Countries in line for EU membership would face same treatment as all others outside the EU and - as things stand - no preferential terms are on offer to the UK post-Brexit
A committee of MEPs voted on Wednesday to make it harder for third countries to take part in Digital Europe, the proposed €9.2 billion programme for digital infrastructure and skills.
The amendments expand the list of criteria that must be satisfied for countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to participate. MEPs also removed distinctions between applicants in countries on the road to joining the EU, such as Macedonia and Serbia, and all others outside the EEA.
Unless it can secure preferential terms in negotiations over its future relationship with the EU, the UK post-Brexit will find itself lumped in with all other third countries.
The European Commission launched its proposal for Digital Europe in June, with the goal of boosting digital resources and capabilities in high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, advanced digital skills, and interoperability.
One set of rules for non-EEA countries
The original Commission proposal specifies the programme would be open to countries in line for EU membership and to countries covered by the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) such as Ukraine, Belarus, Syria, Israel and Egypt, subject to special conditions.
But MEPs on the European Parliament's industry, research, and energy committee (ITRE) adopted an amended version of the proposal that would apply a single set of stricter rules to all applications from third countries.
The July dossier, prepared by Austrian liberal MEP Angelika Mlinar, cited the programme’s role in building up European capabilities as a justification for why, “cooperation with third countries in the specific context of this programme seems inappropriate.”
Contribute to cybersecurity
The amendments adopted by ITRE stipulate that any third country’s participation must be in the EU's interests, contribute specifically to cybersecurity goals, and not pose any security concerns.
The Commission's proposal does not contain these three criteria. It requires a "fair balance" of third countries' contributions relative to the benefits they receive, that all conditions and contributions of participation be agreed in writing, and that third countries not receive any decision-making power over the programme. ITRE retained these criteria in addition to the three new rules.
The amendments may clear up some potential for confusion. Although the Commission's proposal describes conditions for candidate countries and those under the ENP specifically, it also lays out specific rules for "third countries"—the definition of which includes candidate countries and those subject to the ENP anyway.
ITRE voted on the amendments to Digital Europe and to the next research programme, Horizon Europe, in the same session. Both Digital Europe and Horizon Europe are planned to run from the beginning of 2021 to the end of 2027, the latter with a budget more than ten times that of Digital Europe.
Though the two draft programmes overlap in some of the technologies they focus on, they differ in that Horizon Europe is a research programme, whereas Digital Europe is intended to build-up Europe’s digital capabilities and infrastructure.
The committee also made several other tweaks to the draft text. Several amendments emphasise that Digital Europe should "reinforce" and "ensure" the "strategic autonomy" of Europe, where US and Chinese technology products dominate the market.
More superficially, MEPs inserted references to supporting start-ups throughout the proposal, even though the original already contained as many references to SMEs.
There are currently five candidate countries for EU membership: Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Turkey. The Commission's proposal also makes special mention of “potential candidates," which currently means Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, though the latter is not recognised by EU member states Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, or Spain.
The European Neighbourhood Policy manages the EU's relations with the countries of the Mediterranean coast in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as with non-EU countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. It does not include Russia.