Written by Suzana Anghel with Dawid Fusiek,
On 8 May 2021, EU Heads of State or Government met in Porto for an informal European Council, preceded on 7 May by a social summit, organised by the Portuguese Presidency. The informal European Council was followed by an EU–India leaders’ meeting, attended remotely by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. At their informal meeting, EU leaders discussed social policy and, without formally endorsing the Commission action plan, adopted the Porto Declaration, welcoming ‘the new EU headline targets on jobs, skills and poverty reduction’ for 2030. They also assessed the EU Covid-19 situation, focusing on vaccine production and delivery, the future EU digital green certificate, and international solidarity in the fight against the pandemic. They also prepared for the EU–India leaders’ meeting, agreeing to resume talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) and start negotiations on a stand-alone investment protection agreement, and on an agreement on geographical indications that, depending on the pace of negotiations, could either stand alone or be built into the FTA.
The 2020-2021 Leaders’ Agenda announced a meeting of the Heads of State or Government on 7‑8 May 2021, dedicated to the ‘social impact of the digital and green transformation’, and taking place ‘back-to-back’ with the EU–India leaders’ meeting. The social summit was added by the Portuguese Presidency, as a highlight of its six-month presidency. After Gothenburg in November 2017, Porto was the second social summit to be scheduled with an informal EU leaders’ meeting, allowing leaders to focus on social policy, a topic that comes onto their agenda only occasionally.
2. The Gothenburg and Porto summits: Similarities and differences
Whereas the Gothenburg Social Summit proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Porto Social Summit focused on the related action plan; analysts summed up the process as ‘turning principles into action’. In Gothenburg, the European Parliament, Council and the European Commission made the Interinstitutional Proclamation on the European Pillar of Social Rights in the presence of the social partners. Proclamations, as legal instruments, are not mentioned in the EU Treaties, and are considered an expression of ‘soft law’. The social pillar’s 20 principles and rights are thus not binding on the institutions; conversely, they are binding on the EU and/or the Member States when enshrined in legally binding documents such as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The social partners were fully involved in the process and, in Porto, alongside the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Portuguese Presidency, signed the Porto Social Commitment, which welcomes the Commission’s action plan and stresses that the European Pillar of Social Rights represents ‘a compass to guide us towards a strong, sustainable, inclusive recovery and towards upward economic and social convergence’. The Porto Social Commitment was handed over by the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to inform and inspire the European Council’s social policy debate. In turn, the EU leaders adopted the Porto Declaration, expressing their determination ‘to continue deepening the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights at EU and national level’.
The role played by the six-monthly rotating Council presidency in the organisation of the social summit was substantively different in Gothenburg and Porto. The Gothenburg Social Summit was called at the initiative of Sweden and Estonia. Estonia, which held the presidency of the Council at the time of the summit, actively supported the event, while also organising its own presidency event in the form of the Tallinn Digital Summit. Conversely, the Porto Social Summit was designed as the centre-piece of the Portuguese Presidency right from the start.
There were noteworthy differences between the Gothenburg and Porto informal summits. Ahead of Gothenburg, there was a clear intention by the European Council President at the time, Donald Tusk, to act as agenda-shaper. As he stated in his invitation: ‘I will also like to share with you my ideas on how to take the social agenda forward in the European Council in December’. Tusk circulated a Leaders’ note – the first under the 2017-2019 Leaders’ Agenda – to structure the debate, and used the invitation letter to stress the limited EU competences in the area of education and social issues. By contrast, Charles Michel used his invitation letter to announce the topics the EU leaders would consider, namely: social policy, the Covid-19 situation and external relations. Much of Michel’s letter focused on preparatory work for the EU–India leaders’ meeting, confirming his focus on foreign policy since his mandate began.
3. The informal European Council: Format and participation
The EU leaders met in person for the first time since December 2020, although a few leaders, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, attended remotely owing to the domestic coronavirus situations in their countries. The hybrid – in-person and remote participation – nature of the Porto meeting was a first since the beginning of the pandemic, as all the meetings held over the past year have been either entirely in person or, on the contrary, conducted in a fully virtual setting. This model offers flexibility and could be used in the future for informal summits, but not for regular ones, for which personal interaction between leaders is key to successful negotiations.
4. Main results of the informal European Council meeting
Since the European Council’s last discussion on Covid-19 in March 2021, the virus has continued to circulate at a high rate in all Member States. Nevertheless, there are now encouraging signs of a reduction in the number of infections.
Production and delivery of vaccines
The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, reported on vaccine production and delivery, confirming that 200 million doses had been delivered to the EU Member States so far, and that enough doses would be delivered by July 2021 to meet the 70 % population vaccination target. Furthermore, a new contract for the delivery of 1.8 billion doses up to 2023 has been signed with BioNTech-Pfizer to cover third dose needs and possible annual vaccination programmes. To avoid a loss of speed in the Member States’ vaccination campaigns owing to citizens’ hesitancy in being vaccinated, strengthened national and EU communication efforts are required.
EU digital green certificate
EU leaders took stock of progress made in setting up an EU digital green certificate aimed at fostering EU citizens’ freedom of movement, while preserving their health. The certificate, which will only certify that a person has been vaccinated, tested negative in a PCR test or developed antibodies following an infection with SARS/Covid-19, is expected to come into force in early June 2021. The Commission President welcomed the speedy work undertaken by the co-legislators, stressing that the legislative procedure was expected to be completed by the end of May 2021. EU leaders will return to the topic at a special European Council meeting on 25 May 2021.
International solidarity on vaccines
Charles Michel stressed that ‘Covid-19 is the greatest challenge of global solidarity in generations’, and that ‘the only way out is to immunise the global population’. Ursula von der Leyen called the EU ‘the pharmacy of the world’, stressing that the EU was currently exporting about 50 % of its production of Covid-19 vaccines and calling on countries around the world to follow suit. The EU is committed to the COVAX facility, to which France chose to donate some of its doses in support of African countries. Donations may also occur bilaterally, as was the case with Romania, which has donated vaccines to Moldova and to Ukraine.
EU leaders had an initial debate on intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines, largely triggered by the US announcement that it would support a temporary waiver of patent rights. Several countries, including India and South Africa, have introduced a request to the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the IP rights for Covid-19 vaccines to be waived. The request goes beyond patents and includes technology, know-how and manufacturing processes. EU leaders agreed that there was a need to increase vaccine production rapidly worldwide in order to be able to fight the spread of the virus and its variants. How best to proceed had still to be clarified. However, a patent waiver alone would not be sufficient, since scaling up vaccine production would require technology and knowledge-sharing. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, considered that the model used in the international fight against HIV could be replicated, offering pharmaceutical companies the necessary guarantees as well as the opportunity to be part of the process in an inclusive way. Ursula von der Leyen stressed that measures such as vaccine exports, reselling and donations had immediate effects and that long-term solutions could include capacity-building in third countries, licence transfers and pricing.
The Porto Declaration and the future of EU social policy
EU leaders adopted the Porto Declaration without endorsing the Porto Social Commitment, but nonetheless taking note of the outcome of the Porto Social Summit. They confirmed their commitment to building a ‘fair and social Europe’ and to implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights as envisaged by the 2019-2024 EU Strategic Agenda. The Porto Declaration covers the principles and rights included in the European Pillar of Social Rights, with very few exceptions – data protection and long-term care. On minimum wages, a sensitive subject for both social partners and some of the Member States, as is apparent from the language used in both the Porto Declaration (‘defending fair wages’) and the Porto Social Commitment (support for ‘decent wages’), the European Commission presented a proposal for a directive in October 2020.
Given perennial sensitivities on specific aspects of social policy, the EU leaders did not endorse the action plan, despite an express request from the European Commission. They did however recognise that the action plan ‘provides useful guidance for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights’ and ‘welcomed the new EU headline targets on jobs, skills and poverty reduction’ thus offering political support for the three pillars of the EU’s social policy up until 2030.
On employment, the target of at least 78 % of the population between 20 and 64 years being employed by 2030 is an ambitious but realistic one, as the EU employment rate was 73.1 % in 2019, thus 4.9 % higher than in 2009. With respect to skills and education, at least 60 % of adults should take part in training courses on an annual basis. This target is challenging, as in 2016 only 37 % of adults took part in training. The last target aims to reduce the number of people in the EU at risk of poverty and social exclusion by at least 15 million, from 91 million at present (17.9 million children).
Gender equality is one of the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. For the Porto Declaration to mention that the EU was committed to ‘work actively to close gender gaps in employment, pay and pensions’, unity needed to be achieved in the European Council on the word ‘gender’, as just days prior to the summit some Member States were still expressing reservations. Figure 1 below shows the degree of progress in reducing the gender pay and pensions gaps, as well as in increasing the employment rates of both men and women over the past five years.
EU leaders recognised ‘the importance of closely following the progress achieved towards the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights’. In this way, they responded in part to the call ‘for a regular assessment at the highest political level of progress towards the 2030 headline targets’ made by the signatories of the Porto Social Commitment.
Message of the President of the European Parliament: European Parliament President David Sassoli warned that the pandemic threatened ‘to leave a legacy of poverty and social and economic instability’, and called on the EU institutions to ‘immediately define a strong political agenda with clear, ambitious and achievable objectives and with clear indicators of social sustainability’.
5. The EU–India leaders’ meeting
At the EU–India leaders’ meeting, Charles Michel expressed the EU’s ‘sympathy to Prime Minister Modi and the people of India as they battle the current Covid-19 surge’, and expressed ‘full solidarity’ during these challenging times. He stressed that, as the world’s largest democracies, the EU and India share the same values and are therefore natural partners. With a view to developing bilateral cooperation, they adopted a joint statement, which acknowledged the resumption of the human rights’ dialogue and a new EU-India connectivity partnership that identifies digital, energy, transport and people-to-people contact as priority areas. Substantive progress was made in the areas of trade and health, with agreement to resume talks on an FTA and open negotiations on investment and geographical indications agreements. With respect to health, the EU Member States offered India assistance and equipment worth over €100 million, in the form of medicines, oxygen and ventilators; the European Investment Bank is meanwhile increasing its financial support for India.
Read the complete briefing on ‘Outcome of the meetings of EU leaders in Porto on 7-8 May 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.