Following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight by Belarusian authorities on 23 May, Belarus became the central topic on the first day of the special European Council meeting of 24-25 May 2021. EU leaders strongly condemned the ‘unprecedented and unacceptable incident’, and were united in imposing further sanctions on Belarus. As regards Russia, the European Council reconfirmed the five principles guiding the EU’s policy since 2016 and asked the High Representative and the European Commission to present a ‘report with policy options’ by June 2021. On EU-UK relations, EU leaders called on the European Commission to continue to monitor closely the implementation of the two agreements concluded with the UK. On foreign affairs, they also discussed the situations in the Middle East and in Mali, as well as the forthcoming EU-US summit. The leaders’ primary focus on the second day was the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, with the European Council calling for rapid implementation of the EU Digital Covid Certificate, the revision of the Council Recommendation on travel within the EU by mid-June 2021 and accelerated global access to coronavirus vaccines. Finally, regarding climate policy, despite renewed support for the 2030 and 2050 climate targets, diverging views on national efforts to achieve the objectives set remained apparent.
1. General aspects and new commitments
In accordance with Article 235(2) TFEU, the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, addressed the European Council at the start of its proceedings. As President-in-Office of the Council, the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, provided an overview of progress made on implementing previous European Council conclusions. As of 12 May 2021, Bulgaria has an interim government and, following established practice, the President, Rumen Radev, represented the country rather than the interim Prime Minister.Table 1 – New European Council commitments and requests with a specific time schedule
|Covid-19||Revision of the Council Recommendation on travel within the EU||Council||Mid-June 2021|
|Russia||Presentation of a report with policy options on EU-Russia relations||High Representative and the Commission||June 2021|
2. European Council meeting
EU coordination efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic
Production, delivery and deployment of vaccines
EU leaders took note of the improved general epidemiological situation (i.e. fewer confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalisations) and accelerated vaccine delivery across the EU. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, updated EU leaders on the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines. As of 21 May 2021, 241.3 million doses of vaccine had been delivered to the EU Member States, 211.4 million administered, and 40.7 % of the adult EU population had received at least one dose. By the end of July, there should be enough doses for 70 % of the EU’s adult population to be vaccinated. In order to ensure the gradual reopening of European society, EU leaders stressed the need to remain vigilant regarding the emergence and spread of variants, for which vaccine production and adequate supply will be key. EU leaders also considered the vaccination of minors, and President von der Leyen announced that the approval of the first vaccination for 12 to 15 year-old children by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was expected as early as the end of May.
EU Digital Covid Certificate
As flagged up in the EPRS outlook, EU leaders welcomed the deal reached on 21 May 2021 between the European Parliament and the Council on the EU Digital Covid Certificate, calling for its rapid implementation. President von der Leyen confirmed that the IT infrastructure would be ready at EU level as of 1 June, and that Member States would be able to connect from mid-June. With the same aim of facilitating travel throughout the Union, EU leaders welcomed the agreement on the revision of the Council Recommendation on non-essential travel into the EU, and called for the revision of the Council Recommendation on travel within the EU by mid-June 2021.
International solidarity on vaccines
EU Heads of State or Government recalled that the EU was the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to the rest of the world and pledged to continue efforts to increase global vaccine production capacities. The European Council called for work to be stepped up to ensure equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, reiterating the EU’s commitment to step up vaccine sharing to support third countries through COVAX, a global vaccine procurement facility. President von der Leyen announced that the pharmaceutical companies Biontech/Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson had committed to deliver 1.3 billion doses of vaccine, on a non-profit basis for low income countries, and at low cost for middle-income countries.
Main message of the Parliament’s President: David Sassoli welcomed the initial agreement on the Digital Covid Certificate, as this will avoid a patchwork of national solutions. Regarding vaccine exports, he invited the G20 Global Health Forum to follow the example of the EU by exporting vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. He expressed the view that production should be enhanced in these countries in the medium term, including by allowing for mandatory sharing of licences for this purpose – using the flexibility already allowed within the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.
The European Council reaffirmed its conclusions from December 2020, welcomed the co-legislators’ agreement on the EU climate law and invited the European Commission ‘to put forward its legislative package’ (Fit for 55). EU leaders welcomed the US’s return to the Paris Agreement and called on international partners ‘to increase their ambition ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow’.
In recent years, the European Council has managed to steadily and progressively reach agreement on the EU climate goals for 2030 (a 55 % greenhouse gas emissions reduction compared with 1990 levels) and for 2050 (EU climate neutrality). This progress was welcomed by Ursula von der Leyen, who stressed that agreement was nevertheless still needed on how best to achieve the goals set. The Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, along with other members, questioned whether the European Council should continue with granular technical debates or allow the Environment Council to address climate-related technical matters. Perennial Member State sensitivities were reflected in the final conclusions, which were less ambitious than initially expected, providing no additional guidance to the Commission before its submission of the legislative package.
Main message of the Parliament’s President: David Sassoli stressed that Parliament was ‘working on legislative proposals’, negotiating the EU climate law and had reached an agreement with the Council on the 2030 climate target. He reminded the European Council that it should refrain from using its conclusions, which are not legally binding, to interfere with the legislative process.
Following events in the Mediterranean and the Spanish territory of Ceuta, EU leaders briefly addressed migration, with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez providing an update on the situation in Ceuta. After the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel reported that EU leaders had reaffirmed full support for the Spanish Government and stressed that ‘Spanish borders are European borders’. The leaders agreed to return to migration at their 24-25 June 2021 meeting.
Main message of the Parliament’s President: To be able to ‘save human lives’, David Sassoli called for a European search and rescue mechanism at sea, a European resettlement system and a genuine European migration reception policy.
Belarus was a last-minute addition to the agenda at the request of Poland. EU leaders strongly condemned the Belarusian authorities’ action in diverting and forcing the landing in Minsk on 23 May of an Athens-Vilnius flight, operated by the Irish airline Ryanair using a Polish registered aircraft, as well as the detention of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, demanding their immediate release. Ursula von der Leyen stated that ‘in the European Council, the judgement was unanimous: This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty’. In a communiqué prior to the meeting, Charles Michel had already spoken of an ‘unacceptable, shocking and scandalous’ event and a ‘threat against the safety of international civil aviation’, and condemned the detention of Raman Pratasevich. The President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, and the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, qualified Belarus’s behaviour as ‘state terrorism’. The Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called for ‘clear and severe consequences for Belarus’, this call was echoed by the Taoiseach of Ireland, Micheál Martin.
In its conclusions, the European Council called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, on the Council to ban Belarusian airlines from operating at EU airports and from using EU airspace, and on EU-based carriers ‘to avoid overflight of Belarus’. They expressed their intention to ‘remain seized of the matter’, expressed solidarity with Latvia for the ‘unjustified expulsion of Latvian diplomats’, and agreed that the Council should proceed ‘to adopt additional listings of persons and entities’ as well as targeted economic sanctions, for which the High Representative and the European Commission have yet to submit a proposal. President von der Leyen emphasised that the €3 billion investment and economic package planned for the country had been ‘frozen until Belarus turns democratic’.
Main message of the Parliament’s President: David Sassoli stated that the events in Minsk were of ‘unprecedented gravity’, demanding the ‘immediate and unconditional release’ of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega. He called for EU unity, and stressed that an international investigation was necessary to determine ‘if there has been a violation of the Chicago Convention‘.
As flagged up in the EPRS Outlook, EU leaders held a strategic debate on relations with Russia during which they reaffirmed ‘the EU’s unity and solidarity’ and reiterated their ‘commitment to the five principles‘ guiding the EU’s Russia policy since 2016. They tasked the High Representative, Josep Borrell, and the European Commission with preparing and presenting a ‘report with policy options’ for the European Council’s consideration at its meeting in June 2021. President Michel stressed that EU leaders condemned Russia’s ‘illegal, provocative and destructive activities’, and expressed solidarity and support for Czechia and Eastern partners. President von der Leyen pointed to Russia’s assertive behaviour, which ‘is consistently challenging both our interests and our values’.
Main message of the Parliament’s President: David Sassoli spoke of a ‘changeable moment’ in international relations, calling for a ‘common European voice’. He underlined that ‘an attack on a Member State is an attack on us all’ and that ‘the safety of one is the safety of all’. He demanded the immediate release of Alexei Navalny, pointed to the rise in disinformation activities and underlined that ‘Parliament has always stressed that our strategic interests go hand in hand with our values’.
The European Council reaffirmed the EU’s intention to have ‘as close as possible a partnership with the UK’, and committed to maintaining EU-UK relations on its agenda at future meetings. EU leaders reaffirmed that the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement offered the basis for cooperation with the UK. They invited the European Commission to ensure the full implementation of the two agreements, in particular with respect to ‘EU citizens’ rights, fisheries and level playing field’. Ursula von der Leyen pointed to tensions ‘felt around the access for example of EU fishing boats’, while Charles Michel expressed the EU’s support for ‘fair implementation in the letter and the spirit of the [trade and cooperation] agreement’.
EU leaders briefly discussed the situation in the Middle East, welcomed the brokered ceasefire, committed to supporting a political solution, along with international partners, and reiterated, for the first time since their December 2017 meeting, the EU’s commitment to the ‘two-state solution’.
EU leaders supported the joint ECOWAS-AU-MINUSMA statement on Mali, condemned the kidnapping of Mali’s interim President, Bah N’Daw, and acting Prime Minister, Moctar Ouane, and stressed that targeted measures could be taken regarding those stalling the transition.
EU leaders prepared for the forthcoming meeting with the US to be held in June 2021. Ursula von der Leyen indicated the topics that could be discussed with the US President, Joe Biden, which might include external relations, security and defence, climate and trade.
Read this briefing on ‘Outcome of the special European Council meeting of 24-25 May 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.