports within 24 hours and removed 70 percent of reported posts. He added that the results were “encouraging” and hence the Commission would allow the companies to continue self-regulating rather than to introduce new legislation.

 

Roadblocks Ahead for EU Trade Agreements with Southeast Asian countries
EU-Vietnam FTA may fall into abeyance because of the marked lack of improvement of worker’s rights. The EU-Vietnam FTA, which was concluded in 2015 would have seen tariffs on Vietnam’s imports slashed completely within a 7-year frame. However, since its conclusion, the FTA has been attacked by human rights activists as not doing enough to protect workers’ rights. The EU Ombudsman’s, acting on a complaint by 2 NGOs in 2014, had urged the European Commission to conduct a human rights impact assessment in advance of the negotiations with Vietnam. However this was rejected by the Commission. The issue over workers rights in Vietnam looked set to impact to ratification of the EU-Vietnam FTA. It has come to the forefront with the European Parliament “holding a gun to Malmström’s head over Vietnam”. Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) of the S&D group has threatened that the FTA “will remain in the drawer” if there are no clear commitment and timeline for concrete reforms.

Considering Vietnam’s imports to the EU stood at €33.1 billion in 2016 alone, it has a lot to lose in the event of a EU sanction. The authoritarian one-party state has had sufficient warnings about giving more rights to factory workers. Facing a possible blowback, Vietnam may take an emollient line, promising to strengthen labour unions and remedy work conditions. The costs associated with improving work conditions could plausibly offset larger gains Vietnam can enjoy from improved access to the EU market.

The issue over the EU-Vietnam FTA is also considered a set-back for the EU in its push to open up Asian markets, and its purported commitment to resist protectionism by taking a more proactive approach towards pursuing free trade agreements. However this seems to run against Fresh President Emmanuel Macron assertive tone of promising “a Europe that protects”. Macron wants to hit back against populist parties by showing that the EU can cushion its workers against untrammelled free trade and unfair competition from Asian sweatshops. To do so, he wants to include sanctions in trade deals with countries that have a poor record on labor rights.

Workers’ rights may not be the only stumbling block in EU’s pursuit of FTA with Southeast Asian countries. Since November, when the European Commission reviewed the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) as part of the EU’s Clean Energy Package, talks about a complete ban on biofuel have resulted in tensions with Indonesia and Malaysia. Fractious sentiments have led to strong words being tossed around including “discrimination” and “apartheid”. Last Friday, close to 2000 palm oil smallholders took to the streets to protest against the ban. They argued that the EU’s blanket ban encroaches into the livelihoods of palm oil producers, and is antithetical of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty. On Monday (22 Jan), in alignment with the protesters, Malaysia’s trade minister Mustapa said that “the EU’s backing of a ban as a “potential violation of WTO rules”. The strong reactions from Malaysia and Indonesia are to be expected, seeing that the Malaysia and Indonesia, together produce nearly 90% of the world’s palm oil.

Whilst the EU Parliament remains sensitive about the complexities surrounding this issue, and acknowledges the different actors involved, they remain steadfast in their environmental commitments. In a laudable turn of events, plans are under way in Malaysia to aggressively promote sustainable palm oil, including Malaysia’s National certification of sustainability, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). The government hopes to set the MSPO standard as compulsory by the end of 2019.

If the ban goes through, billions of euros of European imports are at stake, as well as the livelihood of palm oil producers in Southeast Asia. Already, the indecisive market direction has led to a plunging of palm oil prices.

 

Franco-German unity on EU reform and bilateral cooperation
Prior to the 55th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty on Monday (22 Jan), French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met on Friday (19 Jan) in Paris and pledged to push forward with EU integration and to strengthen the Franco-German relations. The two countries also prepared a joint declaration to form the basis of the new Franco-German Elysée Treaty. Merkel and Macron released a joint video statement in which they declared their “determination to further deepen cooperation” between their countries. On Monday – during a simultaneous session – the national Parliaments in both countries backed the resolution to mark the accord. Also the Presidents of each Parliament were invited to their counterpart’s institutions and reaffirmed the importance of Franco-German relations. “France and Germany are not simply a couple: our two countries form a family!” said the President of the French National Assembly Francois de Rugy, while Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble called for “further developing together the basis of our close relations”.

The first Elysée Treaty of 1963, signed by then-President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, was a landmark of post-war reconciliation and cooperation between the two countries. The Treaty provided for the leaders of the two countries to meet regularly, and also promoted cooperation on education and youth issues. Hence, in reaffirming the importance of the Elysee Treaty, the members of German Parliament and Merkel wanted to send a strong foreign policy signal, that despite period of political uncertainty in Germany. Franco-German relations are as crucial as ever.

Germany still does not have a government four months after last September’s general elections. However, an end to the political deadlock may finally be in sight, after Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) on Sunday (21 Jan) gave the green light to enter into formal coalition talks with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) to form a so-called grand coalition. The SPD met at a special party congress, where 56% of delegates voted in favour of the preliminary coalition deal. SPD leader Martin Schulz, who initially opposed another grand coalition argued that the party had a responsibility to its own voters as well as Germany’s European partners, who need Germany in order to push forward with European reforms. However, Sunday’s result are considered a defeat of Schulz since he failed to win the strong endorsement he was looking for. Nevertheless, assuming the two parties now manage to agree on a coalition deal, this will have to be voted on by the 400,000 SPD members, meaning the government would not take office until Easter. If approved, the government would be Germany’s third grand coalition since 2005. Interestingly the SPD have recorded a sudden increase in memberships since Sunday’s vote. The party’s youth wing is campaigning for new members to influence the final vote on the coalition deal. Macron opined that the preliminary deal signed between the two main German parties reveals “a real ambition for the European project.”

 

Continuing stalemate in Catalonia
Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was formally nominated as the candidate for the regional presidency last week by speaker of the Catalan Parliament Roger Torrent, despite Madrid’s threat to maintain direct rule. Puigdemont floated the idea that he would govern via Skype from his self-imposed exile in Brussels – an idea immediately dismissed by Spanish Prime Minister (PM) Mariano Rajoy. Puigdemont was charged with sedition and rebellion for declaring the region’s independence and could face up to 30 years in prison if arrested and put on trial. Puigdemont told reporters in Brussels that there are “many possibilities” for him to be voted or sworn in as regional president, ideally “in person”. However, a return to Spain is risky since he will be arrested, and it was reported that the Spanish government has been “on guard” against him sneaking back to Barcelona.

Interestingly, on Monday (22 Jan) Spain’s Supreme Court rejected the state prosecutor’s request to reactivate a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont. The court said in a statement it would postpone the decision until “constitutional order” had returned to the region. The court’s decision came on the same day that Puigdemont arrived in Denmark to give a speech at the University of Copenhagen, despite warnings that he could face arrest while in Denmark. This was presumably his first trip outside Belgium after he fled to Brussels in October. Puigdemont’s trip to Denmark sparked Madrid’s anger. Also Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena accused Puigdemont of travelling to Denmark “to provoke his arrest abroad” as part of a wider strategy to legitimise his efforts to resume his role as Catalan President.

On Wednesday (24 Jan) Puigdemont met with Torrent in Brussels, despite Madrid’s demand to the Catalonia representative office in Brussels to bar the meeting. However, when Torrent did not oblige, Madrid closed Catalonia’s office in Brussels under the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which strips Catalonia of its autonomy. The office is closed until further notice.

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