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Week Ahead (20 February)

W/C Monday, 20 February – Negotiations continue on potential EU-UK compromise deal on Northern Ireland Protocol

Earlier optimism around an imminent deal between the EU and the UK on the Northern Ireland Protocol has faded somewhat, following a cool reception from the DUP, the European Research Group (ERG) and, via the Telegraph, Boris Johnson. The building blocks of a deal remain in place after Brussels appears to have agreed to lift most customs controls and phytosanitary checks for goods originating in Great Britain whose final destination is Northern Ireland, limiting controls and checks on goods destined for the Republic of Ireland and the broader EU single market.

A series of recent ‘’goodwill gestures’’ paved the way for a compromise. Last month, the two sides agreed on a deal on data sharing on trade with Northern Ireland. This means that Brussels will start having access to the UK’s IT systems to monitor trade. A last ‘’red line’’ for Brussels is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in trade disputes, with the EU insisting it should continue to have oversight of single market issues.

Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the deal will pass the DUP’s “7 tests” and hardliners such as Sammy Wilson have already indicated that they will not accept ECJ jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is more moderate but this will remain a difficult sell for him. The ERG, which has indicated it will take its line from the DUP, will meet tomorrow to discuss tactics.

Meanwhile, the UK government has announced it would delay holding new elections in Northern Ireland for a year. Northern Ireland’s parties will now have until 18 January 2024 to form a power-sharing government before fresh elections have to be called.

W/C Monday, 20 February – EU’s 10th sanctions package to be approved

The EU plans to have its 10th package of sanctions against Russia approved by 24 February, which will mark the first anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this month, von der Leyen’s chief of staff debriefed EU ambassadors on the Commission’s proposal for the upcoming sanctions package. The package, unveiled by President von der Leyen last week, includes:

  • Export bans worth more than €11 billion in critical technology, industrial goods, and products used in the construction sector, including trucks, construction machines, pumps, and electronic components that Russia could use for the creation of weapons.

  • Further restrictions on the exports of dual-use goods and advanced tech goods, including components used to manufacture drones and missiles, supplied by countries such as Iran.

  • Additional sanctions against individuals, including military leaders, officials deployed by Russians in occupied Ukrainian territories, and journalists employed by Russian state media.

  • Additional financial sanctions, with the inclusion of three more Russian banks.

EU ambassadors are currently ironing out the details with negotiations ongoing on inter alia whether synthetic rubber will be included. Meanwhile, the EU foreign affairs ministers will meet in Brussels today to discuss the war, including ways to better prevent the circumvention of sanctions.

W/C Monday, 20 February – Commission’s public consultation on ‘’fair share’’ proposal likely to be launched this week

A consultation on the future of the connectivity sector, including the ‘’fair share proposal’’, which could force Big Tech firms to pay for access to network infrastructure, is likely to be launched this week.

For years, telecom operators have been lobbying big tech firms to contribute to the costs of developing digital infrastructure, arguing that splitting the bill will be necessary to deliver the EU’s 5G rollout plan. In recent months, the European Commission appears increasingly sympathetic to their cause. However, the idea has drawn a diverse group of critics, including left-leaning MEPs, digital rights groups, and the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) who have argued that such a plan could pose threats to the net neutrality rules, ensuring that access to content and services is non-discriminatory and that all traffic is treated equally.

The EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton previously announced that the European Commission would launch a consultation at the beginning of 2023. The Commission’s publication of its own proposal is expected by the end of May.

Tuesday, 21 February - Microsoft to defend Activision Blizzard deal at EU hearing

Microsoft will defend its proposed $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard at an EU hearing on Tuesday, amid an ongoing investigation by the European Commission into the probe.

Lawyers from both companies will present their arguments for why the deal should be approved at a closed-door oral hearing in Brussels. Representatives of Sony, PlayStation maker and Microsoft’s main rival will also be present. Sony, alongside other gaming companies, developers, distributors, game publishers, and console providers have voiced concerns that once the transaction is completed Microsoft could block their access to Activision’s games.

The takeover deal, which, if successful, would be the biggest gaming acquisition in history, has drawn broader regulatory scrutiny, with similar in-depth investigations currently underway in the U.S and the UK. The Commission has set a deadline of 11 April for its decision on the proposed deal. So far, the deal has only been approved by the competition authorities of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Serbia, and most recently Chile.

Friday, 24 February – CSO to release data on arrivals of Ukrainian refugees in Ireland

Updated data on the number of Ukrainian refugees to have arrived in Ireland since the beginning of Russia's invasion will be released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) on Friday.

By 11 December 2022, there were 67,448 arrivals from Ukraine to Ireland since the Russian invasion last February. In March, the government activated the EU Temporary Protection Directive which grants Ukrainian people the right to work and access to services and social benefits. In October, the EU announced the extension of the special protection status for Ukrainian refugees by one year, up until March 2024.

Irish people remain broadly supportive of government efforts to accommodate Ukrainian refugees but the influx has further highlighted the housing crisis. The new data will be published only a few days after the Department of Housing deemed unsuitable nearly two-thirds of 500 buildings put forward for refurbishment to house Ukrainian refugees. There are also concerns that the accommodation crisis for refugees could worsen in the summer when people who pledged spare rooms for Ukrainian people a year ago decide to re-pledge them.

The pressures put on housing, education, and medical facilities, coupled with high inflation have raised concerns about a potential public backlash. Nevertheless, the CSO announced last Thursday that inflation in Ireland slowed for third consecutive month, dropping to 7.8% in January, after reaching a 38-year high of 9.2% last October.

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