Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg.
‘The European Council will revert to the issue’ or ‘reiterates’ its view, were probably the most used sentences in the conclusions issued following the 16 December 2021 meeting of the Heads of State or Government. For many of the issues on the agenda, such as energy, where the geopolitical stakes are high, differences in position remain in the European Council; achieving consensus is therefore part of a longer process. On security and defence, no big decisions, but specific guidelines and targeted requests, defined this summit. As regards the discussions on both Covid-19 and migration, the conclusions mainly include reiterations of previous commitments.
Within the broad bouquet of external relations topics, EU leaders warned Russia of ‘massive consequences’ in case of further military escalation in Ukraine. They also denounced the instrumentalisation of migrants and refugees by the Belarusian regime for political purposes, and called for ‘the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners’. EU leaders also reaffirmed the Union’s commitment to cooperation with the Southern Neighbourhood, calling to speed up work on the new Agenda for the Mediterranean, praised the mediation efforts of the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia, calling for ‘an unconditional ceasefire’ and dialogue, and prepared for the 17-18 February 2022 EU-AU Summit. President Charles Michel recalled EU Member States’ solidarity when mentioning the unacceptable pressure exerted by China on Lithuania. As for the Euro Summit, it called again for the completion of Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union.
1. General aspects
The meeting opened with an address by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli. At this final European Council meeting under the Slovenian Council Presidency, the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, reported on the follow-up to previous European Council conclusions. The December meeting was also the first European Council meeting for the new Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, the recently elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson, and the new Chancellor of Austria, Karl Nehammer. Two other new EU leaders, the new Prime Minister of Czechia, Petr Fiala, and the new Bulgarian Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, are expected to attend European Council meetings as of 2022.
President Michel used the opportunity of the last meeting in 2021 to update the European Council’s indicative Leaders’ Agenda 2021-2022. This is the third update under Michel’s presidency of the original Leaders’ Agenda – launched under his predecessor, Donald Tusk – which now sets out a work programme for the European Council up to March 2022. Besides adding the priority topics and the European Council-related events under the French Presidency of the Council, the main change in this update is the removal from the agenda of a discussion of the Conference on the Future of Europe, originally planned for the March 2022 meeting. The topic might, however, be discussed by the European Council at its June 2022 meeting. The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, stressed that ‘the Conference on the Future of Europe should help us find innovative ways of reawakening the feeling that Europe is a project with which all Europeans can identify’, and recalled that ‘it will soon be time for the initial conclusions to be drawn’.
2. European Council meeting
The European Council discussed the epidemiological situation in the EU in the context of an emerging variant of concern (Omicron), with the conclusions focusing on the Covid-19 response more broadly. EU leaders reiterated the importance of vaccines, including booster doses, in the fight against Covid-19. Furthermore, the European Council underlined the importance of overcoming vaccine hesitancy, specifically through combatting disinformation. EU leaders called for progress on the EU strategy for Covid-19 therapeutics, which will form part of the European Health Union.
The European Council stressed the importance of global cooperation in the fight against Covid-19. EU leaders outlined four actions to meet that aim: i) developing genome-sequencing capacity internationally; ii) exporting and sharing vaccines, particularly with the countries most in need; iii) removing obstacles to the global delivery of vaccines; and iv) strengthening coordination with vaccine manufacturers, the World Health Organization (WHO), COVAX and other partners.
As anticipated in the EPRS outlook, the European Council welcomed an agreement by WHO member countries to start negotiations on a convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. President Michel first proposed an international treaty on pandemics in November 2020. EU leaders endorsed the suggestion at their meeting on 25 February 2021, and they have now explicitly supported this objective on four occasions.
EU leaders invited the Council to follow up on the fulfilment of vaccine pledges. In May, the European Council committed to donating at least 100 million doses by the end of 2021 – this target has already been surpassed. The EU has now committed to donating 700 million doses by mid-2022.
Main message of the President of the European Parliament: David Sassoli underlined that the EU should strive for a Health Union and increase prevention, protection and crisis-preparedness efforts.
Crisis management and resilience
As flagged up in the EPRS outlook, in advance of the meeting, EU leaders welcomed the Council conclusions of 23 November 2021 on resilience and crisis response, calling notably for strengthening the EU’s crisis response and preparedness in a comprehensive manner, and building and monitoring resilience in areas where the EU is exposed. They invited the Council to take work forward and to regularly review progress.
Main message of the President of the EP: President Sassoli stressed that ‘protecting Europeans means being better able to prepare our response to all of tomorrow’s crises – be they environmental, economic, diplomatic or military’.
EU leaders once again addressed the recent spike in energy prices, but without adopting any conclusions. President Michel stressed the impact on households and their purchasing power, welcomed the reports presented to date by the European Commission at the European Council’s request, and acknowledged the lingering divergences in Member States’ views on energy policy. Two core issues remain particularly divisive, namely the energy market and the EU ‘taxonomy’.
Several EU leaders recalled the geopolitical dimension of the energy price crisis, with the Prime Minister of Latvia, Krišjānis Karinš, stressing Russia’s deliberate attempt to circumvent Ukraine and hence pressing for the operationalisation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. As regards the energy market, not much has moved since October 2021 when EU leaders last discussed the issue. Spain continued to champion ‘an overhaul of the bloc’s wholesale energy market’ and Poland to call ‘to suspend and reform’ the ETS system. However, diverging views persist on the speculative nature of market activities in recent months. When it comes to the sustainable finance taxonomy, the most sensitive issue remains the classification of gas and nuclear energy as either ‘green’ or ‘transitional’ in an imminent European Commission delegated act. Charles Michel stressed that it is the Commission’s responsibility to decide on this, and not that of the European Council, while mentioning that EU leaders were not in agreement on the question.
Main message of the President of the EP: David Sassoli spoke of a ‘Europe that protects’, stressed that ‘no one in Europe should be abandoned to energy poverty’ and that the EU ‘has to find bold solutions to keep all Europeans secure’.
EU Heads of State or Government concentrated in their discussions on the ‘external aspects of migration’, and refrained, again, from addressing internal questions, especially issues linked to asylum. Even on external aspects of migration, the focus of the discussion was very narrow, looking mostly at cooperation with countries of origin and transit, as well as the implementation of previous European Council conclusions. EU leaders reiterated their calls from the October 2021 meeting, notably to the Commission to ensure, i) that the recent action plans for countries of origin and transit be made operational and implemented without further delay; and ii) that adequate financing be clearly identified and mobilised without delay for migration-related action on all routes.
EU leaders stressed the importance of addressing all migratory routes, in a comprehensive approach, and invited the Council and the Commission to consider ways to support Member States facing specific challenges at the EU’s external borders, including as regards deployment of border guards as well as aerial surveillance. They also called again for a more unified EU returns policy. While EU leaders reiterated their condemnation of attempts by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes, migration aspects related to Belarus which were dealt with under the heading of migration at the October 2021 meeting, were this time dealt with as a specific agenda point under external relations issues.
Main message of the President of the EP: David Sassoli stressed that protecting Europeans also involves taking resolute action to better integrate our migration and external border management policies.
Security and defence
EU leaders confirmed their commitment to multilateralism, reaffirming the United Nations’ pivotal role in maintaining a rules-based international order. They reiterated their intention to strengthen cooperation with like-minded partners ‘in order to address common threats and challenges together’. EU Heads of State or Government underlined again the Union’s willingness to ‘take more responsibility for its own security and in the field of defence’, as well as the need to ‘increase the Union’s ‘capacity to act autonomously’ and to ‘promote its interests and values’.
EU leaders followed up on their Brdo pri Kranju debate, focussing on two key issues – the Strategic Compass and cooperation with NATO. As regards the Strategic Compass, they tasked the Council to continue work towards ‘an ambitious and actionable Strategic Compass’, recognising that it ‘sets out a common strategic vision for the next decade’. The High Representative, Josep Borrell, stressed that the Strategic Compass is intended to ‘increase the resilience of the European Union’ and its ‘defensive capacities’. On EU-NATO cooperation, EU leaders recalled ‘the principles of inclusiveness, reciprocity and decision-making autonomy of the EU’, which are crucial for closer cooperation with NATO, stressing that a more capable and complementary EU can only benefit transatlantic security.
Main message of the President of the EP: The EU will be able to ‘act together more swiftly, and more incisively, when [its] interests are threatened’, if it strengthens its security and defence.
As flagged up in the EPRS outlook, EU leaders focused on the tense situation at Ukraine’s border, calling on Russia to de-escalate tensions. President Michel stressed the ‘unfailing and total unity in the EU in expressing solidarity for the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine’. He stressed that Russia would face ‘very serious consequences’ in the event of military aggression towards Ukraine, and underlined the Union’s readiness to coordinate ‘any operational measures’ with its partners. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen underlined that the EU maintained its ‘call on Russia to de-escalate tensions and refrain from any further aggression’, stressed that the EU would like to have good relations with Russia but that it is prepared to adopt sanctions ‘that could extract a massive cost’. She confirmed that the EU has been closely coordinating with partners, including the United States, on possible sanctions and was prepared, if need be, to operationalise them.
EU leaders also confirmed their support to the ‘Normandy format’ diplomatic dialogue, conducted by France and Germany with Ukraine and Russia. The format, instituted in June 2014, has, however, not delivered so far on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
The European Council meeting took place back-to-back with the Eastern Partnership Summit, which brought together the EU leaders and their opposite numbers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. In a joint declaration, they committed to cooperating on the basis of ‘common fundamental values, mutual interests and shared ownership’. An empty chair symbolised openness to cooperation with a democratic Belarus (the sixth Eastern Partnership country) ‘as soon as necessary conditions for peaceful democratic transition are in place’. The European Council denounced the ‘hybrid attack’ and the humanitarian crisis induced at the EU’s border with Belarus, underlining, inter alia, the importance of ‘ensuring unhindered access for international organisations in Belarus’ and ‘stepping up humanitarian support’.
3. Euro Summit
EU leaders also met in the Euro Summit in inclusive format (with all 27 Member States participating). The President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, briefed them on recent monetary policy decisions and on the outlook for growth and inflation. The leaders then held a discussion on further integration in the Banking Union and Capital Markets Union. The resulting Euro Summit statement stressed the importance of a ‘completed Banking Union and a deep, integrated and well-functioning Capital Markets Union’. To that end, the entry into force of the agreement amending the Treaty on the European Stability Mechanism, as well as the early introduction of the backstop to the Single Resolution Fund, were identified as milestones. The reference to the timing for the implementation of both measures – envisaged for 2022 – did not appear in the formal statement. The statement also expressed urgency concerning the deepening of the Capital Markets Union, and formally requested the Eurogroup to present ‘a stepwise and time-bound work plan’ for the completion of Banking Union.
Read this briefing on ‘Outcome of the meetings of EU leaders of 16 December 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.