Written by Ralf Drachenberg with Margot Vrijhoeven,
As a result of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) and the coronavirus pandemic, the political and economic context for the negotiations on the 2021‑2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF) was extremely challenging – and quite different to the previous set of MFF negotiations – testing the (limits of the) EU’s resilience and solidarity. Despite the challenges faced, the EU institutions finally managed to agree on a €1.8 trillion financial package, the biggest in EU history. To reach this historic result, the MFF negotiations went through five distinct phases, including key moments when the European Council significantly influenced developments.
In 2014, the European Parliament had been highly critical of the process leading to the deal on the 2014‑2020 MFF, and in particular, of the degree of involvement of the European Council, which in its view had over-stepped the role assigned to it by the Treaties. When comparing the European Council’s influence on the MFF negotiations then and today, can a (d)evolution be observed, or has its role been more of the same, giving the impression of déjà vu?
The analysis shows that the European Council has remained as involved as ever and that its role has become even more central in the negotiations. The European Council got involved very early in trying to influence the policy priorities of the next MFF, as well as the negotiation schedule. Other indications of this involvement are the increased number of meetings in general and on the MFF in particular during the negotiation period, as well as the increased level of detail of the European Council’s considerations on the MFF (as measured in length of the conclusions). EU Heads of State or Government not only gave detailed conclusions on the MFF regulation, but also on other related legislative issues, such as the rule of law regulation, which ought to have been dealt with between the European Parliament and Council exclusively.
Thus, the 2021-2027 MFF negotiations not only reconfirmed the European Council’s influence on the legislative aspects of the MFF; they also strengthened the European Council’s role as arbiter in the legislative process (i.e. by stepping in and moving issues from the Council level to the European Council level). At the request of a Member State (or group of Member States), the European Council can notably get involved in the assessment of another Member State’s implementation of the (legislation on the) MFF, in particular with respect to the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) and the rule of law. Consequently, the 2021‑2027 MFF negotiations represent a case study of European Council intervention in various parts of the policy cycle: agenda-setting and legislative decision-making, as well as assessing implementation, often exceeding the role envisaged in the Treaties.
Comparing the 2014-2020 and the 2021-2027 MFF negotiations also shows that, besides the new rule of law conditionality, negotiations focused initially on the traditional controversial issues: the size of the EU budget, the balance between policy areas, the existence and size of rebates and the use of new own resources. Following the onset of the pandemic and the decision to link the new recovery fund to the MFF, a second set of sensitive issues was added to the negotiation basket; these include: the size of the recovery fund, the balance between grants and loans, the allocation criteria for funding, the length and modalities of repayment, as well as the governance of the recovery fund.
These new issues, together with Brexit and the absence of the UK in the negotiations, contributed to an adjustment of the traditional Member State alliances on multiannual budgetary issues within the European Council. The assessment of EU leaders’ Twitter communications on the MFF illustrates the fragmentation of the two previously relatively firm blocs of net contributors (namely Member States that contribute more to the EU budget than the amount of EU funding they receive) and net payers, and their moves to various new MFF alliances.
EU leaders’ Twitter communications on the MFF also illustrate a development in their messaging from one individual European Council meeting to another, as well as throughout 2020 as a whole. On the one hand, the assessment highlights the active use of Twitter by EU Heads of State or Government as a tool to display their participation in the negotiations and as a platform to celebrate national successes in the process. At the same time however, EU leaders did not use the opportunity provided by this type of social media to explain their priorities in the MFF negotiations to their electorate or how they reached the final compromise.
This analysis has also highlighted the European Parliament’s critical stance regarding the European Council’s involvement throughout the 2021‑2027 MFF negotiations. Initially, the Parliament’s criticism focused mainly on EU leaders’ direct interference in the legislative sphere. In the final phase of the negotiations, Parliament mainly criticised the delays in the timing of adoption by the European Council and its role in the governance of the RRF, as well as commenting on the legal standing of European Council conclusions.
Read this ‘in-depth analysis’ on ‘The role of the European Council in negotiating the 2021-27 MFF‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.