Written by Ralf Drachenberg.
The symbolic attendance of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at the special European Council meeting, and his poignant address to EU leaders, meant that the meeting focused more on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine than initially envisaged. EU leaders discussed with the Ukrainian President his 10-point peace plan, a possible new sanctions package, additional military, financial and humanitarian support, and the road towards opening Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations. The other points on the agenda were the EU’s economic competitiveness, and migration. On the first point, EU leaders agreed to targeted and temporary support for strategic sectors for the green transition, and to a redeployment of existing EU funding towards sustainable technologies. They also stressed the importance of a strong trade policy in boosting EU competitiveness. On migration, while condemning attempts to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes, EU leaders agreed on immediate measures to reduce pressure at the EU’s external borders, notably through enhanced cooperation with third countries on returns and readmissions.
Following the deadly earthquake on 6 February, EU leaders expressed their condolences to the people of Turkey and Syria, and declared the EU’s readiness to provide further assistance. They also called urgently for progress to be made on the Belgrade–Pristina Dialogue.
1. General aspects
Originally scheduled as a two-day special meeting, the European Council completed its work in one long day − as was also the case with the December 2022 meeting. Despite lasting only one day, the meeting’s conclusions were longer and more detailed than average (more than 50 per cent longer than the average length of conclusions in 2022). After a period of shorter conclusions under former European Council President Donald Tusk, the trend has been for a steady increase in the length of conclusions since Charles Michel took office.
As a result of the attendance of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the customary order of proceedings was modified at this special European Council meeting. Zelenskyy addressed EU Heads of State or Government at the start of the meeting, in the presence of the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola. She took the floor later in the afternoon.
This meeting was most likely the last European Council for the outgoing President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, as former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides was elected president on 12 February. Leo Varadkar returned to the European Council, as Irish Taoiseach, after having held this position previously from 2017 to 2020.
Charles Michel did not use the opportunity provided by the meeting to renew the Leaders’ Agenda, the work programme for the European Council indicating future meetings and agenda items. The most recent update of the Leaders; Agenda expired in December 2022.
2. European Council meeting
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine
EU leaders discussed Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine for the ninth time since the outbreak of the war nearly a year ago. Zelenskyy addressed the European Council in person, which was a first, as for the past year he has always spoken with his EU counterparts by video-link. Zelenskyy’s presence in Brussels transformed the meeting from a routine gathering to a special, symbolic and poignant meeting, arguably an historic moment for both the EU and Ukraine. In his address, Zelenskyy thanked the EU leaders for their staunch support, reminded them of Russia’s hybrid warfare activities targeting the EU and its neighbourhood and warned them of Russia’s intensions to replicate the Ukraine scenario elsewhere. He urged them to go further with their sanctions against Russia and include the drone industry, and called for an international tribunal.
Michel greeted Zelenskyy, saying: ‘welcome to the EU, welcome home’. The two presidents held bilateral talks, while a series of four breakaway sessions were held to allow Zelenskyy to meet EU leaders in smaller groups. The day before the meeting, Zelenskyy had met with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Paris, where he received assurances that support would continue. Macron stressed that ‘Russia cannot and must not win this war’.
EU leaders reiterated their condemnation of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, which breaches the UN Charter. They called once more on Russia to end its aggression, confirmed the EU’s staunch support for Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’, its territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders and the country’s right to self-defence. EU leaders reiterated their call on Russia to end its attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed that deported Ukrainians, adults and children, must be allowed to return safely home.
The European Council focused on Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan, which it upheld, expressing support for the ‘peace formula’ summit, committing to work to ensure wide participation. EU leaders agreed ‘to maintain and seek to further increase’ pressure on Russia to end the war and withdraw from Ukraine. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, confirmed that a 10th sanctions package, which could ‘target Putin’s propagandists’ and introduce ‘an additional export ban worth more than €10 billion’, was in preparation. For now, EU leaders have committed only to reinforce existing and anti-circumvention measures, referring to the agreement on a price cap on petroleum products − a measure intended ‘to further raise the cost’ of the war for Russia.
The military, financial and humanitarian support that the EU and its Member States have already given Ukraine totals €67 billion, including nearly €12 billion in military support. As underlined in the joint statement following the 24th EU-Ukraine summit, EU leaders confirmed that the EU would provide Ukraine with ‘political, economic, military, financial and humanitarian support for as long as it takes’. They reiterated their support for the work done jointly with international partners in bolstering the EU solidarity lanes, trade and exports from Ukraine. They also welcomed the launch of the Donor Coordination Platform and called for efforts to step up work on using ‘Russia’s frozen and immobilised assets to support Ukraine’s reconstruction’. EU leaders confirmed that more demining assistance would be provided and, for the first time, acknowledged the importance of the rehabilitation and reintegration of former military personnel.
On accountability, EU leaders stressed the Union’s commitment to hold all perpetrators to account for their war crimes. They confirmed the EU’s support for the establishment of ‘an appropriate mechanism for the prosecution of the crime of aggression‘, for the creation in The Hague of an international centre for the prosecution of the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and for investigations by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
The EU leaders recognised the progress made by Ukraine in fulfilling the conditionality outlined in the European Commission’s opinion on the country’s membership application. Zelenskyy emphasised Ukraine’s goal of opening accession negotiations by the end of 2023. Von der Leyen, however, noted that there was ‘no rigid timeline’, stressing that the Commission would provide an oral report on Ukraine’s progress in the spring and a written report in the autumn.
Main message of the President of the European Parliament: Roberta Metsola warned EU leaders that ‘we cannot allow war fatigue to set in’, calling for more support for Ukraine. Earlier that day, when hosting Zelenskyy in an extraordinary plenary session of Parliament, Metsola stressed that ‘our response must be proportional to the threat − and the threat is existential’.
At the special meeting, EU leaders discussed the EU’s long-term competitiveness and role in the global setting, in the light of the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) − which it is feared will take away EU companies and jobs − and of a general rise in global competition. The EU approach builds on deepening the single market, a success story celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and on securing a level playing field both internally and globally.
On the basis of the Commission’s Green Deal industrial plan for the net-zero age and the associated forthcoming legislative proposals, the Heads of State or Government defined five lines of action. First, on the adaptation of State-aid policy, despite the differences in views, as highlighted by EPRS, and demonstrated by the arrival doorstep interviews, EU leaders agreed to allow ‘targeted, temporary and proportionate’ support for sectors that are strategic for the green transition. In doing so, they insisted on the need for ‘simpler, faster and more predictable’ procedures. The European Council also asked the Commission to report regularly on the impact of the new State aid policy on the single market and on the EU’s global competitiveness, perhaps to ease the concerns of those Member States that are apprehensive about the IRA’s potential impact on the single market.
Second, EU leaders called for more flexible deployment of existing EU funding to help European industries to roll out key green technologies in a timely and targeted manner. In order to avoid imbalances in the single market, the process should occur in both a fair and a more flexible way, and without compromising cohesion policy objectives. Third, EU leaders also called for a simple, predictable and clear regulatory environment, including simplified administrative and permitting procedures and modernised public procurement rules to promote green industries and EU standards more effectively.
With 2023 designated European Year of Skills, the European Council’s fourth point was a call for increased investment in skills. Considering demographic challenges, job transformation, and labour shortages, the development of skills is considered crucial for the green and digital transitions.
The fifth point focused on closing the EU’s public and private investment gaps, which it is feared could undermine growth. In that context, EU leaders called for an acceleration of work on the capital markets union action plan. They also took note of the Commission’s intention to present a proposal on a European sovereignty fund before summer 2023, to support strategic sectors.
As expected, EU leaders underlined the importance of a strong trade agenda, combining openness and engagement with partners with the use of trade defence instruments to counter unfair practices. The European Council also reiterated its call for increased efforts to diversify supply chains, notably of critical raw materials, that will play an important role in the green tech industry.
Von der Leyen stated that the Commission would table − in time for the March European Council meeting − a concrete proposal taking into account the discussions at the special meeting. Michel noted that the EU’s long-term competitiveness, trade and internal market policy would be discussed at both the March and June 2023 European Council meetings.
Main message of the President of the European Parliament: Metsola pointed to the added value the single market had brought Europe over 30 years and to the need to gain a competitive edge by speeding up investment, sticking to democratic values, and avoiding a protectionist race to the bottom.
The highly controversial discussions on migration, notably on the question of the financing of fences with EU money, resulted in conclusions framed in language that managed to satisfy the differing positions. Michel reported that the European Council had focused on three areas, namely i) external action, ii) returns and readmissions, and iii) protection of external borders.
The European Council agreed to increase the EU’s external actions to ‘prevent irregular departures and loss of life, to reduce pressure on EU borders and on reception capacities, to fight against smugglers’. This would be achieved through intensified cooperation with countries of origin and transit, and the development of ‘mutually beneficial partnerships’. The EU’s neighbouring countries, the visa policies of which would be strictly monitored, were urged to align with the EU.
To ensure effective returns to countries of origin and transit, all possible forms of leverage would be used, while considering visa restrictions against countries which do not cooperate. EU Member States were invited to recognise each other’s return decisions.
To protect the EU’s external borders, EU leaders stressed the role of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and called on the Commission to act immediately to ‘mobilise substantial EU funds and means to support Member States in reinforcing border protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment’.
While not focusing on the internal dimension of migration, EU leaders called on the co-legislators to complete work on the migration and asylum pact and on the revised Schengen borders code and the return directive. After having been absent from the European Council agenda in 2019 and 2020, and mainly mentioned in the context of Belarus and Ukraine in 2021 and 2022, EU leaders committed to ‘revert to the matter on a regular basis’. Charles Michel indicated that the European Council meeting of 23-24 March 2023 would already review progress on the implementation of decisions taken at this February special European Council meeting. In the meantime the Council would discuss the implementation of the Dublin roadmap and the matter of operations by private entities in search and rescue operations.
Main message of the President of the European Parliament: Metsola stressed that all the current challenges relating to migration, such as strengthening the EU’s external borders, resolving the issue of secondary movements and enhancing cooperation with third countries, could be dealt with through the European pact on migration and asylum. She insisted, therefore, that ‘it is imperative that negotiations begin between the two co-legislators within the next months, to allow enough time to strike the right balance’.
Read this briefing on ‘Outcome of the special European Council meeting of 9 February 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.