Today EU leaders resumed their two day summit that was postponed from last week following the news that EU Council President Charles Michel had contracted COVID-19. The meeting covered the pressing issues of EU relations with Turkey and Belarus as well as Europe’s strategic autonomy.
EU leaders threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey given the rising “provocation and pressure” over its interference with the sovereign rights of Cyprus and Greece as it drills for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU asked Ankara to engage in a positive dialogue aimed at putting an end to the illegal activities. The leaders adopted ambiguous language on boosting “people-to-people contacts” with Turkey, which might be interpreted by Turkish President Erdogan – who has yet to respond – as a potential easing of visa requirements for Turkish travellers to the EU. The leaders’ agreement reflects Germany’s approach – a softer line based on incentives to Ankara in exchange for reforms meeting EU political objectives – yet tempered by French President Emmanuel Macron – who took a harder line in negotiations.
After hours of negotiating the EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions to 40 members of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime who are accused of rigging the election in August. While the sanctions were welcomed, the German President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, criticised the decision to omit Lukashenko from the sanctions list.
Currently, the EU leaders are trying to find a way to accelerate the digital transformation, together with a stronger and deeper single market, with the ultimate goal to foster new forms of growth and strengthen the EU’s resilience. In an effort to develop EU digital sovereignty, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to outline to the leaders the three pillars of the executives’ Digital Strategy: industrial data, artificial intelligence and digital infrastructure.
Predictably, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the aspects of recovery, resilience and competitiveness have received increasing consideration for all these topics. It is expected that the EU Council will call for 20% of Europe’s €672.5 billion COVID-19 Recovery instrument to be allocated to digital. The tricky question is: who will this money benefit? In the draft conclusions of the summit, EU leaders timidly called for the funds to be directed to support small businesses, many of which have been acutely affected by the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether the lion’s share of the funding will instead be directed to the bigger players.
As for the discussions on how to ensure that Europe becomes a sovereign continent when it comes to setting the standards for new technologies, the leaders are also expected to draft a “digital compass” to set the 2030 goals for Europe’s tech sector. The aim is to establish a European human-centred model built on fundamental freedoms, data protection, and ethical and trustworthy artificial intelligence to rival the U.S. and China.
The next scheduled meeting of EU leaders is planned for March 2021. While the agenda will be informed by what the leaders agree today, the main topic will be whether to advance an EU-wide digital tax should the global talks on an international levy fail.