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SCHOOLS

EU yields power to school-lunch activists

The European parliament has passed new public procurement rules that will allow Swedish authorities to demand more from its suppliers, which could please local movements for better school meals.

EU yields power to school-lunch activists
Swedish pupils eating fish soup at school in Uddevalla. File: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

The EU has spent the past two years looking at ways to modernize its public procurement rules, partly to allow smaller and medium-sized business to compete with bigger enterprises. Across the union, member states spend an average of 18 percent of GDP on buying services and goods.

"Directives must move with the times," European Commissioner for the Internal Market Michel Barnier commented at the time.

The final version cleared a European parliament vote on Wednesday, which will give Swedish local authorities more freedom to shop around as they see fit. A series of grass-roots revolts against procurement procedures have already popped up across Sweden, especially in relation to parents worried about their children's meals at school.

"I'm tired of them procuring without placing demands and only focusing on getting the cheapest deal possible," milk farmer and parent Britta Mattsson told the Upsala Nya Tidning (UNT) newspaper in October after she told her children's school their dietary requirement was to eat food produced according to domestic recommendations.

She referred her children's school to the guidelines published by SEMCo (Miljöstyrningsrådet), the government's expert body on environmental and sustainable procurement.

A dummy demand letter, to be sent to the local authorities, was posted on Facebook to show other parents how they can ask for school meals to be produced in accordance with Swedish standards. 

"I want my children to get the best food available. For example, they should not have to eat meat that could contain traces of antibiotics," Mattsson told UNT about her work to influence procurement in the eastern Swedish town of Östhammar. 

Further south, in Lidingö, near Stockholm, a group of parents incensed at the bare-boned ingredient labels available on food served to their children spoke up when the time came to choose the school's next meal provider. They had felt their concerns and wishes were ignored by the school principal. The parent's first objective was to rid school meals of additives.

As EU parliamentarians readied to vote on the new directive on Wednesday, Swedish MEP Jens Nilsson said the new directive would bestow more freedom in the tender process. 

"What's been bothering Swedish municipal politicians for fifteen years will today become much easier," he told the TT news agency. "You could say that power has been shifted to the procurer." 

The Social Democrat politician said that public authorities could now take into account not only environmental factors when buying goods and services, but look at whether production respected collective bargaining deals and other labour market issues. 

A former regional politician with experience from the procurement process, Nilsson said that Swedish lawyers had often over-interpreted the old EU procurement laws and unnecessarily shackled local leaders in their attempts to add demands to the tender process.

"What I experienced as a municipal politician was that the lawyers would all say the same thing: "Stop now, you can't write the specification that way, the EU doesn't allow it'," he recalled. "And then it turned out you could write specifications with those kind of demands in Denmark and in Italy, but not in Sweden." 

He accused the Swedish Competition Authority (Konkurrensverket), the country's anti-trust agency, of "not being fair".

"They've blamed stuff on the EU that has actually been homemade (policy)," Nilsson said. 

At SEMco, meanwhile, the government has identified more demanding public procurement as a potential money spinner for Sweden.

"(Green public procurement) can stimulate economic development and technical innovation, which may subsequently result in profitable exports in future markets that have high environmental demands," the agency notes on its website. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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