ECOS By / May 21, 2021

Outlook for the special European Council meeting of 24-25 May 2021

On 23 April 2021, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called a special European Council to be held on 25 May 2021; it was subsequently announced on 9 May, that the meeting would commence on the evening of 24 May.

© rarrarorro / Adobe Stock

Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg.

© rarrarorro / Adobe Stock
© rarrarorro / Adobe Stock

The special European Council meeting of 24-25 May 2021 will concentrate on climate policy, hold a strategic debate on relations with Russia, continue its coordination efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic and review the implementation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Regarding climate, EU leaders are expected to take stock of progress made in adopting the EU climate law and give further guidelines on and impetus to EU climate action and policy. The strategic debate on relations with Russia comes at a moment when bilateral relations have reached a new low, and the EU is reviewing its threat perception as part of the ongoing Strategic Compass exercise. The leaders’ discussions on the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will include vaccines, international solidarity and the EU Digital Covid Certificate, which has recently been provisionally agreed on by the co-legislators.

Background and agenda of the special European Council meeting of 24‑25 May 2021

On 23 April 2021, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called a special European Council to be held on 25 May 2021; it was subsequently announced on 9 May, that the meeting would commence on the evening of 24 May. The European Council’s rules of procedure permit the European Council President to convene a ‘special’ meeting of the European Council ‘when the situation so requires’. Special European Councils are ‘formal’ meetings, as are ‘ordinary’ European Council meetings, and generally deliver a set of conclusions. Two key differences however are that special meetings are usually not planned long in advance, and the President is not obliged to submit an annotated draft agenda four weeks in advance of a special meeting.

The 24‑25 May special meeting needs to be seen in the context of the forthcoming ordinary European Council meeting of 24‑25 June 2021. Some of the agenda points of the May European Council, notably Russia and the implementation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, were scheduled to be discussed in June, but have been brought forward. This is probably both an attempt to lighten the June agenda and to give EU leaders the possibility to return to one of these issues for further discussion if needed.

In light of recent developments in the Spanish territory of Ceuta, where 6 000 migrants from Morocco illegally entered Spain, EU Heads of State or Government might also address migration in this specific context. The European Council President, Charles Michel, has already expressed the European Union’s support to Spain.

One outstanding task for the European Council is to define the strategic guidelines for legislative and operational planning within the area of freedom, security and justice, as required by Article 68 TFEU. The European Council had been expected to adopt the new ‘strategic guidelines for legislative and operational planning‘ within the area of freedom, security and justice in spring 2020, but more than a year later and despite the 15 European Council meetings held in the meantime, EU leaders have still not complied with this Treaty obligation.

Main issues

EU coordination efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic

This will be the 17th time the European Council addresses the coronavirus crisis in a period of just over 12 months, underlining its role as Covid‑19 crisis manager. EU leaders will most likely refer to the improved general epidemiological situation and the accelerated pace of vaccinations, but also call for vigilance regarding the emergence and spread of virus variants.

Production, delivery and deployment of vaccines

The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to update the EU Heads of State or Government on the production and delivery of vaccines in the EU. On 18 May 2021, 237.5 million doses of vaccine had been delivered to the EU Member States, 199.6 million administered, and 38.7 % of the adult EU population had received at least one dose. EU leaders will most likely be informed about the Commission’s second legal action of 11 May (the first was introduced on 26 April 2021) against the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca over delayed deliveries.

To complement the EU strategy for Covid‑19 vaccines, on 6 May 2021, the European Commission published a new EU strategy on Covid‑19 therapeutics, a reinforced and strategic approach to developing, manufacturing and procuring safe and effective Covid‑19 therapeutics at EU level.

EU digital green certificate

As flagged up in the EPRS briefing on the 7-8 May Porto Summit, EU leaders will revert to the topic of the proposed regulation on the digital green certificate, now to be called the EU Digital Covid Certificate. Following the breakthrough in interinstitutional negotiations (trilogue meetings) between the co-legislators on 20 May 2021, after three inconclusive trilogue meetings, EU leaders are expected to welcome the deal reached between the European Parliament and the Council and call for its rapid implementation.

The co-legislators had each adopted very different negotiating positions (Council on 14 April and Parliament on 29 April 2021), and in bridging these views the compromise reached covers:

  • Charges for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test: While ‘free of charge testing’, a key demand of the Parliament, was not agreed on, at least €100 million from the Emergency Support Instrument will be made available to purchase tests. The average cost for a travel-related PCR test currently differs significantly across the EU, costing between €100 and €160 in the Netherlands or Ireland, but less than €50 in Belgium.
  • Additional requirements: The co-legislators agreed that Member States should refrain from imposing additional restrictions unless necessary in order to protect public health, however EU governments can decide if certificate-holders arriving on their territory have to quarantine or get tested.
  • Data protection safeguards:The deal provides for strong data protection safeguards, as the personal data obtained from the certificates cannot be stored in destination Member States and there will be no central database established at EU level.

International solidarity on vaccines

EU leaders will continue their debate on intellectual property rights for Covid‑19 vaccines, largely triggered by the United States’ 5 May 2021 announcement that it would support a temporary waiver of patent rights. Member States are divided on this proposal. Several of the European Parliament’s political groups have called on the Commission to ask for a waiver of intellectual property rights (IPR) for Covid‑19 vaccines to support global vaccination efforts. Parliament discussed the issue of a waiver on Covid‑19 vaccine patents on 19 May, and a vote on a resolution on this matter is planned for the Parliament’s June plenary session.

The European Council will most likely also reiterate its support for COVAX’s leading role in ensuring equitable global access to Covid‑19 vaccines, and stress the EU’s commitment to stepping up vaccine sharing to support third countries. To date, the EU and the Member States have pledged over €2.2 billion to COVAX.

Climate change

Back in December 2020, EU leaders took a landmark decision for the EU’s efforts to fight climate change and committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 % by 2030, as compared to 1990. They invited the co-legislators to include this target in the forthcoming European climate law and to adopt it ‘swiftly’. In the interim, the European Parliament and the Council have reached a provisional agreement, which confirms the 2030 target and tasks the European Commission with proposing ‘an intermediate climate target for 2040’, which should enable the EU to meet its long-term collective objective of climate-neutrality by 2050. However, Member States seem to be pursuing different strategies when it comes to collectively achieving climate targets. Spain, for instance, has committed ‘to end fossil fuel production by 2042’. At the same time, Poland has extended the lifespan of the Turów open-pit coal mine until 2044, despite an ongoing lawsuit filed with the European Court of Justice by Czechia for breach of EU law.  

At the same meeting in December 2020, EU leaders also committed ‘to adopt additional guidance’ and consider the future of the Effort-sharing Regulation. They are thus likely, during the special meeting of 24‑25 May 2021, to discuss national targets and efforts undertaken by the Member States to comply with the criteria of the Effort-sharing Regulation. EU leaders might also consider the European Commission’s communication on the blue economy, which aims to bring all partners together, including industry, to contribute to coastal and ocean development and fight climate change.

As part of the EU’s commitment to climate diplomacy and multilateralism, EU leaders are also likely to welcome the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement. Earlier this year, President Michel stressed that the EU was ‘the first bloc to commit to climate neutrality by 2050’, and welcomed the decision of the US President, Joe Biden, to ‘bring America back to the Paris Agreement’. Furthermore, EU leaders may use the meeting to prepare their position for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow in autumn 2021, and call for more ambitious international action on fighting climate change. European Commission Executive Vice-President, Frans Timmermans recently stressed that ‘climate change has a geopolitical dimension, climate policy is also security policy’. He warned that, unless effectively addressed, climate change may lead to future conflicts over ‘water and food’ in a generation or two.


EU leaders are expected to hold a strategic debate on relations with Russia. This debate was first scheduled to take place during the March 2021 ‘ordinary’ meeting of the European Council. Following the change of format from an in-person to a video-conference meeting owing to the challenging epidemiological situation across the EU, the Heads of State or Government agreed to postpone their discussion to ‘a forthcoming European Council meeting’ and were thus then only informed of the state of play of EU-Russia relations. The last time the European Council held a strategic debate on relations with Russia was in October 2016, when the tense situations in Syria and Ukraine overshadowed the debate. No conclusions were adopted at that time, a pattern which EU leaders might follow once again unless, as recently decided in the case of Turkey, they agree to task the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission and the High Representative with producing a paper outlining policy options for the European Council’s further consideration.

The ‘five guiding principles’ defined in 2016, pursued since and reconfirmed earlier this year by the Foreign Affairs Council, frame the EU’s relations with Russia. Those principles are: i) the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements prior to the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia, ii) countering hybrid threats and disinformation originating in Russia, iii) support to civil society, iv) closer cooperation with Eastern Neighbourhood and central Asian countries, as well as v) cooperation with Russia on issues of mutual interest such as climate change.

In past years, EU leaders have monitored the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, deplored the lack of progress, expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and denounced Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, whilst setting and maintaining sanctions. They have repeatedly called for a transparent, open and fair inquiry into the downing of flight MH17. They have also condemned disinformation activities; hybrid warfare tactics; human rights abuses, including the treatment of Alexei Navalny; as well as international law violations, notably the Salisbury attack. More recently, the Prime Minister of Czechia, Andrej Babiš, asked the European Council to condemn Russia for its involvement in explosions at an arms depot in his country in 2014. The leaders of the Bucharest Nine (B9) condemned Russia’s actions, whilst the Foreign Affairs Council expressed ‘solidarity’ with Czechia, a state Russia has recently declared as ‘unfriendly’. President Michel expressed ‘full solidarity with [the] Czech Republic’ and considered Russia’s decision regarding ‘states committing unfriendly acts’ as yet ‘another escalatory step’ undermining bilateral relations. EU Heads of State or Government could possibly condemn recent, as well as recently revealed, illegal and provocative Russian activities in Member States and beyond.

Implementation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement

Finally, the European Council will discuss the state of EU-UK relations and review the implementation of the trade and cooperation agreement with the United Kingdom (UK). The Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed on 30 December 2020 by the European Union and the UK and was provisionally applied from 1 January 2021. It came fully into force on 1 May 2021, after the Parliament had formally approved, on 28 April 2021, the Council’s conclusion of the agreement. The debate in the European Council was initially scheduled for June 2021, but the item has been brought forward at the request of the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, following recent disputes between the UK and France over vaccine distribution and fisheries.

The European Council is expected to reiterate its desire to maintain as close as possible a partnership with the UK, and that it sees the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, together with the earlier Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocols, and their full implementation, as the foundation for this relationship.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Outlook for the special European Council meeting of 24-25 May 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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