Sibiu Summit: What’s next for the EU?

On 9 May, Europe Day, European leaders gathered in Sibiu, Romania, for a special summit on the Future of Europe. All European leaders (except Theresa May) agreed on 10 commitments that will help the EU live up to the responsibility of making the EU stronger and its future brighter. Theresa May’s absence alleviated the fears that, once again, a European summit would be dominated by the Brexit issue.

The summit was supposed to be a grand symbolic gesture to demonstrate the EU is still standing after the first-ever departure of one of its members. The Sibiu Declaration reflects this symbolic nature by speaking in lofty terms on the EU’s future, highlighting that European leaders will “defend one Europe”, “stay united through thick and thin”, “always look for joint solutions”,  “deliver where it matters most”, etc. More interestingly, however, is that leaders were also invited to have a first discussion in Sibiu on Donald Tusk’s draft Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024 which outlines in more detail the direction different EU policies should go in the next mandate. Mentioning the protection of citizens and freedoms, the development of a European economic base, a greener, fairer and more inclusive future and the promotion of Europe’s interests and values in the world, the Strategic Agenda is the document that will set the European agenda for the next five years. Look out for early June when the first draft of the Strategic Agenda will be issued.

On a related note, on 30 April, the European Commission set out its recommendations for the priorities of the next Commission in its communication ‘Europe in May 2019: Preparing for a more united, stronger and more democratic Union in an increasingly uncertain world’ which provides an in-depth analysis of the achievements of the current Commission, Europe’s challenges in a global context and several policy recommendations. The communication also served as the Commission’s input to the Sibiu Summit. Similar to Tusk’s draft agenda, the Commission also emphasizes the need for a protective, competitive, fair, sustainable and influential Europe. While both institutions’ priorities are aligned for most aspects, the Commission includes additional actions such as a modern and flexible regulatory framework for future mobility and transport; qualitative, energy-efficient and affordable housing; a more resource-efficient circular economy; the promotion of the international role of the euro and the support of the transformation of the European Balkans.

It is clear that both the Commission and the Council have similar views on the future of Europe. Still, priorities differ in certain aspects and it remains to be seen whether the European Council’s Strategic Agenda would address  some of the European Commission’s ideas. Aside from the EU’s strategic priorities for the next mandate, European leaders also exchanged views on the current state of European political affairs in view of the European Parliamentary elections later this month. The elections are expected to lead to the most fragmented European Parliament in history, with big gains for Eurosceptic parties. The vote will be followed by complex negotiations to fill all of the EU’s top jobs, including the Presidencies of the Commission, Council of the EU, the European Parliament, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and the President of the European Central Bank. Council President, Donald Tusk announced that he would convene European leaders for a special summit on 28 May, two days after the election, for the first formal deliberations on the division of the top jobs. He also indicated that he aims to conclude the process within three months, faster than the decision-making process in 2014.

European leaders also discussed the process of how to elect the future President of the European Commission. Several leaders, spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron, declared that they are not obliged to follow the Spitzenkandidaten system, by which the lead candidate of the party with the most seats gets elected as next Commission President. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, again emphasized her support for Manfred Weber, the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat. The power play between different European leaders is therefore expected to lead to difficult negotiations on who will fill the EU’s top jobs, most importantly the Presidency of the European Commission.