The European Council meeting last Thursday ended after midnight and covered a range of topical issues but decisions were postponed to next year.
According to the agenda, EU leaders discussed developments related to COVID-19, crisis management and resilience, and external relations, including the situation in Belarus and Ukraine. They also debated security and defence, external aspects of migration and energy prices. The conclusions issued after the meeting might reflect intensive discussions but the lack of concrete decisions is striking.
On vaccination, the EU leaders reiterated the vital importance of vaccination in the fight against the pandemic. “Rolling out vaccination to all and deploying booster doses are crucial and urgent. In that context, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, including by addressing disinformation, remains key.”
The European Commission proposed on 25 November revised Council recommendations on safe free movement and on non-essential travel into the EU, including a coordinated approach on extending the validity of the EU Digital COVID vaccination certificate. In the statement, the European calls for the speedy adoption of these recommendations.
However, the intention was that the Council would adopt the new rules by the end of December so that they could enter into force on 10 January 2022 to allow for sufficient time for the coordinated approach to be implemented. In the meantime, the Europe and the rest of the world has been struck by Omicron, the new more infectious COVID-19 variant, and the new rules seem already outdated.
There are bottlenecks in vaccine sharing and administration. To rapidly remove the obstacles hampering the global roll-out of vaccines, the European Council calls on the Commission to further enhance support to Member States and third countries, and engage with manufacturers and other stakeholders. There is no reminder about temporary wavering of IP rights to vaccines or compulsory licensing.
Strategic compass missing
The section on security and defense is also empty of decisions. The European Council states, that “The EU will promote its interests and values, reinforce its resilience and preparedness to tackle security threats and challenges effectively, and continue to work towards global peace and security.”
As regards the so-called Strategic Compass, the Council will revert to it in March 2022 and invite the member states to endorse it. The European External Action Service (EEAS) was tasked already in June 2020 to draft a document outlining a shared vision for EU security and defense among the EU member states, including an analysis of key threats and challenges to the EU.
A strategic compass could have been useful already now dealing with the issues under external relations in the statement. Among them in EU’s immediate neighbourhood are above all the instrumentalization of irregular migrants by Belarus and Russia’s threats against Ukraine.
The Commission proposed on 1 December to activate a clause in the EU treaty on provisional measures for the three member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia bordering to Belarus. This has not been done yet. The proposal has since then been overshadowed by a more comprehensive proposal to update the rules on the movement of persons across EU’s internal and external borders.
The European Council seems not to be in any hurry to adopt any temporary measures, how urgent they might be. In the statement, the European Council only calls on the Council to examine the Commission proposal on provisional emergency measures.
As regards Ukraine, the European Commission stressed the need for Russia to de-escalate tensions caused by the military build-up along its border with Ukraine and aggressive rhetoric. It issued also a strong warning to Russia. “Any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures coordinated with partners.”
The only conflict outside Europe mentioned in the statement is the on-going civil war in Ethiopia. The war erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020 as a “law enforcement operation” and has since then spiralled out of control, resulting in mass displacement of civilians and a humanitarian crisis.
Ethiopia was the first country outside Europe which the newly appointed European Commission president visited in December 2019. Seldom has EU’s powerlessness in mediating a peaceful solution to a conflict was more visible than here.
The European Council could only state that “it continues to follow closely the situation in Ethiopia, calls for unconditional ceasefire and urges all parties to engage in an inclusive and transparent national dialogue. Ensuring the protection of civilians and providing unhindered humanitarian access remain key priorities.”
Other important issues on the agenda, such as energy prices and the so-called taxonomy, a classification system establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities, were not mentioned in the statement. The taxonomy is of paramount importance for the European Green Deal. The European Council promises to continue to closely monitor the situation and revisit this issue of energy prices at a future meeting.
Neither was any progress made on enlargement and the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Albania. The two candidate countries have received half promises from the Commission that the negotiations might start by the end of December this year.
After the summit, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša attended a press conference with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen where he presented the results of the Slovenian Presidency during the second half-year of 2021.
“I am pleased that there have been 21 trilogues successfully concluded with the European Parliament (and the European Commission), including some that dealt with quite challenging issues,” the Prime Minister said. “We have continued work on the pact on migration and asylum. No major breakthrough has been achieved here.”
Enlargement was from the very start high on the Slovenian Presidency agenda and a Western Balkans summit was held in October. But it turned that out that bilateral issues between Bulgaria, a member state since 2007, and North Macedonia were not solved during the its Presidency and is also keeping Albania hostage.
“I personally believe that the enlargement of the EU is in the common security interest of the entire European continent,” he said. “In the last decade and a half, history has taught us that, if the EU is not expanding, someone else is, but not in the name of freedom and security. We should be aware of this in the future as well.”
He added that during the Slovenian Presidency, a number of unplanned or unforeseen events had taken place, such as the situation on the border between Poland and Belarus, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ongoing migrant crisis, the rising prices of energy prices, and the recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
The Brussels Times