ECOS By / March 22, 2022

Outlook for the European Council meeting of 24-25 March 2022

On 24-25 March 2022, EU Heads of State or Government will meet for the third time in five weeks. In the presence of the United States President, Joe Biden, they will discuss developments in and support for Ukraine, in the context of the unprovoked Russian invasion of the country.

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Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg.

On 24-25 March 2022, EU Heads of State or Government will meet for the third time in five weeks. In the presence of the United States President, Joe Biden, they will discuss developments in and support for Ukraine, in the context of the unprovoked Russian invasion of the country. Building on their Versailles Declaration of 10-11 March, EU leaders will take further steps aimed at strengthening European sovereignty in the field of security, defence and energy security. As regards security and defence, the European Council will endorse the EU Strategic Compass, call for its implementation, and give further guidelines for the deepening of European defence cooperation. With respect to energy, EU leaders will consider means to counter the current spike in energy prices, consider gas storage capacities and planning in view of the next winter and resume discussions on phasing out EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Furthermore, the European Council will take stock of coordination efforts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, appraise the European Semester, and review initiatives designed to build a more robust economic base and reduce the EU’s strategic dependence in the most sensitive areas. Under external relations, items on the agenda will include the preparation of the forthcoming EU-China Summit and the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Council will be followed by a Euro Summit meeting on 25 March.

1. European Council agenda points

The indicative 2021-2022 Leaders’ Agenda, updated at the December 2021 European Council meeting, had outlined security and defence, economic recovery, the social agenda, the European Semester, and the single market and industrial policy as topics for the March European Council meeting. While security and defence, and the European Semester, were already on the provisional agenda, the war in the Ukraine and energy prices have been added as a result of current events.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has prepared for this meeting by using his own ‘Michel method’, which involves video-conferences with small groups of four to six EU leaders ahead of the summit to prepare the ground. This approach provides Mr Michel with an opportunity to express his intentions as to the result he is seeking to obtain and to gain an insight into individual national leaders’ views on certain agenda points, thus reducing surprises at the meeting itself.

Charles Michel’s (first) term as European Council President comes to an end on 30 May 2022. Given that, since 2009, the (re-)election of the European Council President has taken place at the last formal European Council meeting before the end of the mandate, it can be expected that EU leaders will take a decision on the next European Council President. In line with tradition, for this agenda point, the Head of State or Government holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, currently the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, will take the chair.

Having already attended two informal meetings of Heads of State or Government, this will be the first formal European Council meeting for Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament. Following Ms Metsola’s opening address, President Macron, again on behalf of the country holding the six-month rotating presidency, is expected to provide an overview of progress made in implementing previous European Council conclusions.

2. European Council meeting

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

EU leaders will again discuss Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, this time in the presence of United States (US) President Joe Biden. They are expected to reaffirm transatlantic unity and stress solidarity with Ukraine. The discussions may also green light a fifth round of sanctions, including on oil and coal but probably not on gas. The European Council will most probably consider the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country. This is a matter of grave concern for the international community, as over 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country in the three weeks since Russia’s invasion began. The leaders will also once more consider assistance for EU and non-EU frontline countries, which are facing an unrelenting influx of refugees. Furthermore, EU leaders will most probably reiterate their call to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, with support from the International Atomic Energy Agency. For the first time, EU leaders may consider Union support for reconstruction, which should go hand in hand with peace preparation efforts and could double the EU support offered to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility since the start of the war.

Three EU leaders, the Prime Ministers of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, Czechia, Petr Fiala, and Slovenia, Janez Janša, met with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Kyiv on 15 March 2022. The visit, aimed at expressing EU support for Ukraine, its sovereignty and independence, was the first by Western leaders since Russia’s invasion began, and the other European Council members knew of it in advance. Petr Fiala emphasised that Ukraine was ‘also fighting for our lives’, while Mateusz Morawiecki stressed that a Europe that loses Ukraine ‘will no longer be Europe’ but ‘a defeated, humiliated and pathetic version of its former self’. At their meeting in Versailles, EU leaders recognised the ‘European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine’, with public opinion polls showing clear European public condemnation of Russia’s invasion and support for Ukraine’s request for membership.

The Russian Federation was excluded from the Council of Europe – the pan-European organisation upholding human rights – by a decision of the organisation’s Committee of Ministers on 16 March. Russia had already initiated the procedure to leave in a pre-emptive attempt to avoid being excluded. Back in 2016, Russia withdrew from joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the time when the Court began investigating war crimes in South Ossetia following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In March 2022, the ICC opened an investigation into ‘alleged crimes committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine since 21 November 2013’, which would allow it to investigate ‘war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed on any part of the territory of Ukraine’.

In parallel, on 16 March 2022, in the Ukraine v.Russian Federation case, the International Court of Justice considered Ukraine’s request for an indication of provisional measures and ordered Russia ‘to suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine’. The Court reaffirmed the binding effect of its order, which creates ‘international legal obligations for any party to whom the provisional measures are addressed’.

Security and defence

Security and defence have been a rolling item on the agenda of the European Council for the past six months. EU leaders last discussed security and defence at their informal Versailles meeting, where they adopted a declaration and issued new strategic guidelines for the further development and deepening of European defence cooperation. At their spring meeting, the leaders are expected to endorse the Strategic Compass, which has recently been reviewed at their request, adding more robust language on the threat posed by Russia to European security in light of the war in Ukraine. The Strategic Compass, which was drafted with a view to providing a common perspective on the security threats and challenges facing the EU, is expected to lend further impetus to the EU’s bid to become a security and defence actor. The purpose is for the EU to be able to protect its citizens, to react quickly to crises and to deepen partnerships with like-minded partners, such as the United Nations and NATO.

The war in Ukraine raises more than ever the question of resources and how to allocate them efficiently. At Versailles, the European Parliament’s President, Roberta Metsola, stressed that the EU ‘must go beyond the European Defence Fund and make the EU budget work for our security and defence policy whenever it adds value’. A recent EPRS study pointed to ‘generally large average amounts of waste’ in current EU Member States’ spending; in the field of defence, this waste was cumulatively estimated at €32 billion for deployable troops, and €13 billion for procurement and research and development.

Energy security

Energy will feature on the agenda of the European Council for the fifth time since October 2021. EU leaders will again discuss energy prices and how best to reduce fossil fuel dependency, notably the phasing out of gas and oil imports from Russia. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed in Versailles that, by May 2022, the European Commission would present a plan to phase out fossil fuel dependency on Russia by 2027. Regarding the spike in energy prices, a first series of short-term measures had been taken in 2021. Given the worsening situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU leaders are expected to discuss further short- and medium-term measures to address energy prices and security of supply, such as the refilling of gas storage facilities across the continent. The European Commission is expected to publish a communication on this subject on 23 March, to provide input ahead of the European Council meeting.

A number of other initiatives will feed into the debate. Ahead of the Versailles summit, on 9 March, the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had addressed a letter to President von der Leyen, proposing a six-point plan to counter the ‘weaponisation’ of gas as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including ‘targeted and temporary market intervention’ to avoid speculation. A ‘mini “Mediterranean summit”‘ held in Rome allowed Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain to articulate a common position on reforming the energy market. The mini-summit was part of a wider European tour the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, undertook with the aim of building consensus ahead of the European Council meeting. 

A new phase in the Covid-19 pandemic

As the number of coronavirus-related deaths in the EU continues to fall, EU leaders may mention the importance of EU coordination on the removal of restrictions and on developing the vaccination campaign that has lessened the most severe effects of Covid-19. This may lead the European Council to reiterate the need to coordinate on future preparedness, namely on the ‘health union’ package.

The European Council will most likely welcome the decision authorising the opening of negotiations for an international agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Charles Michel first proposed the idea in November 2020, and the European Council supported it at the time. EU leaders may reiterate their commitment to contributing to the global response to Covid‑19, both bilaterally and by ensuring access to vaccines through COVAX. This commitment has been repeated by the European Council in 10 of its meetings since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Economic issues

It has been a tradition that EU leaders use the March European Council meeting to discuss the European Semester – the framework for the coordination of economic policies across the EU – ever since its launch in 2011 in the context of the sovereign debt crisis. Implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF) – set up in 2020 in response to the economic consequences of the pandemic – is also now reviewed during the European Semester. EU Heads of State or Government are expected to endorse the annual sustainable growth survey (ASGS) and the draft Council recommendation on the economic policy of the euro area, also part of the 2022 European Semester exercise.

EU leaders will follow up on the objectives set out in the 2019-2024 Strategic Agenda, and firmly reiterated in the Versailles Declaration, aimed at building a more robust economic base and fostering investment. The focus will be on reducing the EU’s strategic dependence in the most sensitive areas: critical raw materials, semi-conductors, health, digital and food. The European Council is expected to call for the completion of the single market, in order for it to realise its full potential. The digital and services components should be top priority when it comes to removing the remaining unjustified barriers and administrative burdens, interconnecting ecosystems across Member States more effectively, and enforcing single market rules. EU leaders might also address the activities of the European Commission on the issue of food security.

External relations

EU leaders will most probably consider relations with China in preparation for the EU-China Summit on 1 April 2022. Two issues are likely to be central to the debate: China’s positioning over the war in Ukraine and the future of EU-China bilateral relations, including on trade and security. In 2021, the European Parliament froze its ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) pending the lifting of sanctions imposed against ‘European individuals and entities, including five MEPs’.

EU leaders will also discuss the deterioration of the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prior to the meeting, the High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP), Josep Borrell, visited the country, stressing that its future and the future of the western Balkan region ‘lies in the European Union, as the best provider for peace and security’.

3. Euro Summit

On 25 March, EU leaders will convene for a Euro Summit meeting in inclusive format, in order to review progress on completing the banking union and the capital markets union, as indicated in the declaration issued at the last Euro Summit meeting, of 16 December 2021.

EU leaders are expected to consider the Commission’s communication of 2 March 2022 on ‘Fiscal policy guidance for 2023‘, as well as the statement of 14 March 2022 by the Eurogroup (i.e. the finance ministers of the Member States in the eurozone) on fiscal guidance for 2023. The Eurogroup President, Paschal Donohoe, expects a gradual evolution in fiscal policy, leading to a broadly neutral overall fiscal stance in 2023 for the euro area, but stressed that due to uncertainties and risks, the EU needed to remain agile and flexible in its policy response. Following the latest Eurogroup meeting, given the remaining availability of funds under Next Generation EU (NGEU) and the lack of agreement between Member States, it seems unlikely that EU leaders will return to the idea of creating new mutual bonds, along the lines of the NGEU pandemic recovery fund, to respond to the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

Read this briefing on ‘Outlook for the European Council meeting of 24-25 March 2022‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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