Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg.
The last regular European Council meeting of 2021, on 16 December, will discuss a broad range of topics, notably the coronavirus pandemic, crisis management and resilience, energy prices, security and defence, migration, and external relations. In the context of the worsening epidemiological situation and the emergence of the Omicron variant, EU leaders will address progress in vaccination across the EU and the impact of new restrictions on the single market. They will also discuss international solidarity and ways of ensuring global vaccine coverage. Their debate on security and defence will probably focus on two intertwined outstanding issues, the Strategic Compass and the forthcoming cooperation declaration with NATO. On migration, EU leaders are expected to review the follow-up to their previous commitments and address the migration situation in the English Channel. In the external relations field, they will most likely discuss the situation in Ukraine and at the Belarus border, the developments in Ethiopia as well as preparations for the EU-African Union summit. As the European Council meeting will take place back to back with the Eastern Partnership Summit, EU leaders could take stock of the outcome of the latter. The Euro Summit directly after the European Council meeting will focus on the Covid recovery and review progress on the Banking and Capital Markets Unions.
1. European Council agenda points
The indicative Leaders’ Agenda 2021-22, adopted in June 2021, had already outlined coronavirus, crisis management and resilience, and Africa as topics for the regular December meeting. While the former two feature prominently on the draft agenda, the latter issue is not specifically mentioned as a discrete agenda point (although the General Affairs Council of 23 November noted that the European Council will prepare the EU-African Union summit of 17-18 February 2022). The European Council will also come back again to energy prices as well as security and defence, as stated in previous European Council conclusions.
|Policy area||Previous commitment||Occasion on which commitment was made|
|Coronavirus||The European Council will return to this issue regularly.||1-2 October 2020|
|Security and defence||Keep under regular review||26 February 2021|
|Energy prices||Review the issue at future meetings||21-22 October 2021|
While the December meeting will be the last under Slovenian Council Presidency, it will be the first European Council meeting for four new members: the new Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, the recently elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson, the new Prime Minister of Czechia, Petr Fiala, and the new Chancellor of Austria, Karl Nehammer.
2. European Council meeting
This meeting will mark the 20th discussion of Covid-19 in the European Council, with nine of those being by video-conference. The European Council is likely to discuss the Omicron variant, which was first detected on 11 November 2021 in Botswana and on 14 November 2021 in South Africa. On 26 November, it was designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO), and there are a growing number of Omicron cases detected in the EU. However, EU leaders are expected to adopt a broader approach to Covid-19 calling for the roll-out of vaccination to all, the deployment of booster doses, following a joint statement by the European Medical Agency and ECDC advocating their usefulness, as well as for measures to tackle the risk of variants.
EU leaders may also discuss ways of combating vaccine hesitancy and disinformation, as wide divergences in the rate of fully vaccinated adults still exist between Member States. Omicron is a strong reminder that in order to reduce the potential of the virus mutating, its circulation in the population needs to be reduced. The European Council may call for greater coordination efforts to avoid the varying restrictions introduced by Member States in response to Omicron impairing the Single Market and having too strong an impact on travel within the Union.
The European Council may welcome an agreement by WHO member countries to start negotiations on an international treaty on pandemic preparedness, prevention and response. On previous occasions, EU leaders had called for such a treaty, and recently, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, spoke at the special session of the WHO on the need for better preparedness for a future pandemic. The European Council will mostly likely reiterate its commitment to contribute to the global response to Covid-19, particularly ensuring access to vaccines. This has been repeated by the European Council in nine of its meetings since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Crisis management and resilience
EU leaders are expected to follow up on their discussions from the June European Council, when they addressed the initial lessons from the pandemic and invited the Slovenian Presidency to take work forward in the Council to enhance the EU’s collective preparedness, response capability and resilience to future crises as well as to protect the functioning of the internal market. They are expected to endorse the Council conclusions of 23 November 2021 on resilience and crisis response. These conclusions take a horizontal approach to resilience and crisis response, as they address different elements from various policy areas, notably the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) arrangements, the European Health Union and the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), the fight against disinformation, a possible revision of the Schengen Borders Code, avoiding disruptions to global supply chains and upholding the functioning of the single market, as well as the EU’s Strategic Compass.
For the third meeting in a row, EU leaders will address the spike in energy prices. The debate promises to be heated once again as Member States continue to diverge on the transitory versus long-lasting effects of the current increase in energy prices and, hence, on the EU’s long-term response. France and Germany reportedly support different positions on a key issue, the overhaul of the energy and carbon market. The European Commission will most likely present the results of the preliminary assessments made, at the request of the European Council, by the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) and by the European Securities Markets Authority (ESMA). ACER concluded that ‘no obvious wholesale market manipulation’ had occurred on the energy market, whilst ESMA outlined that the ‘increase in the number of market participants by itself cannot be taken as proof for any patterns of disorderly trading or abusive behaviour present in the carbon market’. More in-depth reports are expected by April 2022.
EU leaders could also take stock of progress made in implementing the short-term measures agreed by the European Council and the Council in October 2021. This includes the European Commission’s toolbox, which offers Member States a wide range of instruments to counter the growing risk of energy poverty, which affects the most vulnerable European households in particular.
Security and defence
On 15 November 2021, the High Representative, Josep Borrell, presented a first draft of the Strategic Compass in the Council. The document is intended to provide ‘political-strategic guidance on the EU approach to security and defence in the next 5 to 10 years’. Some of its aspects, most notably the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, a flexible modular force of up to 5 000 troops, have already raised mixed reactions from the Member States. Most of the concerns expressed so far question the rationale of ‘adding more new tools, while not using the potential of existing ones’, such as the EU Battlegroups, which had been declared operational in 2007 but have never been used.
The European Council is expected to focus on ‘fine tuning’ and building political consensus on the Strategic Compass. Addressing the European Defence Agency’s recent annual conference, Charles Michel announced that ‘the European Council will provide further guidance in December’, and that EU leaders ‘hope to endorse’ the Strategic Compass at their meeting in March 2022. He has also recalled the EU’s Strategic Agenda commitment to increase the EU’s ‘capacity to act autonomously’, with the aim of becoming a more robust international actor, ‘exerting greater influence’, defending its values and interests, and being able to choose to cooperate with partners or act alone whenever necessary. He has also stressed that the EU should use not only defence-related instruments, but all other instruments at its disposal, ‘in a more coordinated manner’.
EU leaders will most probably consider Russia’s military build-up at its border with Ukraine, which remains a matter of deep concern for European security. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, might inform their colleagues of the state of play of the Normandy Format talks, which are in need of new impetus. Consequently, in the absence of full implementation of the Minsk agreements, EU leaders will most probably greenlight the extension of the current economic sanctions, which are due to expire in January 2022, by a further six months.
Recently France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US reaffirmed the centrality of the Normandy Format talks to conflict resolution in eastern Ukraine, and called for a ‘coordinated and comprehensive approach’ of NATO allies and EU partners. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that, in case of further escalation in Ukraine or of any other malicious activities originating from Russia, the EU was prepared to set, in close coordination with ‘like-minded partners’, expanded as well as additional sanctions. In July 2021, during bilateral talks with US, which covered the highly sensitive question of Nord Stream 2, Germany had committed to ‘take actions at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities in the energy sector’, should Russia use energy as a weapon against Ukraine.
The European Council will take place back to back with the Eastern Partnership Summit being held on 15 December, and EU leaders might take stock of the outcome of the summit.
After a long absence from the agenda, migration returned to the European Council at both its June and October 2021 meetings. While the December European Council is again expected to concentrate mainly on the external aspects of migration, there are still a number of issues to be dealt with, notably the situation of migrants at the border with Belarus, the death of migrants in the English Channel, and increasing cooperation with countries of origin and transit.
At the October European Council meeting, EU leaders called for changes to the EU’s legal framework in order to address the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes. On 1 December, the European Commission followed up on this and proposed temporary legal and practical measures to address the emergency situation at the EU’s external border with Belarus. EU leaders might discuss this proposal and reiterate their condemnation of all hybrid attacks at the EU’s borders.
Regarding the migration challenges in the Channel and southern North Sea, Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands issued a joint declaration on 28 November. Their recommendations include strengthened cooperation between the Member States against smuggling networks, as well as enhanced collaboration with the UK. They called specifically for Frontex to deploy more resources in the region, including aerial surveillance.
EU leaders are also likely to review the Commission’s follow-up activities to their June and October conclusions regarding the launch of action plans for priority countries of origin and transit as well as the use of 10 % of the NDICI financial envelope for actions related to migration. It is also likely that the European Council will refer to secondary migration, and express its support to the conclusions of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting of 9-10 December.
3. Euro Summit
The statement issued after the 25 June 2021 Euro Summit specified that the focus of the December 2021 Euro Summit meeting would be on the Covid recovery, as well as on progress made in the fields of Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union. In the Covid context, the Euro Summit might take stock of economic recovery and of the fiscal support measures in light of the European Semester autumn package from the Commission.
EU leaders are likely to reiterate their commitment to the completion of Banking Union, with notable progress achieved on risk reduction in the banking system, as Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe concluded after the Eurogroup’s November meeting, while cautioning continued vigilance due to the pandemic. A further development since the summer is the new banking package, proposed by the Commission on 27 October, which includes a review of EU banking rules in the shape of the Capital Requirements Regulation and the Capital Requirements Directive, aimed at strengthening resilience in the banking sector and finalising the implementation of the Basel III agreement in the EU. As regards the Capital Markets Union, EU leaders could take note of the legislative package proposed by the Commission on 25 November – including reviews of the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive (AIFMD), the European Long-term Investment Funds (ELTIF) Regulation, and the Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation (MiFIR), and creation the European single access point (ESAP) – whilst reiterating their call for its adoption in the near term.