Written by Suzana Anghel with Mauro Borghetto.
The EU leaders met on 5 October 2021 in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, to discuss informally the Union’s role in the world over a working dinner. The meeting was coupled with an EU-Western Balkan Summit the next day. The focus at the dinner was on security and defence in the context of the ‘Strategic Compass’ process, to be finalised by March 2022, with EU leaders agreeing to continue deepening defence cooperation, not least by strengthening the alliance with NATO. The leaders also confirmed their 2019-2024 strategic agenda commitment to strengthen the EU’s capacity to ‘act autonomously’, albeit without agreeing on the modalities. Building unity was central to this preparatory summit. Migration and energy were also raised briefly, but will be addressed in greater detail at future meetings. The EU-Western Balkans Summit on 6 October highlighted the strategic importance of the region for the Union. The focus was on the common commitment to socio-economic recovery and the development of the Western Balkans in the post-pandemic phase, with €30 billion mobilised for investment as part of the economic and investment plan for the Western Balkans. EU leaders also focused on ways to strengthen political dialogue and security cooperation. The ‘Brdo Declaration’ reaffirmed the region’s European perspective and the EU’s commitment to enlargement, with the caveats of ‘credible reforms’, ‘rigorous conditionality’ and that the assessment of individual countries’ progress on the basis of the ‘principle of own merits’.
The 2021-22 indicative Leaders’ Agenda included an informal dinner of the members of the European Council on 5 October 2021, followed the next day by an EU-Western Balkans Summit. The two events, held in Brdo pri Kranju, were chaired by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and hosted by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, in the framework of the current six-month Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
2. Informal European Council meeting
The European Council does not adopt conclusions at its informal meetings. Yet, for the second time, President Michel issued ‘oral conclusions’, building on a practice he established in January 2021 in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The document – combining conclusions and post-summit remarks – sets out a schedule for forthcoming security and defence debates (see Table 1).
|Energy*||Debate on energy market and prices||European Council||October 2021|
|Security and defence||Strategic compass process follow-up||European Council||December 2021|
|Security and defence||Strategic compass expected to be endorsed||European Council||March 2022|
Leaders’ Agenda: Gradual revival of a working method
The Brdo pri Kranju meeting might be a turning point in Charles Michel’s Presidency of the European Council, as far as the European Council’s working methods are concerned. So far, since he took office in December 2019, two Leaders’ Agenda documents have been presented – in October 2020 and June 2021. They have been used largely as work programmes, indicating the items that could feature on the European Council’s agenda during a set period of time. However, the rationale behind the first Leaders’ Agenda presented back in 2017 by the then President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was to offer both a work programme and a working method for the European Council.
The Leaders’ Agenda working method originally consisted of circulating a Leader’s Note on a subject which the European Council would first discuss informally with a view to building consensus on the substance and sometimes on the language. The outcome of that discussion would then be enshrined in conclusions, which EU leaders would usually adopt at their next formal meeting. The entire process relied on a key element– unity – built informally within the European Council. In his invitation to the informal meeting in Brdo pri Kranju, Charles Michel indicated that what he intended to achieve was unity on ways to tackle the global challenges facing the EU. Although no Leaders’ Note was circulated ahead of the meeting, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, summed up the meeting as ‘a brainstorming debate – and very useful’.
The partial revival of the Leader’s Agenda working method allowed President Michel to remain master of the agenda and avoid the sharp divisions sparked, for example, by the strategic debate on relations with Russia held in June 2021. A Leaders’ Note would not have guaranteed more rapid consensus-building, but could have helped to structure the debate.
Main results of the informal European Council meeting
The indicative agenda mentioned China and trade. The President, Charles Michel, used his invitation letter to further develop the agenda, and to announce that the EU leaders would ‘have a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international stage in light of recent developments in Afghanistan, the AUKUS security partnership and the evolution of our relations with China’. He thus centred the debate on core foreign and security policy issues.
EU’s role in the world
EU leaders held a debate on the EU’s global role, considering the Union’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its ability to defend its values and pursue its interests. On strengths, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, reminded the meeting that the EU was ‘the world’s biggest trading bloc’, a front-runner in the fight against climate change and a respected ‘normative power’, by setting standards, for example, in the digital field, that give high consideration to the individual. As to weaknesses, President Michel stressed the European Council’s commitment to reducing dependencies and achieving resilience in areas such as energy, cybersecurity and external trade.
Mr Michel recalled the consensus, brokered in the 2019-2024 strategic agenda, on the need to increase the EU’s ‘capacity to act autonomously’. He also stressed the importance of a ‘more assertive and effective’ Union benefiting from strong strategic partnerships, such as the transatlantic one. Nevertheless, EU leaders did not clarify how the EU could increase its ‘capacity to act autonomously’ in or across different policy areas. This aspect may however be tackled subsequently as part of forthcoming sectoral policy debates following which the European Council could be expected to set new strategic orientation guidelines. For now, the EU leaders largely reiterated some of their past statements. For example, on trade and international relations, they reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to multilateralism and to a rules-based international order, rejecting ‘protectionism’, calling for reciprocity and a level playing field in global trade. China, the only global power to feature in the President’s ‘oral conclusions’, was described in the terms used in the 2019 EU-China strategy, namely ‘as a competitor, a partner and a systemic rival’.
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, considered the summit to be a stepping-stone to enable EU leaders to advance in their reflection on the Union’s role in the world, while stressing that the EU needed to reflect on its relations with its neighbours, including Russia and Turkey. He also emphasised the need to look at relations with the US ‘with lucidity’, but recalled the common history and the bond linking the US to its European allies. The High Representative, Josep Borrell, spoke of the geopolitical shifts and the increasing US-China bi-polarity. He stressed the need for the EU to create a common strategic culture to enable it to respond to common challenges.
Security and defence: Focus on the strategic compass
Recent developments in Afghanistan and the AUKUS security partnership, although important, were not the focus but rather the enabler of the security and defence debate. The debate centred on the strategic compass process, which has entered its final phase (drafting and adoption) (see Figure 1).
The European Council held an initial debate on the strategic compass in February 2021. EU leaders were then presented with the results of the first-ever EU threat assessment. This allowed them to be closely associated with the process from the early stages and to avoid being presented only with the end result, as had largely been the case with the EU Global Strategy back in 2016. This approach might allow them to seek political consensus and ultimately arrive at an inclusive end result.
Three elements are worth highlighting. First, the Strategic Compass exercise is on track and expected to be completed by March 2022, and the European Council is eager to ‘steer the process’. Second, there is political agreement among EU leaders on the need to continue deepening European defence cooperation. Third, EU leaders have reaffirmed the importance of working with partners, including NATO, a ‘cornerstone’ of EU security. A new EU-NATO declaration is being prepared ahead of the June 2022 NATO summit, and EU leaders had a preliminary discussion on this subject too. The Prime Minister of Latvia, Krišjānis Karinš, stressed that the main question EU leaders faced was how to make the EU and the Member States stronger within existing alliances.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned her colleagues of a possible new migratory wave. The European Council agreed to return to migration at one of its next meetings. The European Commission will soon present a proposal for a revision of the Schengen Borders Code. This was originally expected for the second quarter of 2021, and is now envisaged for November 2021.
Energy was raised briefly in the context of the rise in prices in recent months, which was denounced by five Member States – Czechia, Spain, France, Greece and Romania – in a common statement. The European Council last discussed the issue back in 2014, when it stressed the importance of ensuring ‘affordable energy prices’. EU leaders are expected to consider this topic at their meeting on 21‑22 October 2021. The European Commission is due to publish a communication on energy prices ahead of that meeting, which will serve as a basis for the debate. President Macron stressed that energy prices were both a global market issue and a geopolitical problem for the EU.
3. EU-Western Balkans summit
EU leaders adopted the Brdo Declaration, in many respects similar to the Sofia Declaration (2018) and the Zagreb Declaration (2020). On a political level, the three declarations confirm the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The EU’s commitment to the enlargement process is mentioned in the Brdo Declaration, with the caveat that countries in the region should stay on course for reforms, with fair and rigorous conditionality to be applied as well as assessment according to individual merits. Ursula von der Leyen confirmed the European Commission’s attachment to the enlargement process, whereas Charles Michel noted the EU Member States’ focus being on the EU’s inner reforms in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe, before further enlarging the Union. The declaration states that the EU is ‘the region’s closest partner, main investor and principal donor’. In this context see Figure 2.
In a letter to Charles Michel, the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, stressed that ‘the accession process of the countries of the Western Balkans needs a new and strong impetus’ and that ‘current blockages’ need to be overcome. The EU has offered to facilitate the process and help foster dialogue between Bulgaria and North Macedonia in order to overcome the current deadlock. Solving border disputes and minority rights were two other issues on which further work was required. No accession date was set. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that she did not ‘really believe in setting dates’, but rather in keeping promises once conditions are met.
Read this briefing on ‘Outcome of the meetings of EU leaders in Brdo pri Kranju on 5-6 October 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.