Prime Minister Robert Abela will be in Brussels today and tomorrow, as he joins EU leaders for a special European Council meeting.
Special, not only because it is being held outside of the normal European Council calendar, but also since Leaders will be meeting in person – an important development deemed as an indication of the improving epidemiological situation in Europe.
Over this year and half, everyone has become accustomed to video-conferences, and this phenomenon did not spare EUCO meetings either. Ever since COVID-19 struck, we have had only three physical EUCO meetings. While, this physical meeting is encouraging, it is still a far cry from the ‘normal’ meetings, where hundreds of journalists would fill the Council buildings, often spending the whole night, waiting for updates and conclusions.
What should we expect? Belarus, COVID, Climate, Russia, Middle East and the UK
Following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, and the arrest by Belarusian authorities of journalist Raman Pratasevich, the EU moved quickly. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen condemned this ‘act of terrorism’. On his part, EU Council President Charles Michel issued a late night communication condemning this incident and confirming that it will be discussed by EU leaders. Michel declared that this incident will bear consequences.
On COVID-19 there seems to be a broad agreement on the way forward, especially after an agreement on the EU Digital COVID Certificate, has been reached between co-legislators (Council of the EU and the European Parliament).
After negotiations were concluded on Thursday evening, European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders hailed this agreement in a tweet, saying it was “delivered in record time to safeguard EU citizens”.
The agreement provides a legal framework to Member States to introduce these certificates which are aimed at normalising the freedom of movement in EU Member States. It will also allow for unhindered travel to European destinations, which is a blessing for tourism-dependent economies that are betting on these certificates to restart the tourism industry.
The European Parliament has managed to secure a commitment from the European Commission of a further €100 million to make PCR tests widely available for free, across all Member States. Member States should refrain from introducing new restrictions, on certificate holder, unless the European Parliament is consulted. This agreement is quite a triumphant win for the EU, as it has managed to move relatively quickly.
EUCO is also expected to discuss the Commission’s proposal of donating 100 million doses to third countries. However, the initial reaction to this proposal in diplomatic corridors is that more clarity is needed on how this will be done, namely whether it will be a pro-rata exercise or on a voluntary basis. The EU is the largest producer of COVID-19 vaccines, and the it is desperate to regain a leading role with third countries in terms of vaccines. This would be particularly crucial to fend-off Russian and Chinese overtures to third countries through vaccine diplomacy. Some Member States are reluctant to commit to an exact figure of vaccine sharing, yet they are all supportive of this initiative.
Leaders will hold another exchange on climate after agreeing last December to return to the discussion on this important, controversial and divisive matter in equal measure. The EU agreed on an overarching objective to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. These are all ambitious measures that require great economic sacrifices and efforts by Member States to re-align and diversify their economies. The crux of the matter lies in the negotiations on the Effort Sharing Regulation and in setting national targets. This proposal is expected to be adopted as part of the European Commission’s so-called “Fit for 55” package in July, and the aim of this discussion at the European Council is to provide additional guidance to the Commission in the context of its preparations.
In December, Malta, and Cyprus insisted that their unique specificities as island Member States should be taken into account in the context of setting these targets. Similarly, Eastern European economies whose economies are dependent on carbon-fuels made calls for their different starting points to be considered. If the exchange in December is anything to go by, this week’s discussion will be lengthy and intense.
Russia is also expected to be another sensitive issue on the leaders’ table. It has become ever more important for Europe to convey a strong message to Russia after the recent escalating tensions between the two sides, culminating in the banning of some European officials from visiting Russia. Yet, the threat that Russia poses to European security is leaving most Eastern European countries on tenterhooks. Eastern European Member States are particularly suspicious of Russian actions in the region, having only emerged from the Russian sphere of influence in 1989. Any European sign of cohesion and unity are mostly welcome. The European Council is expected to condemn Russian activities against the EU, its Member States and beyond, declaring them illegal and provocative, while reaffirming the EU’s unity and solidarity.
Also, Malta’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Evarist Bartolo is expected to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov tomorrow. They will exchange views on the current state and further development of Russian-Maltese cooperation and will also hold an in-depth discussion regarding the international agenda.
While the UK has been officially out of the EU for some time now, it still makes the headlines over some provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement, particularly the Northern Ireland Protocol and its trade agreement with the EU. This European Council is expected to send a strong message to the UK, that first, non-members cannot and rightly so, should not enjoy the same benefits and privileges as Member States. Otherwise it would be pointless being a Member of the EU if other non-members had to enjoy the same privileges.
Secondly, the relationship between the two must be based on a balance of rights and obligations, basically a subtle message that cherry picking will not be allowed or tolerated.
Thirdly, under no circumstance shall the Single Market, the Customs Union or the EU’s decision making process be undermined, i.e. the UK should not resort to discriminating tactics between Member States.
These three main principles which will be reaffirmed by EU Leaders, had been emphasised repeatedly by the EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier throughout the negotiation process.