Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team
Whilst the European Council has previously been effective in adopting general guidelines for action by the European Union and in contributing to overcoming deadlocks in the EU decision-making process, recent lengthy and fruitless meetings are contesting the legitimacy of these events which have become little more than a discussion forum for the delegates. For the sake of protecting Europe’s image, should the EU Council consider a reformulation of its meetings?
The European Council is a meeting of heads of state or government of the 27 EU Member States. The President of the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also participate in these meetings. The President of the European Parliament is usually invited to speak at the beginning of each meeting which is convened by the European Council President.
Since Paris 1961, EU Council meetings have been known as ‘European summits’. In previous years, the summits would be at least four times a year but since the 2008 financial crisis meetings have become increasingly frequent. In 2020, thirteen meetings were held, mainly online, discussing Covid and Brexit, most of the meetings ended with a statement of positive words which in reality translated into few meaningful actions much to the frustration of citizens and media. Seven meetings are so far planned for 2021.
The purpose of these meetings is to adopt a general approach to the problems of European integration and to ensure that EU activities are properly coordinated. However, whilst the European Council usually decides on issues by consensus, any unanimity is becoming more and more difficult to achieve as member states begin to reject unity in favour of self interests. With financial resources becoming more constrained, country infringements of European values increasing, and a wide divergence of demands from the EU leaders, the theoretical collaboration of leaders for the benefit of a strong and stable European Union is reaching breaking point. It is therefore understandable that few substantial conclusions have been reached in the last 18 months.
Europe has been drowning in internal chaos and quarrels regarding controversial lockdown measures, a third pandemic wave, vaccine supplies and immunisation challenges, and further tensions with the UK following its exit from the EU. On 25 March, the EU heads of states and governments met virtually to discuss the pandemic, Eastern Mediterranean, relations with Russia, the single market, the digital agenda, and the international role of the euro. US President Joe Biden also addressed the summit in order to discuss transatlantic relations under his administration.However, it was Covid-19, the third wave of infections and Europe’s struggle with the vaccination and access to vaccines, that dominated this meeting.
EU leaders were not struggling to admit that the European Union had made a mistake, firstly in planning and secondly implementing the vaccination program but chose the route of blame rather than addressing the problem. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz summed the concerns up by highlighting that, “When member states have a lot fewer vaccines available to them than others, then I think this is a big issue for Europe. This could cause damage to the European Union like we haven’t seen in a long time.”
As a leader of a six countries coalition, (Austria, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Croatia) Chancellor Kurz requested a fair share of vaccines and a correction mechanism, this created tensions between the EU leaders and the European Commission who have been responsible for the procurement and distribution collective agreement. The lack of any concrete proposal in the short joint statement demonstrated that the EU leaders struggled to overcome the current chaotic situation and were unable to find unity.
Polite words, that share only that the EU leaders committed to accelerating the production, delivery, and deployment of vaccines and that they underlined the importance of transparency and the use of export authorisations, will not reassure citizens that there is an end to the economic and social hardships they are facing.
As the epidemiological situation remains serious, and in the light of the challenges posed by new variants, EU leaders agreed that restrictions, including non-essential travel, must stay in place for the time being. Nevertheless, with borders between Schengen countries remaining open and the unhindered flow of goods and services within the single market continuing, confusion is becoming a constant in the minds of European citizens without any clarity from European leaders.
EU leaders have agreed that preparations should start with a common approach to the gradual lifting of restrictions. They have called for legislative and technical work on Covid-19 interoperable digital certificates, based on the Commission proposal, to be taken forward as a matter of urgency. Yet, for the man, woman and child in the streets of Europe, political weaknesses, indecisiveness, and failures to implement an effective vaccine program have spotlighted the failings of European Summits to take into account the concerns of citizens.
With the start of the Conference on the Future of Europe beginning after the next EU Summit on 8th May, expectations for concrete and transparent conclusions of future EU Summits should now be a priority for the EU Council leaders.