Written by Ralf Drachenberg with José Ernault.
The regular European Council meeting on 26 and 27 October will be the third meeting of EU Heads of State or Government in three weeks. The EU multiannual financial framework and the situation in the Middle East are set to be the main issues discussed by EU leaders. On the EU’s long-term budget, the European Council will aim to close the gap between Member State positions, thereby preparing the ground for an agreement later in 2023. As for the Middle East, amid risks of a wider conflagration, EU leaders are likely to continue discussion on the situation and its potential consequences for the EU, already the main topic of the extraordinary video-conference meeting on 17 October.
Ukraine, the economy and migration are also important topics on the agenda. The European Council is expected to reaffirm its support to the Ukrainian people, as it has done at all European Council meetings since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Concerning economic issues, EU leaders are expected to concentrate on measures to enhance the EU’s economic resilience and productivity. As migration remains a core concern across the EU, the European Council is set to hold a strategic debate on the matter, with only limited conclusions expected. The European Council is also expected to prepare for the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28), to discuss damage to critical infrastructure in the Baltic Sea, and to raise a series of topics on EU external relations, notably the deteriorating situation in the Sahel. The European Council meeting will be followed by a Euro Summit meeting on 27 October, dealing with economic governance and policy coordination.
The European Council meeting will begin with the traditional exchange with the President of the European Parliament. It is also expected that Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will address the European Council by video-conference. In the latest change to European Council membership, the 26-27 October meeting will see the return of Robert Fico, Slovakia’s new prime minister.
As is the case for most European Council meetings, Members of the European Parliament discussed the summit in a plenary debate on 18 October, with many calling for the EU to present a united position on the world stage. These pre-summit plenary debates, together with those following European Council meetings, underline the European Parliament’s scrutiny role and contribute to the European Council’s democratic accountability.
2. European Council meeting
As indicated by European Council’s President, Charles Michel, in his invitation letter, the EU leaders are expected to reiterate previous messages standing up for Ukraine, and to underline the EU’s unwavering support, including on defence. Total EU and Member State assistance to Ukraine now exceeds €82 billion, of which more than €25 billion is support for the Ukrainian army. EU leaders are likely to discuss the possible adoption of the eighth set of assistance measures under the European Peace Facility (EPF), which is currently blocked by Hungary. EU leaders may also discuss High Representative/Vice President (HR/VP) Josep Borrell’s proposal to create a €20 billion instrument under the EPF specifically for Ukraine, as part of the European Council’s security commitments to Ukraine. However, little progress is expected on this proposal, which is expected to be discussed in more depth in December. Prime Minister Robert Fico’s return could pose an additional hurdle, as he has pledged to end any military aid from Slovakia to Ukraine, and to restore relations with Russia.
As has become the tradition at European Council meetings since the invasion of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy is expected to address EU leaders by video-link. With Ukrainian forces still engaged in heavy fighting as part of their counter-offensive, he may be expected to stress the urgent need to speed up the delivery of air defence systems to protect critical infrastructure and cities likely to be targeted by Russian armed forces over the winter. President Zelenskyy may also reiterate his call for a 12th sanctions package targeting Russia’s nuclear industry, Russia’s diamond exports, and Iran, which supplies Russia with combat drones. President Zelenskyy’s request was made in his address to EU Foreign Ministers on 2 October 2023, at the first Council meeting held outside the borders of the EU, in Kyiv. On that occasion, he also welcomed the proposed €20 billion EPF instrument for Ukraine.
Moreover, EU leaders could also reiterate their support for President Zelenskyy’s Ukrainian peace formula, and (following two preparatory meetings in Copenhagen and Jeddah) discuss the organisation of a Global Peace Summit with the Ukrainian president. The third preparatory meeting on the Ukraine peace formula is set to take place immediately after the European Council meeting, in Malta on 28 and 29 October 2023.
EU leaders are expected to take part in a ‘strategic’ discussion on migration, notably on its external dimension. An in-depth exchange on this dimension took place during the Justice and Home Affairs Council of 19 October. Only very limited conclusions are expected to result from the discussions, to avoid a further instance of lack of consensus on the text of the meeting’s conclusions. However, should the Hungarian and outgoing Polish governments again decline to agree migration-related conclusions, Charles Michel could once again issue conclusions of the President of the European Council on the topic.
The discussion on migration is closely linked to the ongoing revision of the multiannual financial framework (MFF – see below) and potential new migration waves resulting from the conflict in the Middle East. Likewise, the terrorist attack in Brussels, carried out by a migrant in an irregular situation, is expected to arise in the course of the discussion, as could the urgent need to complete the pact on migration before the elections to the European Parliament in June 2024 – which Members underlined in their pre-European Council meeting plenary debate.
Considering the difficult geopolitical situation, a stronger EU technological and industrial base, in line with the Granada and Versailles declarations, is more urgent than ever. Work on strengthening competitiveness, attracting investment, ensuring affordable energy supplies, assessing strategic dependencies and evaluating the regulatory burden is critical in this respect. With the European elections approaching, only a few months remain to complete legislation on essential issues. Thus, EU leaders are expected to call on the co-legislators to urgently finalise key files – the proposed critical raw materials act, net-zero industry act and the reform of electricity market design. Furthermore, the European Commission has published a recommendation on critical technology areas, ahead of the meeting, which looks at advanced semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum and biotechnologies. The European Council is likely to take note of this recommendation and ask the Commission and the Member States to pursue work on risk assessments. Moreover, global competitors’ increased use of state subsidies, notably the US Inflation Reduction Act, has ignited the discussion on this topic in recent months. EU leaders are therefore likely to address the distortive effect these subsidies are having on the EU’s competitiveness, and call for action to address this challenge.
Multiannual financial framework
The European Council will hold an in-depth discussion on the mid-term review of the 2021‑2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF). Due to the unexpected challenges arising since the adoption of the 2021‑2027 long-term EU budget, notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting inflation, as well as the increase in irregular migration, resources have been prematurely exhausted, hindering the EU’s capacity to address even the most urgent challenges. Consequently, the European Commission proposed to reinforce the MFF in June 2023.
The EU Member States’ positions are still far apart on many aspects of this proposed revision, i.e. not only on the amount of fresh money needed, but also on the political priorities to favour. While all Member States agree on the provision of additional money to support Ukraine, some – Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden – have indicated they would not agree to additional funding in other areas. At the same time, a number of Member States, including Greece, Italy and Portugal, called for more money to face the migration challenge. A final agreement between Member States is not likely at this stage, but the provision of political guidelines could be the outcome.
Faced with a rapidly evolving situation, EU-leaders will return to the situation in the Middle East, amid threats of a wider escalation of the conflict. The European Council held an extraordinary meeting by video-conference on 17 October following the Hamas-led terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Israel, which killed at least 1 400 people, whilst 200 were taken hostage. Ahead of that virtual meeting, and amid concerns about the lack of unity among EU actors in the wake of the conflict, EU leaders issued a statement condemning Hamas’s attacks against the Israeli people, calling for the immediate release of the hostages, and underlining Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international and humanitarian law. The statement also mentioned the need to ensure the protection of civilians and to continue to provide humanitarian aid to the civilian population in Gaza.
Since the 17 October meeting however, the number of victims of Israel’s retaliation in the Gaza Strip is continually increasing – although not a reliable source, as it is Hamas-controlled, the Palestinian Health Ministry estimates mention 5 000 victims to date. Even though some humanitarian aid convoys have been able to enter the Gaza Strip from Egypt since 21 October, the situation remains dramatic, and aid insufficient.
The risk of a wider conflagration in the Middle East led the Spanish Presidency to activate the full mode of Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR), the mechanism to support rapid and coordinated decision-making at EU political level for major crises. Thus, the Middle East crisis will be at the centre of EU leaders’ discussions, and require a strong and united EU position.
While all Member States are united in their support for Israel and its right to defend itself following the attacks, Israel’s response has revealed some divisions among EU leaders. EU leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala have underlined their strong support for Israel and its right to defend itself against terrorism. Others, such as Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo have deemed the siege of Gaza and Israel’s cutting off access to water and energy unacceptable, a position shared by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron called for immediate access for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Speaking on 21 October at the Cairo Peace Summit hosted by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al‑Sissi, European Council President Charles Michel reaffirmed the EU leaders’ position and their support for peace, stability and security in the region. Although the summit did not produce a joint declaration, and highlighted differences amongst participants, it reiterated the call for humanitarian aid. When meeting President of the United States Joe Biden, ahead of the summit, Charles Michel stressed the importance of the EU-US alliance in tackling current challenges.
Following UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a humanitarian cease-fire, the EU’s stance on the matter was a key topic at the Foreign Affairs Council. Josep Borrell put forward the idea of a humanitarian pause – less ambitious than a cease-fire, but necessary to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Gaza Strip. Ireland and Spain supported the initiative, while others – Italy and Germany – stressed that no cease-fire could be achieved without Hamas also ceasing to launch rockets at Israel. Thus, EU leaders will also need to find consensus on the proposed humanitarian pause.
EU leaders will also discuss relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with concerns remaining high regarding further Azerbaijani military operations. EU leaders are likely to express support for Armenia, including through humanitarian assistance.
EU leaders could also consider the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel region, condemn the military coup in Niger, and call for the immediate release of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum. They could express their support for action by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore the constitutional order in Niger. On 23 October, EU foreign ministers adopted a framework for restrictive measures against the military junta.
Serbia and Kosovo
EU leaders will raise relations between Serbia and Kosovo, amid heightened tensions and the fear of an escalation. With Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić expected in Brussels in parallel with the European Council meeting, an attempt will be made to de-escalate the conflict and restore dialogue.
2023 Climate Change Conference (COP28) preparations
With the COP28 opening in Dubai at the end of November, leaders are set to define the EU’s position, based on the conclusions reached by EU environment ministers. As in 2022 and 2021, the European Council is likely to reiterate the urgent need to keep the 1.5°C global warming limit within reach.
3. Euro Summit
The Euro Summit is likely to hear an update on the digital euro project, to discuss the future of European capital and financial markets and to exchange views on the economic situation in Ukraine.
Read this briefing on ‘Outlook for the meetings of EU leaders, 26-27 October 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.