Leaders of the 28 EU Member States met in Brussels on 20 and 21 October 2016. This was the first formal European Council meeting to take place since Theresa May replaced David Cameron as UK Prime Minister on 13 July, following the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The agenda of the European Council meeting focused on migration and trade issues, with relations with Russia given particular focus following a meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers on 17 October.
The European Council discussed the latest developments and progress in its strategy for the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis in Europe. The need for solidarity in the face of the crisis was stressed, with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, stating that “effective solidarity” was required, rather than “solidarity à la carte”.
The entry into force of the European Border and Coast Guard on 6 October was welcomed by the European Council, with national efforts seen as important in strengthening control of the EU’s external borders and restoring a fully operational Schengen zone. Through the deployment of staff and equipment, Member States aim for the European Border and Coast Guard to reach full capacity by the end of 2016.
The European Council called for the adoption of systematic controls on the EU’s external borders, welcoming the forthcoming European Commission proposal on a European Travel Information and Authorisation System, to allow for advance security checks on travellers without visa requirements.
Member States encouraged further cooperation with countries of origin or transit in Africa, aiming for progress in preventing illegal migration and the return of illegal migrants. The European Council hopes to accelerate the return of illegal migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey, as well as efficiency in asylum procedures and progress on Member State commitments laid out in the EU-Turkey Agreement, including visa liberalisation measures. The need to tackle the root causes of migration and to support displaced persons was also stressed.
Member States agreed on further assistance to the European Asylum Support Office, and will consider their positions on the External Investment Plan, aimed at boosting investment and job creation in Africa and the EU’s neighbouring countries, by the end of 2016.
The European Council welcomed the United Nations Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, which was signed in September, under which each Member State committed to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants and to further engage in their resettlement and education. The European Council also welcomed progress made on agreements with Lebanon and Jordan to enhance support for refugees, and the signature of the EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward on Migration Issues on 2 October.
The EU28 reaffirmed their commitment to trade policy that benefits from open markets and considers the concerns of citizens. Member States committed to continue ongoing free trade negotiations with key partners such as Canada and the United States and to achieve their completion.
The European Council was unable to adopt the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada due to the opposition of the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, with its regional Parliament refusing to ratify the deal. It was hoped that CETA would be endorsed by all Member States in advance of the EU-Canada summit scheduled to take place on 27 and 28 October, however it is yet to be decided whether the summit will take place as planned.
When discussing relations with Russia, the European Council focused on maintaining unity in the EU and concluded that no change in relations was currently appropriate but that it would be ready to engage further if necessary.
The European Council condemned the attacks on civilians in Aleppo by the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia. It called for an end to the violence and for urgent steps to be taken to ensure humanitarian access to Aleppo and other parts of Syria. It was agreed that those responsible for breaches of international and humanitarian law must be held accountable, with all options being considered should the atrocities continue.
The European Council welcomed the EU’s ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate action, and agreed to review the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework, which envisions significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, increased use of renewable energy and greater energy efficiency by the year 2030. Member States repeated calls for single market strategies, including the Digital Single Market, Capital Markets Union and Energy Union, to be implemented by 2018.
No formal debate was held in relation to the UK, as Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union has not yet been invoked, although UK Prime Minister Theresa May did give an update, confirming that the UK will invoke Article 50 before the end of March 2017. Prime Minister May had emphasised to reporters on her arrival at the European Council meeting that the UK “will continue to play a full role” in the EU until its departure and will be a “strong and dependable partner” after it leaves the Union.
President Tusk presented new proposals on working methods in the European Council. These include an earlier beginning and end to the meetings and better monitoring to ensure that decisions are implemented in a timely fashion.
The next European Council meeting is scheduled to take place in Brussels on 15 and 16 December 2016.