Despite several countries in Europe imposing stringent lockdown measures to curb COVID-19 infection rates over the Christmas period, the summit of EU leaders took place in person this month, from 10-11 December. Given the mountain of policy issues on the agenda, the annual gathering of the 27 heads of state and government had shaped up to be the most significant in recent memory. The summit marks the end of both Germany’s rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and a turbulent year for Europe.

Perhaps the most vital achievement of the summit was the agreement to cut net carbon emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, after a gruelling all-night negotiating session. This was despite the resistance of several coal-dependent Central and Eastern European states, such as Poland, who have long voiced their concerns about being left behind in the transition towards renewable energy. The agreement, which was first suggested with the announcement of the European Green Deal in September, will help to set out a clearer pathway for the EU’s goal to be climate-neutral by 2050.  

Some EU states had previously cautioned against more stringent climate targets due to concerns over a lack of funding. However, these fears were alleviated by the long-awaited agreement of the EU’s €1.2 trillion budget-and-recovery package. Since mid-November, Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki, the respective prime ministers of Hungary and Poland, have threatened to veto the budget, based on a mechanism that would tie funding to respect for the rule of law. Both countries have been accused of authoritarian practices that contrast with the EU’s more liberal values, such as limiting the independence of the judicial system, corruption, curbing press freedom and infringing on the rights of women and minorities. At the summit, Poland and Hungary finally agreed to a compromise plan put forward by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This will allow the two nations to challenge the rule of law provision at the European Court of Justice, setting up another potential showdown for 2021, as murmurs of a future ‘Polexit’ continue. 

Although it was not on the agenda, Brexit talks loomed large in the background, as British and European diplomats struggled to reach an agreement over a future trading relationship. However, EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen briefed the leaders on the state of the play, with the issues of access to the UK fishing waters and common standards on workers’ rights and environmental standards remaining unresolved. 

Furthermore, the leaders also agreed to impose sanctions on several unspecified Turkish officials and organisations involved in gas-drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus. France, Cyprus and Greece were pushing for more serious action to be taken against Turkey, however, calls for harsher sanctions were blocked by the leaders of Bulgaria and Germany. 

As Germany’s presidency of the European Council draws to a close, Europe looks ahead to a future without Mrs Merkel, its de facto leader, who steps down from the German chancellorship in 2021. Whilst EU leaders will be pleased with the summit’s budget resolution, and climate agreement, the issues of Brexit, migration policy, tensions with Turkey and Russia and heightening frictions with populist governments are likely to emerge again next year. However, there is also much cause for optimism in Europe heading into the new year, with the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine set to begin, whilst Joe Biden’s election in the US should see an improvement in transatlantic relations. 

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