Just the Facts: Informal European Council meeting, 23 February 2018

On Friday, 23 February 2018, the European Council met in Brussels at an informal meeting to discuss the EU’s long-term budgetary plans and Institutional issues.  Brexit, relations with Turkey, and Syria were also discussed.  The meeting took place under the Leaders’ Agenda and as the discussions were future-orientated, leaders met in an EU27 format without the UK.

Multiannual Financial Framework

The Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) determines the limits for the annual general budgets of the EU, covering a period of no less than five years. Recent MFFs have usually covered a period of seven years.

EU27 leaders debated their political priorities for the MFF post-2020, when the current budgetary period is due to finish. In an invitation letter to EU leaders, European Council President, Donald Tusk, recalled that the European Council agreed in October 2017 “to conduct a debate about our priorities, so that the European Commission can receive political guidance from the European Council, before coming up with its proposals”.

In a press conference following Friday’s meeting, President Tusk acknowledged the difficulties of budgetary negotiations but said EU27 leaders had “agreed that the EU will spend more on stemming illegal migration, on defence and security, as well as on the Erasmus+ programme”. President Tusk also referenced other areas of continued importance for the European Council such as cohesion policy, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), investments in research and innovation, and pan-European infrastructure, while emphasising the need to address the gap in the budget that will be caused by Brexit.

EU27 leaders agreed to try to speed up the process of EU budgetary negotiations. President Tusk noted that coming to an agreement this year already “seems really difficult”, but that “despite usual differences, all leaders are ready to work on the modernisation of the EU budget and its policies. And many more are ready to contribute more to the post-2020 budget.”

Institutional Issues

Among other Institutional issues, the EU27 leaders discussed the composition of the European Parliament after the 2019 elections, post-Brexit.  On 7 February 2018, the European Parliament had proposed a change in its composition (see EM Ireland’s handy explainer here).  The proposal would see a reduction in the number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from 751 to 705, while a proposal to introduce a transnational list for the 2019 European Parliament elections was rejected.  President Tusk stated that EU27 leaders “broadly supported” the idea that the number of MEP seats should be reduced once the UK leaves the EU.  With regard to transnational lists, it was stated that EU leaders would revisit the topic in the future, looking ahead to the European Parliament elections in 2024.

EU27 leaders also discussed the Spitzenkandidaten process (see EM Ireland’s handy explainer here).  In a resolution on 7 February 2018, the European Parliament had agreed that they will reject any candidate for President of the European Commission who is not a lead candidate of one of the European political groups.  President Tusk announced that after discussing the Spitzenkandidaten process, EU27 leaders agreed “the European Council cannot guarantee in advance that it will propose one of the lead candidates for President of the European Commission.  There is no automaticity in this process.  The Treaty [on European Union (TEU)] is very clear that it is the autonomous competence of the European Council to nominate the candidate, while taking into account the European [Parliament] elections, and having held appropriate consultations.”

In response to a suggestion made previously by European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, to merge the position of European Commission President and European Council President in the future, President Tusk declared “there was no appetite to take this forward. Above all, because it would substantially reduce the role of Member States in the EU.”

Brexit negotiations

President Tusk said he informed EU27 leaders that he would present draft guidelines on the future EU-UK relationship at the European Council Summit in March, and said the EU leaders’ “intention is to adopt these guidelines, whether the UK is ready with its vision of our future relations, or not”.

Relations with Turkey

President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, and Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, informed the other EU27 leaders of developments regarding Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.  President Tusk expressed solidarity with Cyprus and Greece and called on Turkey to stop these “illegal violations”.

Syria

In relation to the ongoing crisis in Syria, President Tusk urged for an end to the violence and said “the EU calls for an immediate ceasefire, and for providing urgent humanitarian access to and protection of civilians”.

Next Steps

A formal European Council Summit will take place in Brussels on 22-23 March 2018.

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