European Affairs Council of the European Union of 14 December: Conclusions
On Tuesday 14 December, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of European Affairs Sophie Wilmès and her counterparts met for a General Affairs Council (GAC). In particular, they prepared the agenda for the European Council (16 December) and discussed the extension, stabilisation and association process as well as the Article 7 procedure in progress against Poland and Hungary.
Preparation of the European Council
The General Affairs Council addressed the subject of COVID-19 which will be one of the key subjects of the European Council of 16 December. In particular, the focus will be placed on European coordination in the face of the emergence and propagation of the Omicron variant which is a matter of concern. For our country, it is very important that Member Sates conduct deep genome sequencing to benefit from conclusive scientific data as quickly as possible.
Sophie Wilmès: "Coordination at the level of the EU is essential for ensuring that the measures aimed at fighting the spread of Omicron have a maximum impact and guaranteeing the correct functioning of the internal market and the free circulation of people."
Belgium wants the amended recommendations of the Council Recommendations 912 (on travel to the EU) and 1475 (on travel within the EU) to be adopted by the Member States as soon as possible and supports, among other things, an amended period of validity of 9 months for vaccination certificates from the end of the first series of vaccinations, and a mandatory PCR test before departure for all travellers from third countries outside the EU.
For our country, the vaccination rate in the EU must continue to increase. "The third dose (booster) for all the population is a weapon in this respect." Vaccine hesitancy is a concern which requires a tailored solution. The issue of vaccination elsewhere in the world was also discussed. Sophie Wilmès: "With the donation of more than 350 million doses, the EU, its Member States, and financial institutions have largely exceeded their ambition for this year. Yet, the difference between intent and the reality in the field is too great. If we want to achieve a global vaccination rate of 70% by mid-2022 (the G20's target), we must do more. In particular, this means strengthening healthcare systems and supporting local production capacities.”
- Price of energy
The Council also tackled the issue of the rise in energy prices on the basis of the initial results of studies published in the middle of November on the gas and electricity market and on the functioning of the European emissions trading scheme. Since the start of the energy price crisis, our country has highlighted the need to take account of the social and economic consequences of the rise in energy prices, especially on vulnerable citizens and SMEs, and reduce its effects in the short and long term. "The high price of energy and its impact on citizens and companies continue to concern us and guide our actions. Belgium believes that thinking on how the electricity market and price mechanisms currently work is necessary but that it is important to be aware of the potential consequences of market interference. Furthermore - as already indicated yesterday on the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and confirmed in the Commission's non-paper - the geopolitical aspect is also essential: it is necessary to increase the resilience and security of Europe's supplies by diversifying providers and energy sources and reducing dependency on fossil fuels thanks to the energy transition."
With regard to migration, the European Council will focus on its external aspects, such as action plans, the attention paid to migratory routes as a whole, returns and strong exterior borders. Sophie Wilmès: "Furthermore, special attention should be paid to the internal aspects of migration. Belgium is favourable to restricting secondary movements within the EU but our country is also ready to participate in a mechanism of structural solidarity. In addition to partnerships with the countries of origin, we believe it is important to make progress on return and readmission agreements whilst ensuring that fundamental rights are respected at all stages of the migration process." Belgium is also appealing for an effective fight against smuggler networks on the basis of the updated European action plan against migrant smuggling.
- Security and defence
Concerning security and defence, our country - as pointed out on several occasions by its Deputy Prime Minister - welcomes the level of ambition of the strategic compass, which should be the subject of appropriation and regular monitoring by the European Council. “We are awaiting ambitious proposals from the Commission and the EEAS at the start of 2022 to complete the compass and define a medium and long-term strategy."
Belgium is also favourable to adopting a third EU-NATO joint declaration to highlight the importance of this cooperation because stronger European defence can only be beneficial to NATO.
Enlargement, stabilisation and association process
The Council has examined the reports of the European Commission on the state of progress of the enlargement policy and the stabilisation and association process in the Western Balkans. Our country welcomes the adoption of the Council's conclusions.
Sophie Wilmès: "The EU must send a clear message that it is pursuing the planned enlargement in Western Balkan countries, a process which should be completed without any shortcuts and on the basis of merit, namely fundamental reforms concerning the Rule of Law and Human Rights."
Concerning Serbia, there is a consensus in the Council to open four new negotiation chapters on climate, environment, energy and transport ("Green Cluster") in recognition of the progress - albeit still too early - in the programme to reform the Rule of Law. Sophie Wilmès, on behalf of Benelux: "We hail the Serbian Parliament's adoption of constitutional amendments paving the way for a more independent justice system. We expect Serbia to continue these efforts with more tangible results, in particular with regard to the fight against corruption and organised crime and a free and independent press."
Rule of Law in Poland - Union's Values in Hungary
After the organisation of Poland's and Hungary's hearings in the frame of the Article 7 procedure in June, the Slovenian presidency opted for a review of the situation. As highlighted on several occasions in recent months, Belgium attaches great importance to this question.
Regarding Poland, our country regrets that the situation on the Rule of Law has not improved in recent months, quite the opposite. For example, the decree of 7 October by the Polish Constitutional Court declaring two articles of the EU treaty contrary to the Polish legal system. Belgium calls on Poland to execute all judgements against it without delay. Our country believes that it is appropriate to regularly include the Article 7 procedure on the Council's agenda, preferably in the form of a hearing, for as long as violations of the Rule of Law continue in Poland.
This last point also applies to Hungary where our country has noticed a deterioration in several areas, as illustrated by the homophobic law of June 2021 - still in force - against which 18 Member States joined forces on Belgium's initiative. The Commission's recent report on the Rule of Law also shows that media pluralism has deteriorated even further. Therefore, our country is calling on Hungary to remedy the many shortcomings in the Rule of Law and to apply meticulously all the European Court of Justice's decrees.