Written by Suzana Anghel and Ralf Drachenberg.
Europe’s long-term strategy for the competitiveness of its economy, notably regarding investment, innovation and trade, will be at the centre of the European Council meeting on 23 and 24 March 2023. EU leaders will of course address Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and consider the multidimensional (political, financial, economic, humanitarian and military) assistance the EU and its Member States have been providing to Ukraine, particularly joint ammunition procurement. Regarding energy policy, EU leaders will continue their work on reducing energy demand, ensuring security of energy supply and lowering energy prices. Following up on the special European Council meeting in February, EU leaders will examine implementation of their conclusions on migration, in particular regarding external border management and returns. The European Council may also welcome the recent agreement in principle on the Windsor Framework, which will outline how the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol will function, notably as regards customs procedures. The European Council meeting will be followed by a Euro Summit meeting on 24 March.
1. General aspects
During the first-ever appearance of a European Council president at a pre-European Council debate in plenary, on 15 March 2023, Charles Michel outlined the main agenda points of the forthcoming European Council meeting planned for 23 and 24 March. As noted in an EPRS analysis of the interaction between the European Council and the European Parliament, until now, the president of the former had only appeared before Parliament to report on the conclusions of a meeting of the institution. As for the agenda of the March European Council meeting, Charles Michel indicated that the EU’s economic future would be a central topic. When speaking of Europe’s competitiveness, Michel devoted some attention to the EU’s relations with China, without however indicating if EU leaders were to consider the subject again in March 2023 or later in the year.
The Indicative Leaders’ Agenda 2022, which offered an overview of EU leaders’ meetings and topics for the year, expired in December 2022, and has still not been updated. It remains to be seen whether the European Council President, Charles Michel, will use this European Council meeting as the occasion to present a new document covering 2023.
2. European Council meeting
On 24 February, EU leaders will discuss the situation in Ukraine for the 10th time since the start of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. They will most probably condemn once again the unjustified and illegal war waged by Russia, reaffirm the EU’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and recall Ukraine’s European path. EU leaders could also reiterate their support for the Ukraine peace formula put forward by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who could, as is now the tradition, again address the European Council. President Michel underlined that the peace plan was based on the United Nations (UN) Charter principles, while recalling that the UN General Assembly had adopted (with 141 votes in favour, 7 votes against, and 32 abstentions) a resolution calling for an end to the war in Ukraine.
EU leaders will most probably consider the multidimensional (political, financial, economic, humanitarian and military) assistance the EU and its Member States have been providing to Ukraine. Regarding political support, as stressed by President Michel, unity is key. EU leaders could take stock of progress on the implementation of the €18 billion worth of financial assistance granted to Ukraine for 2023. They will most probably consider the growing need for humanitarian aid as well. Through its civil protection mechanism, the EU has so far provided 82 000 tonnes of material assistance, including power generators, medical equipment and temporary shelter units, to Ukraine.
The debate will very likely focus on military assistance. As highlighted by President Michel, Ukraine urgently needs ammunition, as it is facing up to 50 000 Russian artillery shells per day. This requires a rapid ramping up of military support, in particular through joint ammunition procurement, and also strengthening the EU’s security and defence, an aspect EU leaders might also consider. The High Representative/Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, stressed that the coming weeks would be ‘critical’, and proposed increasing the European Peace Facility by €2 billion. This proposal was first considered by ministers of defence at their informal meeting in Stockholm on 7 and 8 March 2023; the European Council could welcome an agreement that was reached during the Foreign Affairs Council meeting of 20 February. The Council has also discussed the first year of implementation of the Strategic Compass; as required by the Compass, the results will most probably be presented to EU leaders.
At their special meeting of 9 February 2023, EU leaders expressed support for the establishment in The Hague of an international centre for the prosecution of the crime of aggression in Ukraine. In the meantime, an agreement has been signed – a development the European Council is likely to welcome. EU leaders have repeatedly expressed their support for the work of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The Court could open war crime cases in which several crimes, including the abduction of Ukrainian children, could be examined. EU leaders have several times called on Russia to return abducted Ukrainian children. According to estimates, nearly 14 000 Ukrainian children have been abducted and deported to Russia to date. EU leaders are again expected to take stock of efforts made to identify legal options allowing for the use of Russia’s frozen assets to support Ukraine’s reconstruction.
Although no new sanctions are expected, EU leaders could take stock of the implementation of existing sanctions and call for closer coordination with partners, in particular the United States (US). Back in May 2022, EU leaders had welcomed the European Commission’s proposal to criminalise, on the basis of Article 83 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, the violation of EU sanctions. In the meantime, the European Commission has presented a proposal for a directive, which is currently being examined by the co-legislators, while the European Economic and Social Committee has presented its opinion.
EU leaders might once again condemn the support Iran and Belarus are providing to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. They could also consider the destabilisation attempts targeting Moldova and express EU support to help strengthen the country’s resilience. Food security remains an issue of concern, and EU leaders could welcome the Black Sea Grain initiative’s extension for an additional 60 days.
Competitiveness, single market and the economy
The EU single market turned 30 this year, and EU leaders are expected to take stock of its degree of completion based on the ‘The Single Market at 30’ communication. Deepening and strengthening the single market was a core priority for EU leaders even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis; given the current situation, it is more essential than ever.
Increased use of state subsidies by global competitors, in particular the US with its Inflation Reduction Act, has ignited the discussion on the topic in recent months, which is relevant in relation to both EU global competitiveness and competiveness within the single market. The last European Council meeting agreed to work on relaxing the State aid regime in a targeted and temporary manner. However, a group of countries remain concerned that the relaxation of State aid controls may result in an uneven playing field, and weaken the single market. In that context, the European Council is likely to discuss the temporary crisis and transition framework adopted by the Commission on 9 March 2023.
According to President Michel, the EU’s long-term strategy to ensure the EU economy’s competitiveness will be at the centre of discussions at the March meeting. In this context, Michel has highlighted three areas on which the EU needs to work: i) investment, ii) innovation, and iii) trade. The Versailles Declaration signalled the importance of a robust EU trade policy to respond effectively to ‘growing instability, strategic competition and security threats’. Indeed, recent European Council conclusions have highlighted the crucial importance of trade policy as a means of allowing the EU to access new strategic markets and ensure access to critical materials to secure value chains. At the March European Council meeting, EU leaders are thus likely to hold a discussion on EU trade policy, as well as on ways to contribute to the EU’s strategic goals.
Talks will continue on ways to make EU industry more competitive and future-proof in the current global situation. EU leaders will most probably discuss the EU Green Deal industrial plan, which was put forward shortly before the special meeting of 9 February 2023 as a European response to the US Inflation Reduction Act. Based on the guidance EU leaders gave at that meeting, the Commission has published two key pillars of the industrial plan: the net-zero industry act and the European critical raw materials act. To facilitate business access to funding and in turn boost investment, EU leaders are expected to take stock of progress made in completing the capital markets union. Greater ambition and effort to establish a genuine capital markets union – as a means of ‘channelling Europe’s savings into growth’ – was also the subject of a recent joint op-ed signed by the presidents of the European Council, European Commission, Eurogroup, European Central Bank and European Investment Bank.
The reform of the EU economic governance framework, last discussed on 9 February 2023, is likely to feature on the agenda again. EU leaders are expected to endorse the Ecofin Council conclusions of 14 March and ask the Commission to put forward the related legislative proposals.
As part of the regular annual European Semester process, EU leaders will look at the 2023 annual sustainable growth survey, the priority areas of which should feature in the national recovery and resilience plans. EU leaders are also expected to endorse the draft Council recommendation on euro-area economic policy.
In line with their previous conclusions on energy, EU leaders are expected to consider: i) the reduction of energy demand; ii) security of supply; and iii) lower prices. They will most probably stress again the importance of phasing out dependency on Russian fossil fuels and accelerating the decarbonisation of energy systems in the EU.
In view of replenishing stocks for winter 2023/2024, EU leaders could insist on stronger coordination of gas purchases and full use of the EU energy platform mechanism for joint gas purchases, AggregateEU. Through this mechanism, Member States can engage voluntarily in joint purchases, with a mandatory minimum aggregation of demand equivalent to 15 % of storage facilities’ filling needs in each Member State. EU leaders could call on the Commission to continue assessing the consequences of implementing the emergency energy measures put in place in 2022, and discuss their possible extension.
On 16 March 2023, the Commission presented its proposal for electricity market reform, which EU leaders are likely to debate in a context of persisting national sensitivities. In a joint letter of 13 February, a group of seven Member States expressed concern about a sweeping reform of the current system, and called for a ‘prudent’ approach promoting the green transition and keeping energy affordable. Other countries, such as France and Spain, have repeatedly called for an in-depth reform that should be implemented rapidly.
In the context of a 64 % increase in irregular border crossings in 2022 compared with the previous year, and the resulting pressure at the EU’s external borders, EU leaders held an in-depth debate on migration during their meeting of 9 February 2023. The conclusions put emphasis on three areas: i) external action; ii) returns and readmissions; and iii) protection of external borders. The European Council will now take stock of how these conclusions have been implemented.
Justice and home affairs (JHA) ministers discussed the internal and external aspects of migration on 10 March 2023. On that occasion, the Swedish Presidency of the Council presented an overview of the state of play of all current legislative files on JHA issues, including migration-related files such as the Eurodac recast, the proposed regulation on asylum and migration management, and the Asylum Procedures Directive reform.
EU leaders are expected to examine the Commission’s new initiatives on effective European integrated border management and returns, in particular a communication on the strategic framework for European integrated border management (EIBM) and a recommendation to Member States on the mutual recognition of return decisions and expedite returns.
The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, is expected to reiterate to EU leaders her plenary message on migration, in which, in particular, she urged the EU to take a ‘more ambitious stance on migration’.
EU leaders could follow up on their commitment to provide further assistance to Türkiye and Syria following the deadly earthquake of 6 February 2023, and welcome the results of the Donors’ Conference of 20 March 2023. They could also consider the situation in Georgia in light of recent street protests, and recall the importance of maintaining the country’s EU path, in line with most Georgians’ aspirations.
3. Euro Summit
The European Council meeting will be followed by a Euro Summit, following nine months without any meeting of the euro-area countries’ leaders, even though such meetings are supposed to take place at least twice a year. This summit will be only the second since December 2021. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and other urgent issues have dominated EU leaders’ agenda and taken precedence. At this meeting, EU leaders are expected to consider the results of the Eurogroup meeting of 13 March 2023 and focus, in particular, on fiscal guidance for 2024; inflation, which lately has been significantly higher than the European Central Bank’s 2% target; as well as on plans to develop a digital euro. The collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank in the US and the possible effects on the EU economy may also be discussed.
Read this briefing on ‘Outlook for the meetings of EU leaders on 23-24 March 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.