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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Ursula von der Leyen: With the European Green Deal, Europe is leading the way. Romania has made considerable progress in laying the foundation of a low-carbon economy

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© European Union 2021 - Source : EP

Interview conducted by Dan Cărbunaru and Robert Lupițu

Romania’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan must allocate at least 37% of its funding to actions to combat climate change, and the European Commission hopes to “be able to approve it as soon as possible”, said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European executive, in an exclusive interview for CaleaEuropeană.ro focused on the European Green Deal.

“With the European Green Deal, Europe is leading the way. If others follow our lead, the world will be able to keep warming below 1.5 degrees celsius. (…) The EU is a global leader in climate action but we know that a global effort is needed to tackle climate change and build more resilient, sustainable economies, and that is why we are working to mobilise the global effort”, she said, including in the context of the UN’s “Code Red for Humanity” report, which stresses that climate change is inevitable and irreversible and that human activity is affecting the climate in an unprecedented way.

The European Commission President said that Romania had made considerable progress between 1990 and 2019 in laying the foundations for a low-carbon economy, adding that our country would be able to use €67 billion from cohesion funds, recovery funds and the just transition fund to decarbonise the economy.

Romanians deserve and want to live a healthier life, in a healthy environment, and to breathe cleaner air“, said Ursula von der Leyen, adding that she expects the Romanian authorities to take the necessary measures for waste management and air quality.

She also assured that the European Union is ready to help Romania to green its car fleet, describing the automotive industry as “an important one for Romania”.

She also announced that she would present proposals for decarbonising the natural gas market and acknowledged that the use of natural gas is “a cornerstone” for Romania.

“Gas is not a long-term solution to bring us closer to climate neutrality by 2050, but for Romania it can be a stepping stone, a transitional solution to move away from coal, because gas produces fewer emissions,” said Ursula von der Leyen, giving further assurances: “The Commission will stand by Romania in ensuring a fair transition for local communities, especially those in the Valea Jiului.”

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Shortly after you took office in 2019, the European Commission launched what you described to be “Europe’s man on the moon moment” – the European Green Deal. At the same time, the environment issue is at the top of EU citizens, including the next generation, concerns. How would you describe the progress the European Union has made in the last two years on fighting climate change?

Ursula von der Leyen: Europe has made extraordinary progress over the past two years. First, all 27 EU Member States and the European Parliament have democratically agreed on ambitious climate targets. They became legally binding, in our first-of-a-kind European Climate Law. And with the European Green Deal package that we presented in July, Europe is the first continent with a clear, comprehensive roadmap to reach its climate targets.

And a lot has changed in the past two years around the world, too. A year ago, we still had an American administration in office that hardly wanted to do anything for climate protection. And the Paris Agreement was under pressure. Now the USA is back by our side. In the past few months, many important industrialised countries have committed themselves to the goal of climate neutrality and have provided concrete dates for reaching it. Globally renowned companies have announced billions in investments in climate-friendly production and products.

This is all going in the right direction. But of course we must continue to push hard. We are encouraging all other countries, most of which have ambitious goals, to also come with a clear roadmap, on how to achieve them. That is the spirit in which we will approach the UN’s COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow this autumn.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: This summer, while the European Commission was adopting the “Fit for 55%” Package, Europe has been ravaged by unprecedented floods, mainly in Germany and Western Europe, but also in Romania. Will the European Commission help the countries affected by these natural disasters?

Ursula von der Leyen: These tragic events are indeed painful reminders that we simply cannot afford the rising costs of climate change. Extreme weather events are happening all over the globe, more and more often. The world can no longer allow the overexploitation of nature.

We are by the side of the countries affected by these catastrophes in the suffering. And we will be by their side in the reconstruction. We have provided support to the  countries that needed it, through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism – by sending rescuers, or materials such as boats or planes, for instance. And we can also support with the EU Solidarity Fund, which can help fund the reconstruction.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: In your first SOTEU speech, you used the example of crops destroyed in Romania by the most severe drought in decades to sound the alarm on the climate issue. How would you appreciate the situation in Romania and the efforts of the authorities to reach climate neutrality?

Ursula von der Leyen: Romania has made considerable progress in laying the foundation of a low-carbon economy. Between 1990 and 2019, its greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 57%. But it still has a lot to do to reduce the emission intensity of its economy and bring it in line with our climate objectives.

I am confident that you can make it. And Europe will support you. The EU budget, including our recovery plan NextGeneration, the cohesion funds and the Just Transition Fund, will provide EUR 67 billion to Romania over the next years. This will allow for significant investments in the greening and the decarbonisation of the economy.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: The European Commission has announced in its June infringements package that Romania is targeted by four infringements procedures on environment, mainly on waste management. Last year, after an EU’s Court of Justice, the European Commission asked Romania to take the necessary measures to improve air quality in Bucharest. Are you satisfied with Romania’s actions and measures to tackle these issues?

Ursula von der Leyen: Romanian people deserve and want to live healthier lives, in a healthy environment, and to breathe cleaner air. Indeed, we have launched infringements to make sure Romania complies with our European rules in these important sectors, which have a direct impact on people’s quality of life and on their health. We are now expecting Romania to take the necessary measures, on waste as well as on air quality in Bucharest.

And we are talking here about serious matters. Air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. Such loss of life can be prevented. Let’s work on that together.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Another source of air pollution in Romania is the urban traffic combined with the fact that Romania has one of the largest market of imported second-hand vehicles. Is the European Commission ready to help Romania in finding proper solutions to this problem and how can Romania overturn its existing car park into a greener one?

Ursula von der Leyen: The EU is indeed ready to help Romania to green its car fleet. First, Romania will significantly benefit from the EUR 72 billion Social Climate Fund that we will put in place. The objective of the Fund is to support people with low incomes and to facilitate investments in clean technologies. It can support Romanian citizens to buy cleaner, electric cars, for example.

Overall, the EU budget will support the transition to a more climate-friendly, more sustainable economy in Europe with around EUR 500 billion over the next years. We will support the car industry – important for Romania – in the shift to zero-emission mobility. We will help European car manufacturers to lead the global market in clean vehicles.

NextGenerationEU also foresees massive investments in private and public charging points and in new filling stations for clean fuels. This investment is in all Member States’ national recovery plans. I am confident that Romania will manage the transition to cleaner cars – with EU support. This is very important for achieving our European Green Deal objectives. And, as we see from the problems with air quality, this is essential for people’s health.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: In the European Union there is also an ongoing debate about the use of nuclear energy in meeting the climate goals. The leaders of seven countries, including France and Romania, have asked the European Commission to consider ways of including nuclear energy to EU’s green policy. What is your take on this specific matter knowing also that Romania and the United States have reached an agreement to build new reactors in Cernavodă?

Ursula von der Leyen: The Member States decide themselves on their energy mix. The decision to operate or to shut down a nuclear power plant is up to them. Our priority at the Commission is to ensure that those Member States choosing to use nuclear energy apply the highest nuclear safety standards. They are enshrined in the Euratom legal framework and in particular in the revised Nuclear Safety Directive which governs the whole lifecycle of nuclear installation from design to end of decommissioning.

This is very important for the safety of our people and for our environment.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: In order to be put in place, the European Green Deal needs financing and this moves us to Next Generation EU, to the National Recovery and Resilience Plans and to the Just Transition Fund. In Romania’s case, the Prime Minister recently pointed out that 95% of NRRP is already negotiated. What can you emphasize about Romania’s NRRP, generally, and specifically when it comes to the green and environment guidelines?

Ursula von der Leyen: We have received Romania’s recovery plan on 31 May. We are now assessing it based on the clear criteria set out in the NextGenerationEU regulation. In particular, as regards green objectives, the plan needs to allocate a minimum of 37% of the funding to climate action and it needs to respect the environmental “do no significant harm” principle. The national recovery plan will be key for supporting Romania’s green transition. We are pleased with the very good cooperation with the Romanian authorities and I hope we will be able to approve the plan very soon, so that NextGenerationEU funds can start flowing to Romania.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Leave no one behind and each country’s right to identify its own energetic mix – these two principles are very important for Romania, especially with the intention to use natural gas as an energy transition and to help the regional coal industry in the Jiu Valley. What is the European Commission position on these Romanian priorities?

Ursula von der Leyen: As I said, each EU country is free to choose its own energy mix. But we are all bound by common climate and energy transition targets, which must be reflected in energy mixes in each EU Member State.

Gas is not a long-term solution to get us to climate neutrality by 2050, but for Romania it can be a stepping stone, a transitional solution to move away from coal, as gas produces less emissions. Later this year, we will present proposals for the decarbonisation of the gas market.

The EU is supporting a fair industrial transformation for all. This is at the heart of the European Green Deal.

So the Commission will be at Romania’s side to ensure a just transition for local communities, especially in the Jiu Valley. We are working with the regional authorities and provide funding under the EU’s Just Transition Mechanism. This comes on top of support already provided via Cohesion Policy and our Modernisation Fund. I am confident that Romania can achieve a timely and socially fair transition away from coal.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Moving to the global arena, the European Union has put itself in the avant-garde of fighting climate change, setting an example. But when it comes to global carbon footprint, there is only one EU country in the top 10 worldwide: Germany. Therefore, while following its path to reach climate neutrality, what can the European Union do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to global trade and imports?

Ursula von der Leyen: First, I believe that the rest of the world is also waking up to the facts: the cost of not acting against global warming is rising dramatically everywhere. We have recently seen heavy rain and flooding in China, but also deadly temperatures in Canada and melting permafrost in Siberia, to name a few examples. So the fight against climate change is a truly global effort.

With the European Green Deal, Europe is leading the way. If others follow our lead, the world will be able to keep warming below 1.5 degrees celsius.

And to encourage the rest of the world to set a price on carbon and to invest in climate-friendly production, we proposed a carbon border adjustment mechanism. Carbon must have a price everywhere. Europe’s industry and businesses are now investing heavily in climate-friendly technologies. It would not be fair if companies from third countries undermine these efforts by flooding our EU internal market with cheap but carbon-intensive products. Companies should pay a price for the carbon they bring to Europe. However, when producers from outside the EU come to our market with clean products, they won’t have to pay anything.

Finally, the reality – and the strength of the EU – is that we are the world’s biggest single market. Of course we have to stay competitive. And the good news is, our industry is moving forward. European enterprises are already driving the green transition. They are developing clean new technologies and products. And in doing so they create sustainable, local and well-paid jobs across Europe. Romania for instance can play a big role in the zero-emmission car sector.

The transition brings tremendous opportunities for our industry to establish markets for sustainable, clean products, worldwide. They have understood that the European Green Deal is their chance to get ahead of their global competitors, and get ‘first-mover’ advantage. Because the quicker we move, the bigger the demand will be across the world for pioneering technologies created in Europe.

The EU is a global leader in climate action but we know that a global effort is needed to tackle climate change and build more resilient, sustainable economies, and that is why we are working to mobilise the global effort.

Robert Lupițu este redactor-șef, specialist în relații internaționale, jurnalist în afaceri europene și NATO. Robert este laureat al concursului ”Reporter și Blogger European” la categoria Editorial și co-autor al volumelor ”România transatlantică” și ”100 de pași pentru o cetățenie europeană activă”. Face parte din Global Shapers Community, o inițiativă World Economic Forum, și este Young Strategic Leader în cadrul inițiativelor The Aspen Institute. Din 2019, Robert este membru al programului #TT27 Leadership Academy organizat de European Political Strategy Center, think tank-ul Comisiei Europene.

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EPP MEP Vasile Blaga: The EU budget for 2022 boosted with significant additional funding for research and health

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The EU budget for 2022, the largest in the history of the Union, has been boosted with significant additional funding for research and health, said MEP Vasile Blaga (PNL, EPP) for CaleaEuropeana.ro.

Last week’s session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg approved the European Union’s budget for next year and we are dealing with a first: €169.5 billion for 2022, the largest amount ever approved, €480 million more than the European Commission’s proposal, 

“It is worth highlighting here the €100 million annual budget increase for the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, a key programme for boosting the EU’s competitiveness and economic development. I also note an increase in next year’s budget in the health sector, with the EU’s pandemic response programme EU4Health being funded by €51 million more than the Commission’s initial proposal, for a total of over €800 million,” the EPP MEP stressed. 

“It is extremely important not to forget that the pandemic is not over and investing in health is a priority for the European Union in the coming year. A joint effort by all member countries is needed to strengthen national health systems. The same is true in Romania – the national health system has the opportunity to benefit from important funds for modernisation and response, not only to the current pandemic, but also in the long term, to the current challenges in the system”, added the EPP MEP. 

The European Parliament last week approved the 2022 budget by 550 votes to 77 with 62 abstentions. The deal, which was agreed by the EU Council on 23 November, is due to take effect from 1 January 2022.

MEPs succeeded in increasing funding for programmes and policies that they believe contribute to post-pandemic recovery, in line with Parliament’s priorities set out in its guidelines for 2022.

These include the Horizon Europe research programme (+€100 million more than the Commission’s draft budget) and the LIFE programme for environment and climate action (+€47.5 million). The single market programme is boosted by €30 million (including €10 million for the tourism sector) and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office by €3.8 million, protecting European taxpayers’ money from criminals.

The Erasmus+ university mobility programme is another programme whose budget is reinforced, with an additional allocation of €35 million. The EU’s flagship health programme, EU4Health, gets a financial boost of €51 million to build a strong European Health Union and make national health systems more resilient.

The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI – Global Europe) has been boosted by €190 million, with a particular focus on fighting pandemics, including through vaccination.

Humanitarian aid has been increased by €211 million to allow the Solidarity and Emergency Aid Reserve to cover the increased needs of the EU Solidarity Fund in relation to natural disasters in the EU.

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HERA, essential for countries like Romania. European Union can gain strength in health crises

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© European Union, 2020

Romanian experts at national and European level argue that the European Health Emergency Response and Preparedness Authority (HERA) can bring important mechanisms, expected and needed at European level, but which need to be developed in complementarity with existing mechanisms that already have very good results.

National authorities, European decision-makers, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry responded to the initiative launched by Calea Europeană and the Romanian Association of International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (ARPIM) and held an open dialogue on the role of the new instrument launched by the European Commission, the European Health Emergency Response and Preparedness Authority (HERA), in preventing, detecting and responding rapidly to health emergencies, by collecting information and strengthening the necessary response capacities.

The main lessons learned by the European Union from the beginning of the pandemic to date were discussed, as well as the need to achieve a Health Union, which cannot be possible without the implementation of European mechanisms involving all Member States in preparing a joint response in the event of a future health crisis.

The European executive has succeeded in laying another “milestone of a Health Union” by launching a new instrument, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). This Authority was launched on 16 September and aims to guide the entire EU health system towards the vision of ‘One Health’. HERA is a key pillar of the European Health Union announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union 2020 speech and will fill a gap in EU health emergency response and preparedness.

HERA and its new tasks for a stronger Union in the face of health crises. How HERA becomes a key pillar of the European Union

The Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania, Ramona Chiriac, welcomed the new measures taken by the European Commission to improve the EU’s health security, as this authority is “the result of lessons learnt during the pandemic, which showed the limits of what the EU can do in health crisis situations.”

  • HERA reinforces the EU’s powers on health under the existing treaties. HERA’s mandate is forward-looking. HERA’s aim is to anticipate health crises by gathering intelligence, strengthening the necessary response capacity. So far, action in different policies has been taken reactively and not as part of an overall anticipatory management system.
  • This will be the new task, to ensure that the European Union and Member States are much better prepared to act in the face of a cross-border crisis, because the pandemic does not stop at national borders or even at European borders. HERA complements the agencies already in place.

The Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania, Ramona Chiriac, also stressed that HERA is chaired by the President of the European Commission, but is constantly mandated by the Council, which means that the will of each Member State is relevant in this construction.

Cooperation with industry within HERA will be essential to develop, manufacture, distribute countermeasures. Such a structured, responsive cooperation mechanism is vital for the implementation of robust supply chain strategies and supply chains with strategically autonomous states.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Member States have felt the need for a mechanism such as HERA. Romania must have a work core

Valeriu Gheorghiță, President of the CNCAV, present at the debate on the role of HERA, presented a preparedness and response structure in case of a health crisis, based on three pillars that should represent a working core: the prevention part, the pre-hospital part and the hospital part. According to the Romanian specialist, this preparedness and response strategy should have the following structure:

  1. Prevention strategy: vaccination as an effective means of limiting the spread of contagious disease, complemented by a population education strategy, because accessibility to vaccines is not enough. The population needs to be prepared and to understand that vaccination is a matter of course. Today’s children, who will be tomorrow’s adults, need to understand that vaccination is an added value. For the next health crisis, children must not be exposed to so many misinformation theories. We also need to improve training in diagnostic, surveillance and sequencing capacity: testing and diagnostic capacity is essential.
  2. Preparedness of the pre-hospital ambulatory medicine system for the identification and treatment of most forms of infections, of infectious diseases that can be very well managed in pre-hospital. There is a need for trained doctors and centres for diagnosis, treatment and access to effective therapies. HERA will enable easy accessibility and a centralised supply chain.
  3. Hospital preparedness: In pandemic conditions we need to have a response capacity, which means having modular structures and being able to quickly adapt hospital structures to a pandemic crisis or an epidemiological alert.

Stocks of health supplies and medicines were the main challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

Călin Alexandru, director in the Department for Emergency Situations, says a unified approach is now needed at European level.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for production mechanisms at European level for medical equipment and medicines to ensure that EU citizens can meet their needs in such a situation. An important element that HERA is aiming for is centralised procurement. Romania has so far made centralised purchases, but only at national level. Centralised procurement of vaccines at European level is a very good example of the fact that in such a situation cooperation is mandatory.

There is a need for collaboration and integration of public health response measures and HERA can bring a plus and a positive element. The measures taken by different countries in the first waves of the pandemic were not coordinated and even created difficulties in collaboration within the EU. Measures must be taken in the future that do not affect collaboration, either economic exchanges or the free movement of citizens between countries.

HERA will be the instrument that will ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical equipment among Member States.

Cristian Bușoi MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Industry Committee, explained the benefits of HERA for the resilience of Member States’ health systems.

  • HERA is a key pillar of the European Health Union which President von der Leyen announced in her annual speech as being of paramount importance for the European Union to be much better prepared in the future against health emergencies. HERA is not the only answer. We also have the EU health programme, EU4Health, which is totally different from the health programmes of the past. Decisions on health remain with the Member States, but the EU and the European institutions aim to contribute more and more in the years to come.
  • HERA will prevent, detect and respond quickly to health crises. HERA will also have to anticipate certain potential health threats and crises. HERA will be that instrument that will ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical equipment among Member States.

HERA, along with other European health initiatives, is essential for countries like Romania

Andrei Baciu, State Secretary of the Ministry of Health, reiterated the importance of HERA for a European Union better prepared to face new health threats, as well as Romania’s essential role in the HERA working groups.

  • HERA can be an extremely good opportunity for Romania because it will accelerate the development of internal mechanisms that mirror the work that HERA does. Romanians expect a high level of performance and Romania’s membership of such a European mechanism will force progress in Romania.
  • HERA, along with other European health initiatives, are essential for countries like Romania and the benefits of these efforts can be seen in everyday life. Such mechanisms are really the ones that have made it possible for Romania to have vaccines at the same time as any other Member State.The European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), essential for countries like Romania.

Romania has started the designation process and is aware of everything that is going on. Work is underway to set up these task forces. There is a lot of activity. Romania is already part of all the mechanisms within HERA and is on track with everything that has been requested so far.

Moreover, the Ministry of Health wants to make the most of these opportunities that this European initiative represents, precisely in order to generate in Romania a health system that can provide European advantages.

The Ministry of Health has said that it is essential for Romania to be part of such mechanisms, but the big problem in our country is that there is no institutional culture to learn from the difficulties we are going through. We have so many things to learn and so many things to improve in European health systems, and the most important advantage of this authority is that it institutionalises this ‘lessons learned’ mechanism and then comes up with concrete proposals.

National legislation must be drawn up to regulate the powers of each institution

The ANMDMR has informed its colleagues in the specialist structures about the HERA regulations. According to the ANMDMR representative, a crucial importance for HERA is the collaboration between HERA and national authorities. Even the Medicines Agency will be involved in this process, but at the moment it is not clear how. ANMDMR argues that a national regulatory act will have to be developed to regulate the tasks of each institution. Different aspects need to be regulated in order to be able to implement the regulation at national level as well. The ANMDMR will indirectly provide support in the working groups within HERA.

In order to ensure a rapid launch and building on the HERA incubator launched in February 2021, HERA will be established as an internal Commission structure and will become fully operational in early 2022. Its operation will be reviewed and adapted annually until 2025, when a full review will be carried out.

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MEP Vasile Blaga: The European Social Security Passport, a first step in protecting the rights of Romanian workers in the EU

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© Vasile Blaga / Facebook

The European Social Security Passport is an instrument to protect the rights of workers in the European Union, MEP Vasile Blaga (PNL, EPP) told for CaleaEuropeană.ro on Monday.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution at last week’s plenary session in Strasbourg calling on the European Commission to speed up the procedures for introducing the European Social Security Passport.

“This passport will play an extremely important role especially for mobile workers in the EU and will actively contribute to the fight against social fraud and undeclared work. Moreover, it will make it much easier to protect the rights of workers and their social security contributions. At the same time, this passport will be an extremely useful tool in simplifying and streamlining bureaucratic and administrative procedures in the area of the mobile labour market”, said EPP MEP Vasile Blaga.

He pointed out that the number of Romanian workers circulating in the European labour market is extremely high and drew attention to the many cases where Romanian workers have been abused, had their fundamental rights ignored by employers in other countries or have not been paid social security.

“This passport can be a first step in protecting their rights much more rigorously across Romania’s borders in the European Union. The complexity of implementing the European Social Security Passport comes from the fact that it will have to take into account all the particularities of the national social security systems, while not becoming a condition for exercising free movement”, added the EPP MEP.

The European Parliament has asked the European Commission for a legislative proposal on a European social security passport before the end of 2022, to reduce the administrative burden on mobile workers.

In a resolution adopted on Thursday by 598 votes to 59 with 38 abstentions, MEPs urged the European Commission to speed up plans for a European Social Security Passport (ESSP) to facilitate the portability of social security rights for mobile workers.

The European Social Security Passport will allow real-time verification of mobile workers’ data by the national authorities of the Member State where they intend to work. It will help combat social fraud and undeclared work, while making it easier to track and claim workers’ social security rights and contributions.

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