EU awaits next step in UK talks this WEEK
By Eric Maurice
As Europe counts down to the mid-February EU summit, where leaders want to strike a deal with the UK on EU reforms, this week will be a crucial one.
After months of closed-doors talks, European Council president Donald Tusk is expected to send to all players a draft of the proposals to satisfy the four British demands on economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and immigration.
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The most problematic of the four "baskets" has been the immigration one, in which British prime minister David Cameron is asking for a four-year ban on in-work benefits for EU migrants.
A potential way to satisfy Cameron, without enacting a discriminatory measure, would be to introduce an "emergency brake" on migration for all EU countries. If there was an important influx of migrants that would put strain on a country's resources and public services, the brake could be triggered to limit benefits for people arriving in that country.
Tusk's draft will be sent when last details have been hammered out in meetings between Cameron and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (29 January), as well as Cameron and Tusk on Sunday.
It will then be up to the UK's 27 EU partners to assess the proposal and see whether an agreement is possible at the 18-19 February European Council. If so, a referendum on Britain's membership of the bloc could be organised as soon as June.
Juncker will be in Strasbourg on Wednesday (3 February) to debate with MEPs in preparation for the summit. It is possible a draft will have been presented by that time.
Migration and Turkey
The commission chief certainly will be asked about the handling of the migrant crisis, which will be on the table at the summit as well.
This week the commission will send to member states a Schengen evaluation report on Greece, which will ask the Greek government to address "serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border controls".
The Greek government has defended itself by saying that it has not received all the support promised by other member states. It also has said that the solution to the crisis depends on Turkey, where most migrants transit.
The EU-Turkey action plan agreed in October seems to have stalled and no progress has been made in recent days on the €3 billion EU fund to help Turkey deal with refugees on its territory.
Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, who was the EU main negotiator of the action plan, will be grilled by MEPs on Tuesday (2 February). He will answer questions on the state of play on the fund and the situation at the Schengen area's external borders.
The parliament plenary week in Strasbourg will be an opportunity to take stock of several other important issues.
Sunday (31 January) is the deadline set by European data protection authorities to find a new agreement between the EU and the US on the Safe Harbour data exchange mechanism.
The previous deal was struck down by the EU Court of Justice in October because it did not give enough guarantees on the protection of personal data.
As the deadline, which is not legally binding, approaches, a commission spokesman said on Friday that the EU did not want "an agreement at any price" but one that "lives up the benchmark set by the ECJ".
On Monday (1 February), one day after a deal is supposed to be closed, justice commissioner Vera Jourova will be heard by the EP committee for civil liberties, justice, and home affairs.
Also on Monday, trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem will debate with MEPs about whether the EU should recognise China as a market economy. The college of commissioners held an orientation debate on the issue earlier in January but did not give its opinion.
It seems, however, that legally the EU will have to grant China the status before the end of this year.
On Wednesday MEPs will vote on a proposal to veto a commission proposal to relax limits on diesel car emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by up to 110 percent.
The plan was put forward as a response to the Volkswagen scandal, in order to reduce the discrepancy between the current regulations and actual car emissions. But many consider it a giveaway to cheating carmakers.
Meanwhile, Spain will still expect a government to be formed, after the elections on 20 December. On 21 January, outgoing centre-right prime minister Mariano Rajoy admitted he had no majority to endorse a cabinet. But the main opposition leader, socialist Pedro Sanchez, is refusing a proposition from the radical left Podemos party.
The Spanish King Felipe VI is currently holding a round of talks with party leaders and will meet Rajoy again on Tuesday (2 February).
The week will end with an informal dinner in Strasbourg between French president Francois Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the EU Parliament president Martin Schulz.