Written by Ralf Drachenberg and Izabela Bacian,
Initially planned to discuss only the EU response to the coronavirus pandemic, recent developments required EU leaders to dedicate attention to other issues during the European Council video-conference meeting of 19 November 2020. In this context, they addressed notably the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), specifically the rule-of-law conditionality linked to the MFF, and the fight against terrorism. While the vast majority of Member States agree with the compromise reached between negotiators from the Council and the European Parliament on the issue of rule-of-law conditionality, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are currently not able to support it. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, indicated that discussions to find an acceptable solution for all would continue. The exchange of information on the coronavirus pandemic focused in particular on the development of vaccines, ensuring that they would be available and affordable to all EU citizens, and on the coordination of the exit from the second-wave restrictions. The European Council agreed once more to further strengthen coordination of action against the coronavirus pandemic.
1. European Council meeting
The European Council meeting of 15-16 October had already agreed to intensify overall coordination, both at EU level and between Member States, in respect of the coronavirus crisis, and to regularly exchange information on the situation by video-conference. EU leaders continued their discussions on testing and vaccination as well as on the lifting of restrictive measures, following the peak of the second wave of infections. Discussions focused on developing a common approach on the use of rapid antigen tests – complementary to PCR tests (which require laboratory analysis) – allowing for mutual recognition of the tests and their results across the EU Member States. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed that reaching 80 % sensitivity in detection of the virus would be part of the necessary performance criteria for rapid antigen tests. Ahead of the meeting, the Commission had adopted a recommendation on the use of rapid antigen tests for the diagnosis of Covid-19. Progress on a digital passenger locator form was also made, with two Member States already part of the pilot project and 12 more expected to join soon. The roundtable discussion included an exchange on national testing strategies.
Regarding vaccines, Charles Michel welcomed the conclusion of advance purchase agreements with five pharmaceutical companies (BioNTech, CureVac, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK) and stressed that national vaccination plans needed to be in place to ensure vaccines are made available and affordable to all EU citizens. Logistical challenges such as storage, transport and the number of doses represent just some of the challenges ahead; a massive communication effort to facilitate the uptake of the vaccine by EU citizens will also need to be carried out. President von der Leyen also announced that Team Europe – that is the Member States together with the European Commission – have provided €800 million to COVAX, the international facility bringing together 190 countries to make sure that low- and middle-income countries will have access to future vaccines. President Michel underlined the EU’s commitment to COVAX, and recalled that the vaccines should be a common public good, accessible to all and universally available.
Finally, President Michel cautioned against the premature lifting of restrictive measures. The exit from lockdown should be ‘gradual and regressive’. The Commission will soon make a proposal for a coordinated approach to lifting the containment measures. President Michel stressed that the coronavirus has had a devastating human cost, and that behind all the numbers and statistics lie human lives, which is why EU leaders remained united in their fight in combatting the pandemic.
Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and rule-of-law conditionality
Although not in their initial plans, EU leaders also addressed the MFF for the 2021-27 period, and in particular rule-of-law conditionality (i.e. the proposed general regime of conditionality for the protection of the Union budget). The rule-of-law conditionality regime forms part of the package of measures concerning the 2021-27 MFF, also including Next Generation EU (NGEU) and the own resources decision (for a detailed overview, see EPRS, Negotiations on the next MFF and the EU recovery instrument). However, the approval procedures for the different elements vary, notably concerning the role of the European Parliament and the majority needed for approval in the Council (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Main elements of the MFF package and the legislative procedures applicable
As holder of the rotating Presidency-in-office of the Council of the EU, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, updated her colleagues on the state of play in the discussions between the Parliament and Council on the MFF and NGEU recovery package. On 5 November 2020, the two institutions reached a provisional agreement on rule-of-law budget conditionality, and then on 10 November they reached a political agreement on the MFF. The different legislative elements of the next MFF and NGEU were presented to the Council for approval on 16 November. While the vast majority of Member States agreed with the compromise on the table, Poland and Hungary withheld their consent to launch written procedure to adopt the Own Resources Decision. They chose to block this part of the package, with which they have no specific issue, because it requires unanimity in Council for its adoption, while the rule of law conditionality, where their real concern lies, is decided by qualified majority voting.
At the General Affairs Council on 17 November, numerous participants underlined the seriousness of the situation and called for a responsible approach from all sides against the backdrop of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which made EU programmes and financial support particularly important for citizens, businesses and economic recovery in general. Subsequently, the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, also criticised the rule of law budget conditionality.
Ursula von der Leyen stressed that the Commission supported the agreement found between the co-legislators. Both Presidents Michel and von der Leyen indicated that they ‘will continue to find an acceptable solution for all’, with the rotating Presidency leading the efforts. Charles Michel announced that he would hold consultations in different formats ahead of the December European summit, stressing that nobody under-estimated the seriousness of the situation.
Fight against terrorism
EU leaders expressed their solidarity with France and Austria following the terrorist attacks of recent months, notably in Paris, Nice and Vienna. They stated that they ‘will never shy away from defending our values and promoting our freedoms’. In that context, they stressed the importance of looking at the role of online platforms and of setting a stricter framework.
On 29 October, the European Council had already issued a joint statement, in which it condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms’ the attacks in France, calling them ‘attacks on our shared values’. Additionally, a video-conference, which focused on a European response to the terrorist attacks and included the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte as well as the Presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission, took place on 10 November 2020. It was agreed that ‘an uncompromising stance to uphold the free and democratic order will be taken in the fight against terrorism’. EU leaders urged the acceleration of progress on important European actions to fight terrorism, including the planned entry-exit system to monitor travel across the external borders of the Schengen area.
On 13 November, the fifth anniversary of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, EU home affairs ministers issued a statement on the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Ministers pledged to protect Europe’s societies and its people, to uphold common values and the European way of life as well as to safeguard our pluralist societies. They recalled that the security structures and legal framework in the Member States and at European Union level had been strengthened over the past two decades, but indicated that additional efforts and resources were needed. The European Council will revert to this issue in December.
While EU-UK negotiations on a future partnership were not discussed during the 19 November meeting, a number of leaders, including the Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and French President, Emmanuel Macron, called for an acceleration of preparations for a ‘no-deal’ scenario. Negotiations between the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and British counterpart, David Frost, had intensified over the last few weeks; however, they had to be interrupted on Thursday 19 November, due to a case of coronavirus reported in Barnier’s team. Negotiations will continue remotely, however there is not yet agreement in the main areas of divergence between the two sides. With Barnier self-isolating, Ilze Juhansone, the Secretary-General of the Commission, informed the Member States’ EU ambassadors about the state of play in the negotiations the day after the leaders met. With no sign of agreement yet, time is running out for the ratification of any agreement before the end of the year.
2. The European Council and the video-conference working method
This meeting was the eighth video-conference meeting of the European Council’s members since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The video-conference working method was introduced because of the impossibility of meeting in person.
In 2020, the pandemic impacted not only the format of European Council meetings, but also their frequency. While the Lisbon Treaty requires the European Council to meet at least four times a year (twice every six months), over the years, it has in reality met a lot more often than that; since 2014, it has met between eight and nine times every year, and 12 times so far in 2020. Both its role of crisis manager, and the ease with which video-conference meetings can be organised, explain the increased frequency in 2020.
The experience over the past eight months has shown the advantages and limitations of the video-conference format for European Council meetings. On the one hand, this format is not well suited to negotiations, which traditionally rely heavily on break-out sessions between individual actors or groups in order to reach an agreement. Moreover, while increased coordination between EU Heads of State or Government is generally positive, the fact that many of these discussions do not include the European Parliament’s President and/or are not the subject of a report to Parliament by the European Council’s President, as is required for formal meetings, limits the Parliament’s oversight role. On the other hand, the increased frequency of European Council meetings using the video-conference format, gives EU leaders the opportunity to discuss other pressing issues at Heads of State or Government level, which would either have had to wait until later or be dealt with at a lower level. Several European Council video-conference meetings, which were initially intended to deal solely with EU coordination measures to address the coronavirus pandemic, were in fact also used to raise ‘burning’ or ad hoc issues. President Michel stressed the usefulness of holding regular video-conferences on the coronavirus pandemic in allowing EU leaders to remain seized of the situation across Europe and keep each other informed on the common challenges they face.
Read this briefing on ‘Outcome of the European Council video-conference of 19 November 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.