Blog Post

What to Watch: European Leaders Meet to Address Turkey, U.S. Relationship, Rule of Law

December 09, 2020
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

On December 10th and 11th, European Union leaders will meet in Brussels for a special European Council meeting. With a full slate of challenges on the agenda, experts with the German Marshall Fund across Brussels, Berlin, and Washington are setting the scene with analysis of some of the key topics set to be addressed at the Summit—the EU-U.S. relationship, the Eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey, rule of law and democracy with a specific focus on the ongoing disagreements with Hungary and Poland, as well as climate change.

This fall, GMF—in partnership with the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung—published the culminating report of its Transatlantic Taskforce: a comprehensive set of forward-looking policy recommendations for better coordination between the U.S. and Europe on shared challenges—from security, climate and trade, to technology and a rising China.

All experts are available to speak further on these topics and can be used directly with attribution. Contact [email protected] for more information or to request an interview.


EU-U.S. Relations

Julia de Clerck-Sachsse, Senior Non-Resident Fellow

This summit comes at a critical time. The United States and the rest of the world will want to see whether Europeans offer concrete proposals to work with the U.S. on some of the most pressing challenges of our time. The new U.S. administration can be a real game changer for transatlantic relations. From the coronavirus, climate, and China, to tech and trade, Europeans potentially have a lot to offer the incoming Biden team, but the world will not stand by while individual member states disagree, including on such fundamental issues as democratic values or defense.

Europe must show that it can walk the talk and be a strong partner ready to assert itself globally. This will require the strategic vision and political commitment to overcome differences and set out a concrete plan for action. To do that, the discussions on the coronavirus, climate, and the EU’s budget will be just as crucial to watch as that on transatlantic relations. We should also pay particular attention to EU leaders’ language on China, an issue on which the EU and U.S. do not always see eye to eye, but which will be critical in defining the success of transatlantic cooperation.


Eastern Mediterranean and Relations with Turkey

Ian Lesser, Vice President and Executive Director, Brussels office

As anticipated, the EU Council will take up the question of relations with Turkey and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. European leaders have been increasingly concerned about the ongoing brinkmanship in the region, above all between Ankara and Athens. There is a widely shared view that Turkey’s assertive posture is undermining stability and working against EU (and NATO) security interests. The threat of EU sanctions is very real. In response, over the last weeks, Turkey has calibrated its energy exploration and naval deployments in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean; active enough to satisfy domestic opinion but restrained enough to soften the sanctions debate.

The issue is very much in the balance. President Macron, engaged in a war of words with President Erdogan on a range of issues going well beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, is pressing for a hardline approach. Germany shares French concerns in principle. But with many equities at stake in relations with Ankara, from migration to trade, Chancellor Merkel is likely to argue for a more nuanced approach. If the Council does opt for sanctions, this could take various forms, ranging from the symbolic to the substantive. A limited arms embargo could be one possible response. At a minimum, the Council is likely to set some specific “red lines” regarding Turkish behavior, including exploration in disputed waters and aggressive military deployments. Whatever the decision, relations with Turkey are sure to be a subject for EU-U.S. consultations with the Biden administration.


Rule of Law & Democracy

Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, Washington, D.C.

Europe appears poised to take a real stand and finally hold member states accountable on rule of law. Getting to this point has been a rocky road for the EU. The current intersection: the EU is weighing the need to release pandemic recovery funds quickly against the need to stop abuse of EU rules by nations such as Hungary and Poland. But Poland and Hungary are not likely to prevail in this game of chicken by blocking the budget and recovery fund to protect their bad behavior. This intransigence worked well enough when they had the Trump administration cheering on their illiberal behavior.

Biden, however, plans to prioritize a return to democracy and will likely buttress the European Parliament’s efforts to rein in the poor performers. If the EU stays the course, calls the bluff of the illiberal leaders, Poland and Hungary will have the most to lose. They alone will be deprived the money needed to recover their economies from the impact of the pandemic. And if the budget is not passed, sure it will be painful for all EU members, but Hungary and Poland, who are some of the largest recipients of EU funds, would suffer most. Committing to unity across the EU is not just a question of keeping promises, it is a matter of maintaining the security of our transatlantic alliance. The actions of one norm-breaking state, like Hungary, can make all members more vulnerable. As Europe and the U.S. look to recover from the pandemic and confront global challenges, they cannot afford to allow the illiberal outliers to cripple our collective future.


Daniel Hegedüs, Central European Fellow, Berlin

This week, the European Council (EUCO) has the ambitious goal to put an end to the Union’s actual institutional crisis caused by the Hungarian-Polish blockade of the EU’s historic EUR 1.8 trillion budget package.

Whether the German Council Presidency will succeed with forging a new deal that may convince Budapest and Warsaw is open. But ending the EUCO without a result, and a continuation of the blockade, is not the worst possible outcome. The MFF and Next Generation EU being anyhow in delay, it is far from being a tragedy if a breakthrough is only reached in January.   

The EU25 became a rather solid block during the past weeks and started to exert pressure over Poland’s and Hungary’s illiberal governments by potentially re-establishing the coronavirus recovery package outside of the EU’s treaty framework as an intergovernmental cooperation. However, maintaining the unity of the EU25 on the rule of law issue is crucial. The re-emergence of any cleavage between “the South” and “the Frugals” may significantly weaken the bargaining position of the EU25.

Poland’s governing coalition being divided on the blockade and the position of the EU’s autocratizing twins weakening by every day, it would be a failure for the EU25 to offer substantial concessions on the rule of law conditionality in exchange for a fast deal. It would not only encourage extortion by veto in the future, but also alienate The Netherlands and the Nordic Countries from the champions of the weak compromise.


Climate Change

Jacob Kirkegaard, Senior Fellow, Brussels

The December Council’s main climate change related decision is to adopt (or not) the proposal for a 55 percent reduction in emission by 2030. This must be done to facilitate the announcement of the new updated and more ambitious EU climate commitment United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by the end of 2020.

This climate commitment, however, is directly linked to the broader controversy over the EU budget, NextGenerationEU, and the rule of law mechanism. Poland has previously resisted joining the EU 2050 carbon neutrality commitment, principally due to anxiety over its ability to secure adequate EU funding for a required dramatic shift away from coal in its domestic energy mix. The rule of law standoff jeopardizes climate change related budget transfers, and especially the earmarked Just Transition Fund. Polish acceptance of the EU’s updated climate goals is hence likely contingent on resolving the broader budget dispute. Failure to do so will prevent unanimous EU adoption of the proposed 2030 climate goals.