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“Business Taxation for the 21st Century” communication and its impact on businesses

On 18 May, the European Commission published a new communication titled “Business Taxation for the 21st Century”. With this, the Commission presented its EU tax agenda for the short and long term, following the ambitious roadmap set out in the Tax Action Plan of the Fair and Simple Taxation Package, presented last summer.

This agenda builds on the current discussions on tax policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) level, but also goes a lot further. The Commission announced no less than seven new legislative proposals that will have a big impact on companies that are active in the EU, especially with regards to compliance requirements. Most of these proposals are expected to be published in the second half of 2021. In this blog post, Dr2 Consultants will provide you with an overview of the most relevant initiatives of the communication and will highlight how they will impact your business.

EU Digital Levy

On 14 July 2021, the Commission will publish its proposal for a European Digital Levy. There are indications that the Commission will propose a 0.3 to 0.5% tax on turnover from digital services that are provided by companies with a turnover of €250 million. The EU Digital Levy could therefore impact a lot more businesses than only the U.S. big tech companies. It is therefore likely that the proposal will affect tax compliance costs, tax revenues and the competitiveness of EU digital companies, and ultimately consumers. Read more on this topic here.

Directives following the OECD discussions on business taxation

Since 2019, the OECD has been discussing how to address the tax challenges of the digitalization of the economy (Pillar 1) and how to combat tax avoidance through a global minimum tax (Pillar 2). The G7 finance ministers agreed on 5 June 2021 that market jurisdictions should get a bigger share of the corporate income tax revenue and that there should be a global minimum tax rate of 15%. This deal in the G7 brings the agreement in the G20/OECD discussions on tax reform much closer. It is expected that a high-level political agreement in the G20/OECD could already be achieved in the beginning of July 2021, thus clarifying the details of the agreement during the Indonesia Presidency of the G20 in 2022.

Directly following this agreement in June 2021, the Commission will publish (consultations on) proposals for two new directives to ensure uniform implementation of the OECD proposals in the EU. Even though there might be push back from some Member States with regards to a minimum tax rate of 15%, it is likely that these proposed directives will be adopted quickly. These proposals will lead to higher compliance costs as the impacted companies will have to calculate if and which portion of their profits should be taxable where their customers are located.

Fighting tax avoidance (ATAD 3)

To further support its work on business taxation, in Q4 of 2021 the Commission will present a proposal to prevent the misuse of companies with very little substance and without real economic activity (so-called shell companies). By means of this proposal, EU companies will be subject to new compliance requirements, as this will lead to more reporting to the tax administration on the presence of real economic activity in companies in the corporate structure. Particularly with regards to intermediary holdings this proposal could mean much higher reporting requirements to safeguard access to the benefits of tax treaties.

The Commission will also present a proposal in Q4 that will limit the deduction of royalty and interest payments to companies that are located outside of the EU. The aim is to prevent that these types of payments are used to avoid paying tax in the EU. The consequence of these proposals, however, is that much more information will have to be provided to the tax authorities with regards to these payments to safeguard deduction where there are valid business reasons.

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Increasing transparency in business taxation

In the first half of 2022, the Commission will publish a proposal for a directive that requires big companies to publish the effective tax rate they pay over their profits. It is likely that these effective tax rates will need to be published on a country-by-country basis. In addition, it is still unclear if this requirement will only apply to companies with a worldwide turnover of more than €750 million (following from the G20/OECD discussions) or that the EU would put the revenue threshold on €250 million, as they plan to do with the Digital Levy.

Encouraging equity over debt financing

In Q1 of 2022, a proposal for a directive is expected that will make it more attractive to finance investments with equity in order to discourage that companies take on too much debt. The proposal most likely will involve an allowance for equity (ACE). However, the possibility to deduct a percentage of (the mutation of) a company’s equity also comes with new reporting requirements. For instance, it would make it necessary to perform all sorts of corrections to the fiscal equity as it shows on the balance sheet to ensure that the equity cannot be artificially inflated to increase the deduction.

A new framework for business taxation

Finally, the Commission announced a new framework for business taxation in the EU to be published in 2023. The “Business in Europe: Framework for Income Taxation” (BEFIT) will build on the existing proposal for Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) that has been pending since 2011. If adopted, BEFIT will make it possible for companies to file their tax assessment for all their EU activities in one Member State. This one-stop-shop approach should mean a reduction in the administrative burden that companies now have to deal with when filing separate tax assessments in all the Member States where they are active. The experience with the CCCTB so far, however, shows that it is not easy for all the Member States to quickly align on this proposal.

What can Dr2 Consultants do for you?

Dr2 Consultants continuously monitors the developments of the discussion on the new global, EU and national tax regimes, so we can help you keep well-apprised of the relevant developments in the coming months. Should you be interested in further information on any of the EU Commission’s business taxation proposals and how these could specifically impact your business, you can reach out to Dr2 Consultants at info@dr2consultants.eu or find more information on our website. Also, find out how our monitoring services can help your business here.

Digital Services Act

Digital Services Act proposal: the start of a new era in digital regulation

On 15 December, the European Commission published proposals for Regulations on the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), with the goal to reform the digital space, creating a comprehensive set of new rules for all digital services, including social media, online market places, and other online platforms that operate in the European Union.

The proposed Regulation on a Digital Services Act aims to update the eCommerce Directive (ECD) from the year 2000 as well as introduce new binding, harmonized, EU-wide obligations which will have a significant impact on a wide range of digital services that connect consumers to goods, services and content. This blog post sheds some light on some of the main provisions of the Digital Services Act and their subsequent impact on businesses.

Which companies will be affected by the new Digital Services Act proposal?

The Digital Services Act proposal includes rules for online intermediary services. The obligations of different online players match their role, size and impact in the online ecosystem. Among the regulated groups are intermediary services offering network infrastructure (Internet access providers, domain name registrars), hosting services such as cloud and webhosting services, online platforms bringing together sellers and consumers such as online marketplaces, app stores, collaborative economy platforms and social media platforms, and very large online platforms. All online intermediaries offering their services in the EU Single Market, whether they are established in the EU or outside, will have to comply with the new rules. Micro and small companies will have obligations proportionate to their ability and size while ensuring they remain accountable.

An asymmetric approach: different obligations for different players

The Digital Services Act will introduce a series of new, harmonized EU-wide obligations for digital services, carefully graduated on the basis of those services’ size and impact. All intermediaries falling under the scope of the DSA will have obligations in terms of transparency and fundamental rights protection and would have to cooperate with national authorities. Additionally, all intermediaries not established in the EU but offering services in the Union will have to designate a legal representative in one of the Member States where the provider offers its services. The absence of general monitoring obligations, already enshrined in the ECD, will remain in place in the Digital Services Act. Additionally, the Commission has introduced a “good Samaritan” principle, under which providers of intermediary services are not excluded from liability exemptions because they carry out voluntary activities to detect and remove illegal content.

Dr2 Academy Trainings - 22 September and 18 November 2021

For online platforms and hosting services, the proposal includes requirements for more detailed notice & action provisions. The proposal also introduces the concept of trusted flaggers, appointed by Member States authorities, whose notices should be processed with priority. Furthermore, the proposal introduces a “Know your business customer” principle, under which platforms will be required to obtain and verify identification information from the traders prior to allowing them to use their services. Finally, transparency obligations for online advertising will require online platforms to provide their users information on the sources of the ads they see online, including on why an individual has been targeted with a specific advertisement.

Platforms that reach more than 10% of the EU’s population (45 million users) monthly in average will be considered systemic in nature and will be subject to specific obligations to control their own risks. Very large online platforms will have to conduct yearly risk analyses, they will be subject at their own expenses to annual audits, adhere to transparency obligations for recommender systems as well as comply with additional measures for online advertising transparency. Finally, very large online platforms will have to appoint one or more compliance officers responsible for monitoring their compliance with the Digital Services Act Regulation. Member States will have to lay down the rules on penalties applicable to infringements of these rules by providers of intermediary services under their jurisdiction with the maximum not exceeding 6 percent of the annual income or turnover of the intermediary service.

Strengthened enforcement & cross-border cooperation

EU countries will be required to appoint a so-called “Digital Services Coordinator” to oversee enforcement of the regulation, which will have powers in terms of investigation, enforcement (including fines) and the imposition of access restrictions. Additionally, the coordinator would have the possibility of cooperating cross-border by requesting another digital service coordinator in a country of establishment to carry out an investigation. An independent advisory group of Digital Services Coordinators named the “European Board for Digital Services” will be established, which will contribute to the guidance and consistent application of the regulation and assist the digital service coordinators. For the case of very large platforms, the Commission will have direct supervision powers and, in the most serious cases, will be able to impose fines of up to 6 percent of the global turnover of a service provider.

What implications could the Digital Services Act proposal have for businesses?

Industry stakeholders’ responses to the proposal are mixed, with overall positive reactions to the extra harmonization measures, and the preservation of the ECD’s core principles. However, many raise concerns about the Act’s compatibility with other existing legislation, such as the Platform-to-Business Regulation and the Omnibus Directive, as well as the way the trusted flaggers’ concept would work in terms of transparency, an issue raised also by consumer protection groups. The inclusion of the requirement for non-EU companies to have a legal representative in the EU, while burdensome for such companies, has so far been accepted positively by European players as it would ensure a level playing field within the Single Market. Relating to the fines, the issue has been raised that the threat of significant fines for non-compliance might lead to preventive removal of content which might otherwise be considered legal, putting companies in the uncomfortable position of risking fines under the Digital Services Act or being criticized for violating freedom of expression by censorship.

Another example of businesses that would be impacted by the new rules are information society services offering a wide range of services such as search engines, cloud services and other platforms. Those businesses generally welcome the fact that the core foundations of the e-Commerce Directive are maintained, i.e. limited liability, no general monitoring obligations and the maintenance of the country of origin principle. However, there will be extra obligations for ‘very large online platforms’, having more than 45 million users across the Union. These platforms will have to provide regulators and outside groups with greater access to internal data, and appoint independent auditors who will determine if these firms are compliant with the new rules. The biggest tech companies will also be forced to provide greater transparency on online advertisements. These extra obligations will require additional resources and also raise a question about the legislative coherence between the Digital Services Act on the one hand, and provisions in for instance the recently published European Democracy Action Plan on the other.

Finally, there have been concerns among Big Tech companies that the criteria for identifying very large platforms need to be clearer and more inclusive, with several accusing the Commission of selection bias. Furthermore, the Digital Services Act is likely to have significant consequences for gig economy companies, such as well-known travel accommodation websites, as the extra requirements against illegal content and the provision of information on users would allow local authorities to require the removal of unregistered properties and receive information on hosts with outstanding tax obligations. City authorities in big European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, had adopted rules against said platforms and the Digital Services Act would allow them to enforce them.

What to expect next in the legislative process?

Following the publication of the Digital Services Act in December, the DSA will likely be the subject of long and arduous discussions in the Council of the EU and in the European Parliament. 

European Parliament

Within the European Parliament, on 29 April, the Conference of Presidents, which gathers the leaders of all political groups, reached an agreement on which committee can take the leadership on the Digital Services Act (DSA), Initially, IMCO was assigned the exclusive competence on the legislative file in view of its impact on the Single Market legislation, but LIBE, JURI and ITRE also argued that they should have competence.

After a long-lasting debate, the President of the Conference of Committee Chairs, Mr. Antonio Tajani, proposed a solution. In order to reach a compromise, Tajani proposed to appoint all committees that challenged the leadership to be “associated” with IMCO under rule 57 of the European Parliament. Collaboration will take place through regular meetings between IMCO, ITRE, LIBE and JURI for the DSA proposal, and the rapporteurs of each committee will participate in all shadow meetings, the drafting of the IMCO reports, trilogue sittings and compromise amendments negotiations. All amendments of the associated committees will be voted in IMCO, while the mandate to enter trialogues will be voted in plenary, instead of committee sitting, to allow all associated committees to jointly vote and re-table amendments.

A parliamentary discussion on IMCO Rapporteur MEP Christel Schaldemose’s (Denmark, S&D) draft DSA report is set for 21 June. Within the LIBE Committee, MEP Patrick Breyer (Germany, Greens/EFA) has been appointed rapporteur. Within the JURI Committee, MEP Geoffroy Didier (France, EPP) has been selected as rapporteur. 

Council of the EU

As confirmed by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, the Digital Services Act is discussed in the Internal Market Working Party, falling within the remit of the Competition Council formation. According to insights into a draft progress report on the DSA from the Portuguese Council Presidency, dated 27 April, there is overall support among the Member States for the ambition of the DSA proposal and the need to swiftly adopt it. A few issues have however been identified as sensitive political and legal issues, such as the need for effective implementation and better coordination between countries, their authorities and the Commission, in particular in terms of cross-border enforcement and the impact on the country-of-origin principle. Questions were also raised on enforcement vis-à-vis service providers established outside of the EU.  Further discussion will be needed on the scope, Article 6, Trusted Flaggers, the protection of trade secrets, out-of-court dispute settlements and the application date. The progress report will be presented to COREPER, after which it can be submitted to the Competitiveness Council on 27 May.

In terms of the time frame for adopting the DSA, France has announced a highly ambitious plan to conclude the negotiations for the proposal during its Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022. The Commission shares this objective for the co-decision process to be finalized in a year and a half, however, it is useful to remember that other recent and major files, such as the General Data Protection Regulation and the Copyright Reform, took respectively 5 and 2.5 years to be adopted.

Dr2 Consultants closely monitors the developments on this file for its clients. If you would like to know more about the proposal, and how it might impact your business, please contact Dr2 Consultants.

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Tax initiatives on the digitalisation of the economy and their implications for businesses

Tax initiatives on the digitalisation of the economy and their implications for businesses

Today, on 12 October, Pascal Saint-Amans, head of tax policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), announced that an agreement on the establishment of a global digital tax would be postponed until mid-2021. The original deadline for the end of negotiations between 137 countries was the end of 2020. However, due to major political differences, particularly on which companies should be included in the new regime and whether the rules would be mandatory, as well as the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, negotiators will need more time. As part of its announcement today, the OECD also published updated proposals for the two areas of its digital tax plan: Pillar 1 and Pillar 2.

In the past few years, the international community has been trying to reform the international tax system in order to address the digitalisation of the global economy. The new global digital tax regime, if adopted, will have an impact on various digital companies. Specifically, the main issue at stake has been the question of where multinational companies should pay taxes: in the country where they are headquartered or in countries where their customers reside. Over the past two years, the OECD has been tasked with designing a global compromise solution, with 137 countries participating in the negotiations. Since May 2019, the OECD has been hosting public consultations and negotiations to address the tax challenges of the digitalisation of the economy (Pillar 1) and to address tax avoidance through a global minimum tax (Pillar 2).

OECD’s proposals to address global tax

The first pillar aims to ensure big digital and multinational companies are taxed in the places where they generate profit, not where they book them. The OECD suggests targeting consumer-facing firms with a significant footprint around the globe, notably revenues of at least €750 million, and whose sales in each country reach a specific revenue threshold. It has been the more contentious OECD approach, with strong disagreements between the United States and several EU countries. The OECD’s second pillar aims to set a global minimum corporate tax rate to stop countries lowering corporate tax rates in an attempt to shift company headquarters to their jurisdictions. The second pillar has proven less controversial and discussions focus mainly on what that rate should be and whether there would be any exceptions. Despite ideas to decouple the two pillars in order to appease the United States and expedite the negotiation process, an agreement cannot be achieved without committing to both pillars.

On 12 October, Mr. Saint-Amans stated that while many of the details of these proposals have been already agreed upon, there are still difficult political choices to be made, including the idea of ‘safe harbor’ making the entire digital tax agreement optional, for which the United States has been negotiating. By accepting a safer harbor regime, governments would have the possibility to choose whether to adopt the rules or not, thus allowing companies to adopt or disregard Pillar 1 of the proposal.

The OECD will present the two blueprints at the meeting of G20 finance ministers on 14 October, for which a report is already available. Furthermore, today a public consultation was launched on the reports of the two blueprints, inviting stakeholders to send their written comments to the OECD by 14 December. Public consultation meetings on the blueprints will be held in January 2021, for which the OECD will publish registration details in December 2020.

OECD’s negotiations: state of play

In June 2020, the United States temporarily withdrew from the OECD negotiations due to the COVID-19 crisis, internal political disagreement and the upcoming Presidential elections. This withdrawal marked a peak in the tensions between the United States and France. In 2019, after France adopted a national digital services tax, the US government launched an investigation, determining that France’s digital tax was unfair because it was discriminating against US companies. The two countries reached an agreement and sanctions were not imposed pending the OECD negotiations. Following the United States’ withdrawal, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy suggested a “phased approach” to the digital tax talks, allowing more concessions so that a compromise remains within reach. The details of such an approach, however, are still not clear. On 9 and 10 October, a final round of negotiations took place, aiming to reach a compromise between the opposing positions of the United States and its EU negotiation partners. Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney urged Europe to support an OECD deal and signalled that the United States would be able to engage more deeply with the negotiations after the Presidential election on 3 November. Following these negotiations, it was announced that an agreement on the global digital tax would be postponed until mid-2021.

EU’s position on digital taxation

According to the European Council conclusions on the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework and Recovery Fund, published on 21 July, the European Commission will present a proposal for the introduction of an EU-wide digital tax in the beginning of 2021 with a view to its introduction at the latest by 1 January 2023. The Commission expects the tax to bring €1.3 billion to the EU in terms of revenue, in case the ongoing OECD negotiations fail to deliver an international agreement by the end of 2020. The Commission’s intention to come up with a proposal for a European digital services tax in the beginning of 2021 has been reaffirmed by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address. Furthermore, on 4 September, during a meeting with national tax officials in the High Level Working Party on Tax Questions, the European Commission presented their plans to launch a new digital tax in the summer of 2021. The tax is meant to feed into the EU budget necessary for the recovery plans. It is not clear how the negotiations at OECD level will impact the EU digital tax, as some say that the tax will come regardless of the progress at OECD level, while the Commission officially states it will only come forward with a new tax proposal if OECD negotiations fail. Following the outcome of the OECD negotiations, it is possible that the Commission might postpone its proposal to allow OECD negotiations to conclude in 2021.

National Digital Services Taxes

A group of EU Member States and the UK have adopted national digital services taxes to remain in force until an international agreement is reached. In 2019, France started applying a 3 percent digital services tax on big tech companies with revenue of more than €750 million of which at least €25 million generated in France. After considering its suspension in January 2020 until the end of the year in the hope of an OECD agreement, Paris recently stated that, in wake of the COVID-19 crisis, such a tax is necessary and will not be suspended. Italy and Austria have been applying their own digital levies of 3 and 5 percent respectively, since January 2020, and the UK has approved a 2 percent tax applied from April 2020. Spain and the Czech Republic are currently in the process of discussing such taxes and the new Belgian government has announced it will start work on a national digital levy in 2023 in case there has been no progress on OECD or EU level beforehand.

Business implications

The OECD proposal for a global digital tax regime will target automated digital services businesses and consumer-facing businesses such as search engines, social media platforms, cloud computing, content streaming and gaming, as well as online marketplaces and businesses selling goods and services to consumers online. It has been clarified that intermediate products and components for consumer products would be out of scope, with some remaining subject to possible exceptions.

Although, generally speaking, one can say that the target of digital taxes are normally large digital companies, the various ways in which these companies integrate the tax into their business models, may also have a direct impact on their business customers/users. With the unilateral development of digital taxes across Europe, some technology companies have decided to take on the additional costs themselves. However, other companies are going to announce price increases for their business customers/users as a result of the adoption of national digital taxes in some EU countries.

Dr2 Consultants continuously monitors the developments of the discussion on the new global, EU and national tax regimes. Should you be interested in further information on digital taxation and how it could impact your business, you can reach out to Dr2 Consultants at info@dr2consultants.eu or find more information on our website.

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EU flag

Back to work: EU legislative proposals – 2020 outlook

As the summer recess is coming to an end, the European Commission will start preparing the EU legislative proposals that are still in the pipeline for 2020, according to the work program. As the second semester of the year will be a packed one, it is key to timely prepare input in order to have your priorities heard.

Following our blog on the EU initiatives that were open for feedback over summer, Dr2 Consultants now guides you through the main remaining proposals for 2020 in the transport, sustainability and digital sector. You can find these below in that particular order.

Transport up-to-speed with the new decade

Emerging developments such as the decarbonization of transport, digitalization and the global COVID-19 pandemic have stressed the need to review the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) Regulation. The TEN-T policy aims to develop and implement a Europe-wide infrastructure network linking ports, highways, airports and railways. With the upcoming revision of this EU legislation, the European Commission aims to bring TEN-T up-to-speed with the ongoing green and digital transitions. The Commission is expected to put renewed emphasis on the strengthening of urban nodes, the update of infrastructure requirements, and the alignment of the TEN-T policy with the EU’s environmental policies.

The Commission is currently finalizing the evaluation of the TEN-T Regulation. The different modes of transport are still invited to contribute to dedicated case studies in the course of September. The European Parliament is currently preparing an own-initiative report on the TEN-T policy. The Transport & Tourism committee will discuss the draft report on 3 September. The Commission is expected to publish a roadmap and a public consultation later this year. A legislative proposal is foreseen for summer 2021.

In addition to the TEN-T, the Commission is expected to publish the EU’s Strategy on Sustainable and Smart Mobility. With this strategy, the Commission intends to adopt a comprehensive strategy to reduce transport-related greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050, and to ensure the transport sector is fit for a clean, digital and modern economy. A public consultation has been opened in the summer and is open for feedback until 23 September.

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Green energy and sustainable production

The energy-focused sibling of TEN-T will also be subject to a revision this year. The Trans-European Energy Network (TEN-E) Regulation aims to link European electricity, gas and oil infrastructure into a single network, consisting of nine corridors. TEN-E focus areas are smart grids, electric highways and the cross-border carbon dioxide network. This EU legislation is considered to be instrumental to realize the renewable energy objectives across the Union, for example in stimulating the hydrogen economy. The Commission will come up with a legislative proposal for a revised TEN-E regulation.

European Green Deal Impact Scan

In addition, several EU legislative proposals will be initiated that will have an impact on producers. Proposals that tackle packaging waste, deforestation and industrial emissions are currently in the pipeline. Striving towards a circular economy, the Commission will promote waste reduction by reviewing the Packaging Directive. This may include improved design standards and increased recycled content in packaging materials. Possibly, packaging design standards will also change as a result of the Deforestation Regulation, which could include labelling requirements and verification schemes to increase the transparency of supply chains. Finally, the Industrial Emissions Directive may require additional sectors, such as farms and extractive industries, to implement available sustainable production techniques. Public consultations on the three initiatives are upcoming this year, and the respective legislative proposals are scheduled for 2021.

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Trustworthy AI and shared data spaces

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly affecting our society. Applications can bring about revolutionary changes in healthcare, governance, research, production and many other areas of our society. On the one hand, opportunities such as the precision of diagnosis, the prevention of car accidents and more efficient farming are promising. On the other hand, AI carries several potential risks, including racial, gender or other discriminatory biases, infringements of our privacy and reduced governance accountability.

Amidst global competition, the European Commission aims to distinguish the EU approach with its emphasis on European values. The EU strategy must embrace opportunities, while protecting citizens from potential harmful impacts. The European approach for trustworthy artificial intelligence will propose ethical requirements for AI, following the general strategy presented in the White Paper, stakeholder consultations and the draft guidelines presented by the High-Level Expert Group on AI in 2018. The initiative will be a review of the draft guidelines, on which stakeholders will be invited to deliver input through the upcoming roadmap.

Another aspect of the EU digital strategy is the regulation of the growing volume of data. Data can give valuable insights that drive innovation in areas such as medicine, mobility and policy-making. The creation of common European data spaces will allow citizens, businesses and organizations to access non-personalized data from different Member States, pooled across different key sectors. European privacy rules (GDPR) and competition law continue to be applied. Although the roadmap has already closed, input can be delivered through the upcoming public consultation. Adoption by the College of Commissioners is expected by the end of 2020.

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Next steps 

Commission proposals on the EU legislative initiatives mentioned above are expected by the end 2020, or in the course of 2021. As the Commission is preparing for a proposal-packed final quarter, it is key to reach out early to have your interests set on the agenda.

Want to know more about the upcoming initiatives, COVID-19, or other files that might affect your business? Please contact Dr2 Consultants to see what we can do for you.

Summer recess – what’s next?

As EU leaders agreed on a new proposal for the new Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Plan on 21 July, the European Parliament was given good food for thought over its summer recess. However, the new long-term budget is not the only priority on the EU agenda. The Commission is already chewing on a series of proposals to be expected later this year and in 2021. In fact, now is the moment to deliver input on some key, planned legislative proposals, as the Commission launched a series of public consultations that are open until after summer. Let’s have a look what is next after the 2020 summer recess.

Transport: smarter and greener

The green and digital transition as the twin priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission are also reflected in the upcoming transport initiatives. To deliver the ambitious European Green Deal climate neutrality objective, the mobility sector needs a 90% emission reduction by 2050. The Strategy for Sustainable and Smart Mobility, expected towards the end of the year, will be the overarching strategy for the delivery of the twin transitions in this area. Stakeholders can contribute to the public consultation until 23 September.

Expectedly, the strategy will include the integration of alternative fuels, in line with the recently published hydrogen strategy that already outlines a pathway for the deployment until 2050 in all modes. The strategy is also complemented by the upcoming FuelEU initiatives for the maritime and aviation sector. The FuelEU Maritime initiative, aimed at boosing alternative fuels in shipping specifically, is open for feedback until 10 September. The public consultation on ReFuelEU Aviation, initially planned for the first quarter of 2020, is still to be expected ahead of the Commission proposal this year.

Sustainability: a bigger role for tax

Taxation will become a more important instrument for the Commission to align consumer choices and business investments with its climate targets. On 23 July, public consultations on both the revision of the Energy Taxation Directive and the creation of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism were launched. Having been unchanged since its adoption in 2003, the Energy Taxation Directive will be subject to a thorough review. The exact changes are yet to be determined based on the consultation outcome, however, what is clear is that it will include a correction of the minimum taxation rates for electricity, gas, and coal, as well as a tax exemption reduction for fossil fuels. The proposal, which is part of the European Green Deal, is scheduled for June 2021. The consultation is open for feedback until 14 October.

In addition, the Commission proposes a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to prevent ‘carbon leakage’. This ‘CO2-tax’ internalizes emissions in the price of a product, so production does not shift to countries with lower climate ambitions. The exact instrument is still to be determined, and could take the form of an EU-wide import tax or an extension of the Emmission Trading System (ETS). The latter has already seen critical responses, as this may not be in line with WTO rules. The Commission plans to scrutinize the issue and present a proposal later this year. The revenues would directly contribute to the ‘own resources’ of the EU budget for the next seven years that would help finance the new €750 billion recovery plan. Stakeholders can deliver their contribution to the plan until 28 October.

Digital: fit for the COVID-19 reality

Following its pledge to make Europe ‘fit for the digital age’, the Digital Education Action Plan and the Digital Services Act are also high on the Commission’s agenda. The Digital Education Action Plan, due to be published in September this year, will be part of the Next Generation EU program. The COVID-19 crisis has seen schools and universities close their doors and increasingly turn to remote, digital teaching. The Action Plan aims to promote high-quality and inclusive education and training in the post-COVID digital reality. Feedback on the proposal can be delivered until 4 September.

Part of the Next Generation EU financing is the digital tax element of the Digital Services Act, to be presented by the end of 2020. The Digital Services Act is an attempt to regulate online platforms when it comes to illegal goods, product safety, political advertising and offensive content. The initiative may face intense debates before its approval, as previous attempts to implement an EU-wide Digital Taxation mechanism have so far been unsuccessful. The consultation remains open until 8 September.

Next steps

The Commission’s proposals on the above initiatives are expected before the end of 2020, except for the Energy Taxation Directive which is due in June next year. From the above-mentioned public consultations, it is evident that the European Commission is gearing up for a busy end-of-year period. Early (proactive) action is desirable for stakeholders that aim to represent their interests on these files, which will also be closely examined by the European Parliament and Council of the EU in 2021 (and later).

Want to know more about the upcoming initiatives, COVID-19, or other files that might affect your business? Please contact Dr2 Consultants to see what we can do for you.

The novelties of the new EU budget

On Tuesday, after almost five days of negotiations, the 27 Member States of the EU reached an agreement on a €1,074 trillion Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), as well as a €750 billion Recovery Fund (Next Generation EU, or ‘NGEU’) for the period of 2021-2027.

The MFF sets out the EU budget for the coming seven years, setting funding priorities and dividing money amongst the different instruments. The long-term budget will, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, be accompanied by the so-called Recovery Fund called ‘Next Generation EU’. The NGEU will in part add additional funds to the existing European funding instruments, but also provide direct loans and grants to those Member States hardest hit by the pandemic.

Member States must leave behind their reservations on taxes and common debts

As was the case in previous EU budgets, Member States contribute a percentage of their gross national income (GNI) to the MFF. The funding of NGEU will, however, be unprecedented in the history of the EU, as it will be funded by the Union as a whole assuming loans on the capital markets. The EU-27 will borrow, through the European Commission, money from the capital markets. This means low interest rates, as all 27 Member States guarantee the loan.

Additionally, the loans will be repaid in part by raising the ‘own resources’ of the EU. These own resources will range from income from an EU-wide plastics tax to the introduction of a digital or financial transaction tax, a novelty in European tax policy where Member States traditionally firmly hold the reins.

Digital high on the agenda, or not?

The digital transition will remain one of the focal points of the EU budget. As such, important funding instruments such as Horizon Europe and Digital Europe are set to receive more funding compared to the current (2014-2020) budget, but less compared to the Commission proposal from May this year. The Digital Europe program, which finances the EU’s cyber defense and artificial intelligence development, will receive €6.80 billion during the coming seven years, a major increase compared to the millions it received in the previous financial framework. However, the proposed fund by the European Council is lower than the program was set to receive in the Commission proposal. Member States aim to streamline existing instruments into the InvestEU program. However, the new agreement downsizes the InvestEU budget to €8.40 billion compared to earlier proposals from the European Commission.

While the digital transition remains high on the agenda, the new EU budget does not draw exact parallels to the EU’s ambitiousness. While the current foreseen budget is higher compared to the current MFF, it lacks the firepower foreseen in the Commission proposal from May to push the EU to become a frontrunner in this area.

Sustainability as a main catalyst

The European Green Deal will also remain one of the main pillars of the EU budget in the European Council’s agreement. According to the new proposal, at least 30% of the total EU expenditure will have to contribute to climate objectives. The question remains exactly how the institutions will enforce the climate funding objective since the European Council remains very vague on the subject, a worry which is shared by the European Parliament.

In this context, the European Council invites the Commission to put forwards proposals for:

  • A carbon border adjustment mechanism, which will prevent the transfer of the production of goods to non-EU countries who happen to have less strict emission rules and ambitions;
  • A levy on non-recycled plastic waste, to be introduced in January 2021, of €0.80 per kilogram to discourage the generation of non-recycled plastic waste;
  • The revision of the Emission Trading System (ETS), to include a smaller amount of emission allowances in order to further boost carbon cuts and a possible extension to the maritime sectors.

Contrarily, the budget suffered several significant cuts during the negotiations in the sustainability policy area compared to the original proposal. For example, the flagship Just Transition Fund, intended to support carbon-intensive regions in the transition to a sustainable economy model, was heavily downsized from €40 billion to €17.5 billion.

Next steps

In order have the new EU budget operational by 1 January 2021, both the European Parliament as well as the national parliaments of the Member States need to approve the European Council’s proposal. However, both have voiced their skepticism towards the compromise that was reached. In the Member States, especially the national parliaments of the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are expected to take a critical stance. Starting September, we expect to have more clarity on the shape of next year’s budget. In an extraordinary plenary session on 23 July, the European Parliament passed a resolution voicing criticism of the EU budget deal in its current form.

Want to know more about the EU budget negotiations, COVID-19, or other dossiers that might affect your business? Please contact Dr2 Consultants to see what we can do for you.

All eyes on Berlin as Germany starts the Council Presidency

On 1 July, Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU from Croatia, for the second half of 2020, which is already dubbed the ‘Corona-Presidency’. The upcoming six months will bring historic challenges as the management of the recovery from the current health crisis will coincide with some fundamental political choices in the EU, and the outcome will determine the future direction of European integration.

As one of the most powerful Member States of the EU takes over at this crucial moment in time, it will have to play multiple roles at the same time.

Crisis management

First and foremost, the German Presidency will have to play its role as ‘crisis manager’ in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on epidemiological developments and assessments, the German Presidency will seek to increase coordination in Europe to gradually return to a fully functioning Schengen Area. Furthermore, Germany is expected to lead the politically complicated negotiations on potentially expanding the list of third countries from which travel to the EU is allowed. These priorities will be central during the whole German Presidency mandate.

EU budget negotiations

Germany will also take an active part in managing the negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027 and the Next Generation EU Recovery Fund during the summer months. The main challenge will be to find common ground between the hard-hit Member States, such as Italy, Spain and France on the one hand, and the ‘frugal four’ – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – on the other hand, with the latter group being against grants as part of the Recovery Fund. Germany will be directly responsible for the legislative work on the different sector programs within the MFF (e.g. Horizon Europe, Just Transition Fund and InvestEU) and the Recovery Fund, and will lead the trilogue negotiations with the European Parliament on the financial framework, once there is political agreement on the general features of the future budget. France and Germany expressed their ambition for a quick agreement by end of July, as European leaders are set to meet face-to-face on 17 and 18 July.

Brexit negotiations

With the Brexit transition period ending on the 31 December 2020 and the United Kingdom declining the opportunity to extend this deadline, the German Presidency will have yet another prospective challenge. Once an agreement has been reached at European Commission level, the Member States will have to give their consent. German EU ambassador Michael Clauss stressed that Germany will be exclusively focusing on “brokering agreements between the 27”.

The German Presidency program expresses the Presidency’s ambition for a comprehensive partnership between the EU and the UK. However, it also reads that the Member States will not accept an agreement that would distort fair competition within the Single Market. If there is an acceptable agreement before the end of the year, the German Presidency is expected to align Member States in its role as ‘Brexit-Broker’.

Work program

The work program sets out, in broad terms, the policy priorities for the second half of 2020. In general, Germany will prioritize the digital and green transitions throughout all of its activities. The German Presidency is committed to an innovative Europe based on three pillars: expanding the EU’s digital sovereignty, enhancing competitiveness and a sustainable and stable financial architecture. It will also ensure that the Green Deal’s implementation will contribute to the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

The German Presidency will have an extremely challenging task of fostering European unity in the budget negotiations in the face of existing difficulties such as the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit. For more information on the German Presidency’s sector-specific priorities, please read our analyses of the German priorities in the fields of digital & tech, sustainability and transport:

The EU Budget proposal and its impact on the digital sector

On 27 May, the European Commission put forward its proposal for a major recovery plan. The plan includes not only a proposal for the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 – The EU budget powering the recovery plan for Europe, but the European Commission also proposes to create a new recovery instrument, Next Generation EU.

Next Generation EU, with a budget of €750 billion, together with targeted reinforcements to the 2021-2027 EU budget with a proposed budget of €1.1 trillion, will bring the total financial firepower of the EU budget to €1.85 trillion. Including other schemes such as Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (Commission’s safety net for workers), the European Stability Mechanism Pandemic Crisis Support (Eurozone’s enhanced credit line) and the European Investment Bank Guarantee Fund for Workers and Businesses (focused primarily on small and medium-sized companies), with a combined budget of €540 billion, significant funds will be available for European recovery.

Next Generation EU will raise money by temporarily lifting the European Commission’s own resources ceiling to 2.00% of EU Gross National Income, allowing the Commission to use its strong credit rating to borrow €750 billion on the financial markets. To help do this in a fair and shared way, the Commission proposes a number of new own resources among which extension of the EU Emission Trading System (ETS) to include maritime and aviation sectors, a carbon border adjustment mechanism, a digital tax and a tax on large enterprises.

Finally, the Commission has published an update of its 2020 Work Program, which will prioritize the actions needed to propel Europe’s recovery and resilience.

The future is digital

The outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of digitization across all areas of the economy and society. New technologies have helped businesses and public services to keep functioning and have made sure that international trade could continue. It is expected that, in the long run, the pandemic will have triggered permanent social and economic changes: more remote working, e-learning, e-commerce, e-government. It has, therefore, become imperative for businesses and governments to invest in digitalization.

The twin transitions to a green and digital Europe remain the defining challenges of this generation. This is reflected throughout the Commission’s proposals, which stress that investing in digital infrastructure and skills will help boost competitiveness and technological sovereignty.

Implications for the digital sector

A new instrument, the Solvency Support instrument would be primarily aimed at countries hit hardest by the crisis and unable to provide state aid to their most vulnerable sectors. The distribution of this ‘immediate and temporary’[1] tool will also aim to prioritize green investment according to the Commission. While welcomed by poorer countries the instrument might not have the desired effect unless agreed upon and deployed quickly by the Member States.

The Strategic Investment Facility will be used to promote the green and digital transitions by investing in 5G, artificial intelligence, the industrial internet of things, low CO2 emission industry and cybersecurity. Since such investments might become significantly riskier in the aftermath of the pandemic, the Commission stands behind a common European approach to provide the crucial long-term investments for companies implementing projects of strategic importance. The Strategic Investment Facility will take a more forward-looking approach by focusing on ‘projects relevant for achieving strategic autonomy in key value chains in the single market.

The Digital Europe Programme will be used for the development of EU-wide electronic identities and for the building of strategic data capabilities, such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, secured communication, data and cloud infrastructure, 5G and 6G networks, supercomputers, quantum and blockchain. The Commission has managed to withstand the significant pressure from Member States to reduce the funding of the Programme and the digital transition remains one of its key priorities.

In terms of financial inputs, the digital sector would be affected by two of the newly proposed taxes, aimed at funding the Commission’s so called ‘own resources’ used to repay the recovery package. The new digital tax would come into play at EU level if no global solution could be reached at OECD level. If the tax is applied to companies with an annual turnover higher than €750 million, it could generate up to €1.3 billion per year for the EU budget. The other relevant provision is the new corporate revenue tax, which if applied according to the same principle as the digital tax at a rate of 0.1 percent could generate up to €10 billion annually.

The Commission tried to introduce a European digital tax last year but its proposal was blocked by several Member States. The chance of such a proposal being accepted at this date appear slim as unanimity is required and Ireland, amongst others, has been adamantly against it. However, with the departure of the UK who had previously provided strong backing for Ireland’s opposition, some form of digital taxation being accepted remains a possibility. The new corporate tax was also previously unsuccessfully introduced by the Commission in 2016 and would be aimed at ‘companies that draw huge benefits from the EU single market and will survive the crisis.’[2] The chances of the proposal being accepted are also relatively low with countries such as Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands strongly opposing it. The proposal might also provoke a ‘race to the bottom’ phenomenon where companies relocate to countries willing to provide them with the most favorable business conditions. While both taxes are facing strong opposition from some Member States, the alternative of increased national contributions might convince leaders that accepting a form of these levies would be the more politically savvy option.

In conclusion, the new EU budget proposal creates new opportunities and challenges for the digital sector with the potential application of new pan-European taxes but also with additional funding devoted to digitalization, increased connectivity and sustainable value chains. The Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the increasing importance of digitalisation for the daily functioning of the economy and the Commission’s proposal reflects that through a series of digital political priorities. Increased connectivity, investment in strategic digital capacities (artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data and cloud infrastructure, 5G and 6G networks, blockchain and more) building a real data economy and legislative efforts on data sharing (a EU-wide Data Act), as well as a thorough reform of the single market for digital services (Digital Services Act expected in late 2020). The combination of budgetary provisions and policy priorities makes the moment beneficial for a transition to online business models, a trend which has appeared during the pandemic but is expected to remain for the next few years.

[1] Annex to the Commission Budget Communication, p 6.

[2] Commission Budget Communication, p 15.

EU consultation on Artificial Intelligence: seizing the business opportunity

With its new ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’ Strategy, the European Data Strategy and a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, all published on the same day (19 February 2020), the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen is fully committed to digitalizing our society. Zeroing in on the AI White Paper, it is clear that the Commission tries to find a delicate balance between building both an ecosystem of excellence that supports the development and uptake of AI and an ecosystem of trust where AI is also regulated and safe for everyone. The European Commission has already undertaken quite some work in defining its approach to AI and in consulting stakeholders. It is now proceeding with an official written consultation, seeking feedback on the White paper through a questionnaire.

While the European Commission has the prerogative to initiate the above ideas and strategies, the European Parliament has not stood still in the past couple of months and has proactively, and extensively, positioned itself and defined its priorities. Most notably, the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) is working on multiple AI reports, focused on the technology’s ethical aspect, its civil liability regime and intellectual property rights for the development of AI technologies. Furthermore, also the Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee (CULT) is working on its own report on AI applications in education, culture and the audiovisual sector, and a EP Resolution has been drafted on automated decision-making processes and ensuring consumer protection and free movement of goods and services.

 

While the discussion around AI at EU level seemed to have stemmed exclusively from the new Commission’s strong will to act on this issue, since then feedbacks from civil society, NGOs, companies and others, have been highly requested to shape further the future framework.

The latest opportunity for stakeholders to contribute to the discussion is the Commission’s Consultation on the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, closing on 14 June.

The questionnaire explores certain aspects of the White Paper, including specific actions to build an ecosystem of excellence, options for a regulatory framework for AI and further consultation on the question of safety and liability aspect of AI.

To zoom in on a specific and rather important aspect of the questionnaire for businesses, the Commission is seeking feedback on whether the introduction of new compulsory requirements should be limited to high-risk applications, and whether the current definition and criteria for this risk-based approach is the right way forward. New requirements and standards would regulate aspects such as training data, human oversight and so on. In addition, the European Commission is seeking feedback voluntary labelling for any other AI-powered services that could be qualified as “low-risk”. The intention and content of such voluntary labelling scheme is still fully open for discussion.

There are two key opportunities for businesses here through this process, that should not be overlooked:

First, this should be seen as the perfect opportunity to question, understand, assess and if necessary, improve companies’ practices when developing or using AI in their daily activities. The Commission and Expert Groups have developed various tools such as the White Paper, but also the  assessment list of the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI., that can guide this type of exercise. Do we allow for human oversight? Does the data we use could lead to biased decisions? Would we benefit for a voluntary label or other form of self-regulation? Those are some of the questions that companies operating in the EU could ask themselves to stay relevant in the market.

Second, share companies should share their experience with policymakers to ensure that a new EU legal framework does not hinder business activities or innovation beyond what is necessary to protect consumer and fundamental rights, and to ensure that any new legal framework does not create legal uncertainty or unnecessary red tape. Referring once again to the risk-based approached, the possible evolution of the qualification and criteria for “high-risk” use can have a significant impact on companies. Stakeholders have an opportunity to shape rules that could ensure the EU remains an open, competitive, and innovative market.

There have been certain voices calling for a reassessment of the Commission’s plans in relation to AI under the new circumstances created by the COVID19 outbreak, which could shed new light on the costs of not using AI-powered solutions. The Commission has however clearly insisted on the fact the questionnaire would be the perfect opportunity to reflect further on what a future regulation should look like to ensure that AI fulfill its promises for society.

Digital Ambitions in Flanders

The Flemish Government Agreement 2019-2024 was announced on Tuesday 1 October and was negotiated by N-VA, CD&V and Open Vld. Although the coalition agreement does not contain a separate chapter on digital topics, the new Flemish Government is committed to making innovation and digital transformation a priority in its policies. To achieve this, the agreement emphasizes that Flanders must raise to the top of the digital infrastructure. Moreover, the Flemish Government also wants to take the lead in experimenting with new digital applications and digital transformations in its services.

Lifelong learning

The agreement stresses the importance of digitalization to stimulate a culture of lifelong learning. Therefore, the new Flemish government wants to set up a Lifelong Learning Platform and aims to use smart data to proactively make people aware of career opportunities and threats on the labor market. In addition, embedded in the VDAB (Vlaamse Dienst voor Arbeidsbemiddeling en Beroepsopleiding, Flemish Office for Employment and Vocational Training) career platform, the Flemish government is developing a smart digital tool that will help Flemish people find their way in the private and public labor market. Citizens who do not have sufficient digital skills will be proactively tracked and supported to increase their self-reliance. However, already during the formative years in high school, the government wants to have an eye for digital innovations in the “classroom of the future” and for the corresponding IT applications. In addition, courses should be substantively up-to-date and respond to the reality of tomorrow, certainly also with regard to the necessary digital and transversal competences.

 

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence will play an important role in the digitalization of Flanders. Therefore, the new Flemish Government is preparing an integrated plan for further digitalization of Flanders and the valorization of artificial intelligence. With this plan, the Flemish government wants to increase support for the policy programs and projects for Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Security, I-Learn and Mobilidata and ensure that these remain optimally tailored to the needs of Flemish companies and society as a whole. In addition, the government agreement states that the quality of life will also increase thanks to the efforts of AI. The Flemish AI policy plan fulfills the ambition to put Flanders on the world map in this strategic domain through research, training and practical applications in companies.

Digital security

The new Flemish government is also concerned about its digital security. Through the cyber-security policy plan, aimed at research, practical applications in companies and training, the coalition of N-VA, CD&V and Open Vld wants to develop in particular a resilient digital economy in Flanders. In this regard, also privacy is very important according to the government agreement. The government will, in accordance with international evolutions, develop standards for pooling, opening and exchanging data, with the utmost respect for user privacy. In addition, in the rapidly evolving media society where the impact of (social) media on society is enormous, the importance of media literacy and digital literacy should be increased to guard against fake news. Therefore, the Flemish government will continue to implement the media literacy policy together with the Knowledge Center Media Literacy so that they are able to pursue a coordinated policy throughout the media sector with other policy areas.

The ambition of Flanders is clear. The new government wants Flanders to be the world reference for a number of innovative technologies and sectors and to be a pioneer in digital entrepreneurship. Flanders must be the testing ground for companies and citizens who want to taste the digital applications of the future. The question remains, however, how these ambitions will be financed and how these priorities will be implemented concretely in order to give Flanders a leading (digital) position in the world.