European Council: Decisions on Covid-19 and energy and debate on other issues

European Council: Decisions on Covid-19 and energy and debate on other issues
Pro-government demonstration or the peace march in Hungary on 23 October 2021 in memory of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution and police brutality in 2006 during the reign of former Socialist prime – minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. Today is Hungary at odds with EU on the rule of law. Credit: The Brussels Times

At the two-days summit which ended on Friday, the European Council adopted conclusions on COVID-19, digital, energy prices, migration, trade and external relations.

In the resolution, the Council expressed concern about the vaccination rates in some EU member states, in particular Romania.  "In order to further increase vaccination rates throughout the Union, efforts to overcome vaccine hesitancy should be stepped up, including by tackling disinformation, notably on social media platforms.”

The Commission recently mobilised the civil protection mechanism and delivered ventilators and other equipment and the WHO has sent an expert to support the Rumanian authorities in the role-out of the vaccination campaign.

The Council also called for further coordination to facilitate free movement within, and travel into, the EU, and for a revision of two of its recommendations. It encourages the Commission to accelerate its work regarding mutual recognition of certificates with third countries. Until now, only certificates from 12 non-EU countries or territories have been recognized.

The Council reiterated EU’s continued commitment to contributing to the international response to the pandemic and to ensuring access to vaccines for all. It invites the Commission to further engage directly with manufacturers in this respect. Until now, EU has allowed export of more than a billion vaccine doses but less than 100 million of them have reached the COVAX-facility for low-income countries.

As regards digital policy, the Council called for the swift examination of the Commission’s proposal fora Decision establishing the 2030 Policy Programme “Path to the Digital Decade” and reviewed progress on the digital agenda and key legislative files. It encouraged among others the co-legislators to encouraged the co-legislators to reach agreement on the Roaming Regulation by the end of the year and to work on cybersecurity.

A main topic was the spike in energy prices, which has prompted the Commission to launch a toolbox on how tackle the prices. The Commission is asked to study the functioning of the gas and electricity markets, as well as the EU Emission Trade System (ETS) market.

Migration continues to be a divisive issue in the EU and delays the adoption of the new pact on migration and asylum. In order to prevent loss of life and to reduce pressure on European borders in accordance with EU and international law, eight action plans for countries of origin and transit were presented and need to become operational.

The situation at EU’s borders with Belarus was discussed and the Council underlined that it will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes. “It condemns all hybrid attacks at the EU’s borders and will respond accordingly. The EU remains determined to ensure effective control of its external borders.”

The recent deaths of migrants in the forests at the border have increased the Commission’s concerns for the humanitarian situation but these concerns were not reflected in the resolution. Poland has effectively closed its border region for journalists and outsiders and even the Commissioner in charge of home affairs and senior officials have until now not been allowed to visit the region.

On trade, the resolution only stated that Council held a strategic discussion on EU trade policy. On external relations, the most important issue was the preparations for the upcoming climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow. The Council calls for an ambitious global response to climate change.

“It is essential to keep the 1.5°C global warming limit within reach. The European Council therefore calls upon all Parties to come forward with, and implement, ambitious national targets and policies. It urges in particular major economies that have not yet done so to communicate or update enhanced and ambitious nationally determined contributions in time for COP26 and to present long-term strategies towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050.“

On rule of law issues, Council president Charles Michel wrote in his invitation to the summit that, “We will also touch upon recent developments related to the Rule of Law during our working session.”

The Council held what was described a useful debate and possible dialogue with the two member states which are at odds with the EU on the independence of the judiciary and other fundamental issues, Hungary and Poland, but the debate is not reflected in the resolution and no decisions was taken.

In particular Poland, with its controversial ruling of its Constitutional Tribunal on the issue of the primacy of EU law, might be subject to one of three legal options, outlined earlier in the week by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – infringements procedure, rule of law mechanism and article 7, described as the powerful tool in the EU treaty.

However, the Commission is still studying the ruling and has not yet finalised its guidelines on the rule of law mechanism. The third option, article 7, appears only theoretical in view of the voting rules (unanimity, four fifths of the votes or qualified majority, depending on sub article). Hungary will use its vote to veto a decision on sanctions in the Council.  For the time being, the key word is dialogue.

“There is a witch-hunt in Europe against Poland. The truth is on the side of the Poles,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said at the summit. There is a creeping expansion of powers that is going on here that must finally be stopped, and the Poles have taken the courage to open this battle. Our place is there with them.”

At the end, the resolution welcomes the EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe and refers to the recent Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. The Forum is “a reminder that no effort must be spared in fighting all forms of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia”.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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