EU leaders are back in Brussels for a one-day European summit with a busy agenda that promises discussions around booster shots, energy prices, migration routes and Russia’s military build-up along the Ukraine border.
The debate will see new faces in the European Council’s meeting room: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov all make their debut as head of government of their respective countries.
For his part, Czech PM Andrej Babiš will bid farewell to his colleagues before the next premier, Petr Fiala, takes over.
The gathering in the Belgian capital comes at a fragile moment for the European Union: following a period of optimism marked by decreasing coronavirus cases and accelerating economic growth, the bloc is once again in deep uncertainty as the Omicron variant spreads and new restrictions stunt business activity.
Making matters worse, inflation in the eurozone reached an all-time high in November – a whopping 4.9 per cent – as a result of persistent supply chain disruptions and skyrocketing electricity bills.
Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, is on the brink of a winter recession that many fear could reverberate across the whole continent.
The summit will kick off Thursday morning at 10:00 CET, with introductory remarks by European Parliament President David Sassoli, who’s nearing the end of his term. Right after, leaders will get into the top-priority issue on the agenda: COVID-19 and vaccination.
The debate is expected to centre on Omicron and booster shots, whose roll-out has accelerated after the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said vaccine protection wanes after the first six months. The push for a third dose underlines the deep gaps between member states: while Belgium has already made booster shots available for all adults after inoculating three-thirds of its population, Bulgaria is stuck with a 26% vaccination rate.
Leaders will also touch upon travel and COVID passports.
Last month, Portugal shocked Brussels when it invoked the emergency brake of the EU COVID Certificate and imposed a negative PCR test on all arrivals, including fully vaccinated pass holders. Italy recently followed in Lisbon’s steps.
While legal under EU rules, these temporary decisions deal a heavy blow to the bloc’s travel certificate, a ground-breaking initiative that was meant to facilitate cross-border movement and encourage tourism during the pandemic.
EU officials expect leaders to discuss the sensitive subject of mandatory vaccination. Austria, Germany and Greece have taken decisive steps in favour of this measure, even if other countries are still reluctant and prefer to leave health decisions in the hands of citizens.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, also a member of the European Council, said earlier this month that an EU-wide debate around the topic was needed but emphasised health policy remained a national competence.
Gas prices and border barriers
Following the coronavirus discussion, leaders will tackle another source of concern for Europeans: soaring energy bills.
Since mid-summer, the bloc has seen natural gas prices rise at a breathtaking pace due to an international mismatch of supply and demand.
Advanced economies have recovered too suddenly and gas suppliers have been unable to meet their huge needs, leading to a pronounced hike in tariffs. The situation is becoming alarming as winter temperatures drive heating consumption: natural gas hit a record-high price of €128 megawatt per hour at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility, Europe’s leading benchmark.
In the last summit, member states agreed to manage the energy crunch through domestic solutions.
But this national approach hasn’t convinced badly-hit countries like Spain and Italy, which insist forceful joint action is needed. On the other side, a group of Central and Northern countries, led by Germany, have repeatedly rejected calls for market reforms. The wide gap between the two camps is unlikely to be bridged on Thursday.
After energy, leaders will debate defence and security and will pledge to pursue a more strategic and autonomous course of action “in the face of increased global instability”, according to the draft conclusions seen by Euronews. The Council will also examine the latest version of the Strategic Compass, which aims to unify and consolidate the EU’s foreign policy. The final version is scheduled to be endorsed in March.
The meeting will then turn to migration, a topic that has generated plenty of heated discussions in recent years. Leaders will explore new financial aid for countries of origin in order to contain the departure of migrants and crackdown on human trafficking.
The October meeting saw an attempt from Eastern countries to push for EU-funded barbed wires and walls, an idea that was blocked by larger states and publicly dismissed by President von der Leyen.
However, the controversial proposal gained new traction in November when European Council President Charles Michel appeared to contradict von der Leyen and said that, according to his legal team, funding border barriers under the EU budget would be “legally possible”. Michel made his comments during a visit to Warsaw, a capital at the forefront of the campaign.
Shadow of invasion
Finally, the Council will discuss relations with Belarus and Russia, two countries accused of stocking unnecessary tensions at Europe’s eastern borders.
While the Belarus standoff has decreased in intensity, tensions with Russia have risen to heights not seen since 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed the Crimea peninsula. This time, Western countries fear President Vladimir Putin wants to carry out an all-out military invasion into Ukraine.
Between 95,000 and 100,000 Russian troops are stationed alongside the Ukraine border, according to estimates by US intelligence.
Leaders are expected to send a “strong warning” to Russia but will not specify which course of action they will take in case of a military incursion in order to preserve their political leverage against the Kremlin, EU officials said speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The G7 has said Moscow will face “massive consequences” and “severe costs” if it goes ahead with the suspected plans.
President Putin has denied any intentions to invade Ukraine and has instead demanded legally binding guarantees that NATO will not expand further east or place its weapons close to Russian territory. These conditions are seen as unacceptable for the White House, which argues countries are free to apply for NATO membership if they wish to do so.
“We managed to explain to our European colleagues that for us it is important to have sanctions applied before rather than after the beginning of the conflict, because in that case the escalation will not happen,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after meeting EU leaders on Wednesday.
Notably, the meeting’s agenda doesn’t foresee any discussion around two topics making international headlines: the boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics and China’s economic coercion against Lithuania.
The Baltic country has denounced China for blocking its exports, saying the move was retaliation for allowing Taiwan – the self-governing island that Beijing considers a wayward providence – to open a representative office in Vilnius. Lithuania has removed its diplomatic delegation from the country and warned national companies they might lose contracts with multinationals.
So far, Lithuania has earned the support of the European Commission, which said the trade dispute was more than a national issue and will have an impact on the overall EU-China relations. But dealings with China are a frequent source of disagreement between member states, with some advocating a more assertive line while others are keen to avoid any reason to anger Beijing.
In the case of the Olympics, Belgium, Austria and Lithuania have decided to join the US-led no-show. By contrast, France and Italy have made it clear they will attend the event. Although these topics are not part of the agenda, any member state is entitled to put them forward.
The European Council will conclude with a euro summit to discuss economic matters such as the baking union and economic growth.
At the end, Presidents Michel and von der Leyen will hold a joint press conference together with Slovenian PM Janez Janša, whose country currently chairs the rotating six-month EU Council presidency.