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Trade and foreign affairs  

Democratic scrutiny of the EU's external relations

Parliament has been tireless since 2009 in ensuring that the EU's core values of peace, democracy and human rights are upheld in its external relations.

It made sure that the European External Action Service (EEAS), set up in 2011, was subject to its political and budgetary scrutiny and it has held the EU's foreign policy chief to account.

It has pushed through environmental, social and human rights clauses in many key trade deals and it rejected a controversial anti-counterfeiting agreement amid concerns about privacy and internet freedom. It also made sure that extractive industries must in future disclose all payments to third country governments.

The EP backed EU accession talks with countries including Serbia and Albania and promoted close ties with EU neighbours to the east and south. It defended the Ukrainian people’s aspirations to closer integration with the EU and called for substantive EU aid to Ukraine. It also kept a close eye on the developments in the Middle East.

MEPs have observed over 35 elections around the world since 2009. In 2011 the EP awarded its annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to five Arab Spring activists. In 2012 the prize went to two Iranian activists and in 2013 to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani campaigner for education for girls.


1. Projecting the EU's influence around the world

Parliament insisted that the new European External Action Service (EEAS), set up in 2011 under the Lisbon Treaty to streamline and enhance the conduct of all aspects of the EU's external relations, must be subject to the full budgetary and political scrutiny of MEPs. Since then, it has consistently pointed to the need for a simple, transparent and efficient European diplomatic corps that is democratically accountable to EU citizens.

During the talks on shaping the EU's new diplomatic corps, MEPs made sure that the EEAS would be a truly independent EU service, with at least 60% of its staff recruited from the EU institutions. Thanks to the EP, the EEAS must also respect geographical balance in recruitment, to prevent it being unduly influenced by individual member states.

MEPs also pressed for a more proactive EU role in external relations and advocated a boost for EU defence policy. The EU foreign policy chief reports regularly to Parliament, both in plenary and in the relevant committees, on how the EP’s priorities have been shaping the current and planned direction of the EU's external policies. The views of MEPs are also taken on board by new heads of EU delegations around the world, who have to attend hearings with the foreign affairs committee before they take up their duties. This also allows direct links to be created between the EP and the executive arm of EU diplomacy.


2. Promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law

The annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought has become the EP's most visible symbol of its fierce defence of human rights and democracy. It was awarded in 2011 to five Arab Spring activists, underscoring the importance the EP has attached to the historic uprisings in the Southern Mediterranean since they first began. In 2012 the prize was won by two Iranian activists and in 2013 by the Pakistani campaigner for education for girls, Malala Yousafzai.

Through its clear and determined action in the field of human rights, the EP has achieved significant visibility across the world. This has helped to highlight and stop flagrant human rights violations against individuals and groups.

Parliament put the rule of law and the independence and accountability of the judiciary in Russia under the spotlight when it repeatedly demanded EU sanctions against Russian officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky.

Throughout its term, the EP has worked to promote the EU's core values through its 40 delegations to parliaments in non-EU countries and multilateral parliamentary assemblies. MEPs have taken part in more than 35 election observation missions around the world since 2009, including the general election in Sudan in 2010, the election of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia in 2011 and the parliamentary election in Georgia in 2012, helping to strengthen adherence to free, fair and transparent democratic political processes.

The EP negotiated foreign-policy spending for 2014-2020 with EU countries, making sure that the budget of over €51 billion will be used more efficiently and effectively with greater democratic scrutiny, for projects and programmes covering pre-accession assistance, neighbouring and partner countries, and peace-keeping, democracy and human-rights actions.


3. Spreading EU values through free and fair trade agreements

Under the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament's green light is now needed before EU trade and association agreements with non-EU countries or regions can enter in force. MEPs have used this new power in two ways.

In the first place, to seek to boost growth and jobs in the EU by prompting more demand from outside the EU for EU products and services. This can be achieved by freeing trade with the world's big economic players.

MEPs gave their go-ahead to opening talks on a game-changing trade and investment deal with the United States (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP), talks on a free trade deal with Japan and investment talks with China. In each case they pushed to ease rules for EU businesses in strategic sectors where the EU has a global lead, such as financial services, cars, technology and innovative and knowledge-based products and services.

In order to uphold and spread the EU's values, in talks with the US and China, MEPs called for cultural and audiovisual services to be exempted, in order to protect the cultural and linguistic diversity of EU countries. For the talks with China, it insisted that the use of forced labour in Chinese industry must not benefit in any way from the upcoming deal with the EU.

In 2012, Parliament used its powers under the Lisbon Treaty to reject trade agreements for the first time when it voted down the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) because of concerns that it could violate privacy and restrict the freedom of ordinary internet users.

Parliament also forced the renegotiation of agreements with the US on access to bank data (finally approved in July 2010) and to airline passenger data (approved in 2012), both designed to track terrorist financing, to ensure that they included adequate safeguards for personal privacy and civil liberties.

The EP pushed through trade defence clauses to ensure that European industry is treated fairly in a number of free trade deals, for example the ambitious free-trade agreement with South Korea, approved in 2011 with a clause safeguarding the interests of European car makers.

As co-legislator, the EP has worked since 2009 to ensure that EU trade agreements include more protection for the environment and for human and social rights than was the case previously. Under pressure from Parliament, Colombia, Peru and countries in Central America committed to binding roadmaps on environmental, labour and human rights standards before the EP gave its go-ahead to agreements with them, ensuring that they are fully in line with the EU's values and body of law.

A significant success for Parliament was to push through EU-wide transparency rules in tough negotiations with member states that will force major firms in the oil, gas, minerals and logging sectors to publish full details of their payments to national governments for every project that they operate, from 2015. Thanks to MEPs, a clause dubbed the tyrant's veto that would have exempted companies from the reporting rules if the host country banned such disclosures was thrown out.

The EP has also been a global advocate for the enhancement of democratic control over trade deals among countries, by initiating and co-organizing the parliamentary forum of the World Trade Organization.


4. Promoting EU enlargement and a stable and prosperous neighbourhood

Every new accession to the EU has to get the green light from Parliament, which has repeatedly called for further enlargement. It has actively supported the accession talks with Serbia and the status of candidate state for Albania, and pressed for the negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to be speeded up. At the same time, it has systematically demanded that human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, good neighbourly relations and the fight against corruption are made a priority for all candidate countries.

The last resolution on Turkey's progress passed by the current Parliament criticised the lack of a separation of powers and of respect for fundamental freedoms.

Parliament has been a driving force in the radical reform of the EU's neighbourhood policy. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, it has insisted that political and financial support to the countries of the Southern EU neighbourhood be stepped up in exchange for domestic reforms and moves towards democracy, demanding that agreements be suspended if human rights are violated.

Parliament has also worked to enhance EU standards and values in the EU's eastern neighbourhood. At its initiative, a new parliamentary assembly bringing together MEPs and members of national parliaments in the eastern partnership countries – Euronest – was set up in May 2011. [VL2]  Parliament condemned the pressures exerted by Russia on eastern European countries seeking closer EU integration with the EU, while calling for more concrete EU support.

During the Maidan protests last winter, MEPs were at the forefront in supporting the pro-European aspirations of the Ukrainian people and they pushed for targeted sanctions against Ukrainian officials involved in violence and human rights abuses.

MEPs firmly condemned Russia’s aggression in invading the Crimea and said the Crimean referendum was “illegitimate and illegal”. Parliament also voted to give substantive EU aid to Ukraine.

In the last plenary resolution of this term, MEPs called for EU measures against Russian firms and their subsidiaries, especially in the energy sector, and on Russia's EU assets, against a background of violence designed to destabilise the east and south of Ukraine.