Written by Suzana Elena Anghel Gavrilescu, Izabela Cristina Bacian, Ralf Drachenberg and Susanna Tenhunen,
The European Council held five formal meetings in 2016. The analysis of the conclusions of the debates shows that it dedicated 50 % of its attention to migration. The two other main topics were foreign and security policy; and economic governance, competitiveness, and trade, each attracting 20 % of the leaders’ attention.
Taking migration as a case study, it shows that within one year, the European Council was able to move from setting strategic priorities to deliberating and/or endorsing concrete measures, while finally concentrating on follow-up activities by acknowledging the adoption or implementation of concrete actions. It also showed that the European Council has shifted its focus from the Western Balkans route to the Central Mediterranean, based on rapidly changing developments on the ground.
Agenda items constitute the building blocks of policies and the European Council deals with them in a flexible manner. For example, Libya was discussed in some instances within the framework of the migration debate and in other cases as part of the foreign policy debate. Similarly, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), was discussed both in the migration debate, and also in the context of internal security. The Heads of State or Government discussed external security (defence) both as part of the foreign and security policy debate and as part of a broader debate on security, thus reflecting the internal and external security nexus.
This In-depth Analysis confirms last year’s finding that certain agenda items, particularly in the foreign policy realm, are difficult to include when the ‘Annotated draft agenda’ is published, which is almost six weeks ahead of a European Council. Sometimes topics for discussion are added later, and their inclusion on the agenda is confirmed only days before the start of the European Council, at the General Affairs Council (GAC) meeting.
The analysis also shows the recurrence of certain political messages. For example, in the case of migration, the Heads of State or Government repeatedly called for the implementation of the relocation and resettlement regulations. With respect to Syria, EU leaders recognised the dramatic humanitarian situation on many occasions, and called for humanitarian access within the country. When dealing with economic governance, the European Council repeatedly underlined the importance of deepening and modernising the single market.
The European Council’s focus on Europe’s economy included the performance evaluation of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and the proposal to extend it; upgrading the Single Market; and EU support for Member States in tackling youth unemployment. EU leaders also discussed trade issues at greater length than in 2015, focusing on trade defence instruments and free trade agreement negotiations in particular. This focus reflects important changes in international trade, such as rising protectionist tendencies and global overcapacity in certain industrial sectors. Even within the EU, the signature of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) fuelled a broad debate over the future of trade policy, particularly on certain provisions, which have been met with resistance in several Member States.
Continued United Kingdom (UK) membership of the European Union was the focus of the February 2016 European Council. The EU’s leaders reached an agreement, conditional upon a UK vote for the country to remain in the EU, which would (and indeed did), become void following the 23 June 2016 referendum in the UK to leave the EU. The referendum result had an impact on the functioning of the European Council, as it introduced a twin-track approach, with EU-28 and EU-27 meetings. The EU-28 focused on developments linked to the above-mentioned policy topics, whilst the EU-27 concentrated on the future of the EU and on the procedural arrangements for the negotiation process, which would follow the United Kingdom’s notification to leave the EU under Article 50 TEU. The EU-27 met three times in an informal format. Most progress was achieved in September 2016 in Bratislava, when EU leaders adopted a Declaration and Roadmap diagnosing the EU’s problems and laying the groundwork for an EU at 27, in addition to steering short and medium-term EU policy.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘The European Council in 2016: Overview of decisions and discussions‘.