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Brussels urged to speed up action against Big Tech

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Legislators in the European parliament have compiled a comprehensive, 167-page report on competition policy, shaming Brussels for being too slow to tame Big Tech.

The report comes as regulators in the EU seek to enact new rules to curb the power of companies such as Google and Facebook and set out clear guidance on taking down illegal content.

MEPs think the European Commission has been too slow to act on antitrust enforcement. By the time Brussels hands out fines — often seen as the cost of doing business for a company such as Amazon — it is too late to save a healthy market. “We want the commission to hurry up,” said a person involved in drafting the report.

The report is an attempt to renew political pressure on the EU to come up with tough rules for large online platforms. MEPs will play a crucial role in passing these proposed laws sometime in 2022. The report is still being discussed, and it is set to be voted on by MEPs in April. Here are some of the takeaways of the draft seen by the Financial Times:

  • Treat data as a physical asset MEPs want the EU to review its merger rules for personal data. The report calls on regulators “to fully consider and assess personal data assets as all other traditional physical assets when it decides on digital mergers and acquisitions”. Some believe that a change in the current regime would have led to the EU blocking Google’s acquisition of fitness-tracking company Fitbit on data concerns. The deal was cleared. “I’m puzzled why the commission approved Google’s acquisition of Fitbit,” Dutch MEP Paul Tang told the Brussels Briefing. “[Margrethe] Vestager needs to go further and strongly regulate the business model of selling personalised advertising. Together with slow developing antitrust cases, we are doomed to be eyewitness to market failures.”

  • Move fast EU regulators have often been accused of moving too slowly, particularly in digital markets where players can quickly take over entire sectors. MEPs note that the EU’s Google Shopping case started in November 2010. They argue the prolongation is having a “damaging effect” for litigants involved. In addition to legal cases, MEPs welcome regulation that can come handy in cases where there is suspicion of unfair competition. “Existing competition policy instruments cannot always provide for quick and efficient ex-ante detection and timely intervention, especially in antitrust cases,” they write, adding that the proposals will help with speedy responses.

  • Make them pay (a lot) Under current proposals, the EU wants to fine Big Tech companies 10 per cent of their global revenues if they are found to be in breach of competition rules. But MEPs think that is not enough. The report says that “even when heavy fines are imposed they are often not enough of a deterrent, also because they may be passed on to consumers”. They want Brussels “to evaluate the deterrence effect of its fines and the usefulness of fines of up to 40 per cent of the worldwide annual turnover of companies to be imposed in serious cartel cases”.

Chart du jour: out with the old, in with the renewables

How prepared are fossil fuel exporters for the energy transition? Scatterplot showing Countries which rely heavily on hydrocarbon exports and have lower GDP per capita are likely to struggle the most. Plotting Fossil fuel rents as a %  of GDP 2009-18 average against GDP per capita ($’000)

This weekend’s FT Magazine feature lays out how the rise of renewables is set to upset the global balance of power for countries that rely on the export of fossil fuels. Many Middle East countries are set to see their influence decline under the green revolution, while in Europe, Russia could lose the most from the shift to renewables. (chart via FT)

Europe news round-up

  • Tensions are rising between the EU and UK over Northern Ireland, with EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic telling London on Thursday to focus on the “proper implementation” of the Northern Ireland protocol as Britain seeks to tweak parts of the agreement. Sefcovic will travel to London next week in a bid to quell calls for a rewriting of the protocol. (FT) The current stand-off could see the agreement unravel unless the two sides start to work together, writes Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform.

  • The Economist’s Charlemagne column dissects the structural blame game at the heart of the EU’s botched vaccine policy, and why healthy criticism of democratic flaws is often mistaken for illegitimate Europhobia.

  • The latest episode of the EU Scream podcast speaks to Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of How Democracies Die, about the dilemma facing mainstream conservative parties that often enable extremists to thrive in their midst.

  • An Iranian diplomat has been handed a 20-year prison sentence in Belgium over a 2018 plot to bomb a rally of exiled Iranians in Paris. The sentencing comes as the EU works to salvage the international nuclear deal with Tehran. (FT)

  • Denmark has signed up for 51 per cent stake in a 120,000 sq m “energy island” that will act as an energy hub for hundreds of offshore wind farms. The project is estimated to cost £25bn and could potentially power up to 3m households. (Guardian)

Coming up today

MEPs on the foreign affairs and trade committees present their draft report on the UK-EU trade deal. The public debate begins at 10.00 (CET).

javier.espinoza@ft.com; @JavierespFT
david.hindley@ft.com





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Europe

FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’, von der Leyen says

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Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. 

Ursula von der Leyen told the Financial Times that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. 

“Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” 

Von der Leyen last month unveiled plans for a biodefence preparedness plan called the HERA Incubator, which will combine researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to monitor emerging threats and work on adapting vaccines. This will become part of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). 

The concept is an attempt to mirror some of the benefits conferred by America’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is charged with the job of responding rapidly to new health threats.

“The US has a strong advantage by having BARDA . . . this is an infrastructure Europe did not have,” von der Leyen said. “But Europe has to build up to be prepared for whatever comes, and also for the next possible pandemics. This is the HERA incubator.” 

The EU remains within its “most difficult quarter without any question” for vaccine deliveries, she said, cautioning “many, many problems” could always occur within the production process.

Looking towards the second quarter, she pointed out that a second EU contract with BioNTech/Pfizer for their vaccine would kick in, alongside the new jab from Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to be authorised in March.

In an EU summit on Thursday, von der Leyen addressed vaccine production and the threat of virus mutations after a rocky start to the year, when she was hit by complaints from politicians in member states, including Germany, about supply shortfalls. 

Von der Leyen acknowledged to the European Parliament in early February that mistakes had been made in the EU’s vaccination effort, and the campaign remains behind those of the US and UK. Among the difficulties are continued production problems at AstraZeneca’s European facilities. 

Von der Leyen said she was sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses in the second quarter, saying the challenge will shift from vaccine production to national rollouts. As for AstraZeneca’s shipments, she said: “I need to see the proof of the pudding . . . It’s very good that they also delivered from the rest of the world, but they have to honour their contract and we want our fair share.”

Ursula Von der Leyen says she is sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter © Remo Casilli/Reuters

The good news for the EU is its access to mRNA technology, which is used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and which scientists believe can be used to rapidly adapt to mutations, said von der Leyen. 

But she also supported French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to share up to 5 per cent of supplies to permit the vaccination of healthcare workers in developing countries.

“We all suffer from the fact that the scaling up was not and is not as rapid as we thought at the beginning. This has a general effect all over the world,” she said. “With production picking up I think we should never forget that only if everybody has access to vaccines will we overcome this virus.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU needed to be particularly concerned about developments in its immediate area. 

“The mutant story is worrying me the most,” she said. “When the virus is still raging in the neighbourhood, the probability that mutants will occur, that will come back, for example, to Europe, is only rising.”



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