Freedom, Unity and Solidarity were the order of the day at the European Summit on 12 February 2015
Dramatic developments – the Paris attacks and crisis in Ukraine – threw the agenda of the informal meeting of the European Council on 12 February 2015 into disarray.
The planned discussion on the future of currency union was – rightly – postponed. However, the need to defend freedom and achieve unity in Europe also means that all must agree on striking the right balance between solidarity and personal responsibility.
The European Council's informal summit, which took place on 12 February in Brussels, came four weeks after the attacks in Paris and two days before the shootings in Copenhagen. Let's be quite straightforward about this: we cannot expect Islamist terror in Europe to disappear overnight. What is more likely is that people in the European Union are going to have to get used to living with these sustained attacks on democracy and freedom. Europe is a land of freedom. That means a lot to Europeans. Millions of people, including crowds of young people, have taken to the streets to express not only their grief for the victims but also their desire to preserve freedom in Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, Council President Donald Tusk was therefore right to take the decision to make the fight against terrorism the core theme of the meeting on 12 February, rather than a discussion on the long-term consolidation of economic and currency union.
But then the Ukraine conflict worsened. Following a massive assault carried out by Russian Army-backed separatists on the city of Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine, the Heads of State and Government had already issued a declaration on 26 January calling on Russia to show restraint and comply with the terms of the Minsk agreements signed in September 2014. This declaration, as well as the announcement on 9 February heralding even tougher sanctions, led nowhere, prompting Angela Merkel and François Hollande to launch a diplomatic initiative, the climax of which was another meeting on 11 February in Minsk with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. Protraction of the negotiations in the Belarusian capital led to a delay of several hours before the informal Council meeting in Brussels could begin, and yet another amendment was added to the programme.
Along with the fight against terrorism, the crisis in Ukraine now found itself on the agenda as yet another focal point. After the Council discussions, also attended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko in a sign of solidarity with Europe, Donald Tusk made a statement to the press to explain things further: "This is not just about the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The whole geopolitical order in Europe after 1989 is at stake....We stand united. We will stay the course." Almost all EU Heads of State and Government have now come to view the Ukraine conflict as the latest stage in a Russian rollback, with which President Vladimir Putin is attempting to extend Russia's sphere of influence and modify the outcome of the peaceful revolution of 1989. In the Baltic States in particular, there is a growing fear about the continued existence of their independence and the connection to the West which they themselves chose. Ultimately it will come down to the unity of the whole of Europe, so it is easy to see why this issue dominated the informal Council summit.
The new Greek government did its bit to ensure that the future of the European economic and currency union did not drop completely off the agenda in the discussions on 12 February. A meeting of Eurozone finance ministers on 11 February had planned to look into extending the aid programme, due to run out at the end of February. However, it had spectacularly failed. The Ministers had taken leave of each other after a day that brought no joint declaration, no consensus and much head scratching, because the imprecise Greek proposals had been rejected by all, especially by the other recipients of aid (Ireland, Portugal and Spain). This was why the Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem was asked to bring Heads of State and Government up to speed on the latest developments, and newly elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was also given the opportunity to explain his position and present his proposals. On the sidelines of the summit both sides eventually reached a compromise that broke the deadlock and allowed the talks to continue.
Even if we cannot expect the Eurozone partners to jettison Greek structural reforms or even agree to the complete cancellation of its debts, both the originally planned summit discussion on harmonious economic development in the Eurozone and on striking the right balance between solidarity and responsibility remain matters of importance and urgency. Discussions will now continue on the basis of a report which Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been tasked with drawing up. It will be on the table at the European Council in June. Let us hope it gets that far.
Translated from the original text in German