This study has been written by Desmond Dinan, Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, Virginia. Professor Dinan, who has been a Visiting Fellow at DG EPRS, is writing in a personal capacity.
For the first year in almost a decade, the European Council was not in crisis mode in 2017. Throughout the year, the political and economic situation in the European Union (EU) improved markedly.
Brexit was a challenge, not a crisis. President Tusk devoted considerable attention to the matter in 2017. Because of his preparatory work, it took up surprisingly little time at EU-27 (Article 50) meetings, the format of the European Council dealing with the issue following the announcement by the United Kingdom (UK) of its intention to withdraw. Nevertheless, the European Council played a decisive role, first, on 29 April, by approving guidelines for opening negotiations with the UK; second, on 15 December, by agreeing to move to the second phase of the process, following the UK’s commitment to a divorce deal in the first phase.
The European Council met at 27 also to discuss the future of Europe. The European Council’s contributions included the Rome Declaration in March and the Leaders’ Agenda in October, an initiative to improve the working methods and output of the European Council, covering an 18‑month period. The European Council gave the Leaders’ Agenda its first real test in December, when it convened separate Leaders’ Meetings on migration and EMU reform (during a Euro Summit).
Migration remained the most contentious and time-consuming issue for the European Council, although it became less urgent by the end of 2017 thanks to a dramatic reduction in the number of migrants entering the EU across the central Mediterranean. The big fault line within the European Council centred on the relocation of migrants among Member States, with a number of leaders adamantly opposing mandatory quotas. The divide was clearly visible in December, when the European Council discussed migration under the auspices of the Leaders’ Agenda.
The European Council basked in good economic news in 2017. EU leaders addressed economic and social issues at the March European Council; discussed the digital economy at a special summit in Tallinn, in September; and participated in the Gothenburg Social Summit, in November. European Council meetings in 2017 were conspicuously devoid of EMU-related discussions until President Tusk convened an inclusive (EU-27) Euro Summit in December, under the auspices of the Leaders’ Agenda, to discuss EMU reform.
There were major advances in 2017 in the policy fields of security and defence. Growing international uncertainty undoubtedly helped. The most noteworthy development was the launch of permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), a Treaty-based framework to deepen defence cooperation among a self-selecting group of Member States, in December.
The most significant change in the composition of the European Council in 2017 was the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, in June. German Chancellor Angela Merkel won re-election in September, although lengthy negotiations to form a new coalition government kept her away from the November summit and delayed a much-anticipated infusion of new Franco-German energy into the future of Europe debate. President Tusk was re-elected to a second, two-and-a-half year term in March.
Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, addressed the European Council at the beginning of each of its regular and some of its other meetings in 2017. President Tusk reported to Parliament in January 2017 on the outcome of the December 2016 summit; and later in 2017 on the outcome of that that year’s March, April, and October summits.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘The European Council in 2017: Overview of decisions and discussions‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.