The European Council in 2017: An Expectedly Exceptional Year

maandag 18 december 2017, analyse van Dr. Petya Alexandrova

2017 is een uitzonderlijk jaar geworden voor de Europese Raad. Nooit eerder kwam de Europese Raad zo vaak bij elkaar in één jaar. In totaal zijn er aan het eind van 2017 12 vergaderingen geweest. Petya Alexandrova, analyticus voor EASO en fellow van het Montesquieu Instituut, onderzocht de agendasetting van de Europese Raad in het afgelopen jaar. De Brexit heeft een belangrijke bijdrage geleverd aan de toename van het aantal vergaderingen dit jaar. Andere belangrijke onderwerpen waren migratie, veiligheid en defensie en de digitale agenda. Ook in 2018 zal de agenda van de Europese Raad waarschijnlijk gedomineerd worden door migratievraagstukken.

Even though 2017 has not ended, this year could already be regarded as an exceptional one in the history of the European Council. With the last two scheduled summits in December 2017, the number of meetings will reach 12 and become the highest annual number ever. This exceptionalism of 2017 is a consequence of the Brexit negotiations. Although in 2016 three summits were conducted without the participation of the British Prime Minister, the first meeting under the framework of Article 50 TEU took place in April 2017. The next such meeting was in October and the final one for 2017 is coming up in December. In addition to the three Article 50 summits, additional three were conducted without the participation of the UK.

The Rome Declaration

While the issue of Britain’s intended membership withdrawal clearly augmented the number of occasions at which EU leaders convened, it also had an impact on the European Council’s agenda. The outcome of the UK referendum triggered a high level reflection process in the EU that culminated in a commemorative Rome Declaration in March 2017, aimed at emphasising unity among the 27 and highlighting the achievements that European cooperation has brought about. Even though EU member states are far from united on many fronts, the Rome Declaration is important because it represents an agreement to advance efforts in pursuing solutions together.

The Leaders’ Agenda

As a follow up of this agreement, in October President Donald Tusk presented the Leaders’ Agenda – a tentative list of the key topics on which the European Council will concentrate over the next two years. The Leaders’ Agenda is a signal of two developments. First, it is a reaction to the changing context over the last several years, in which the EU has been facing a range of crises. The Leaders’ Agenda aims to offer some predictability and ensure that important issues will not be dropped off the agenda due to unexpected events. Second, it gives ‘stage time’ to the member states, most notably with the consolidation of the practice of informal summits in the state holding the Council Presidency. This cannot be seen as a complete return of the old practice in the times when there was no permanent President of the European Council. Nevertheless, it aims to give more ownership to the national level in order to ensure commitment to European projects.

Dominant topics: EU governance and migration

The discussions of the organisational and management characteristics of the UK withdrawal process and the attempts towards a united stance for the 27 contributed to making issues of EU governance a highly prominent topic in the European Council Conclusions in 2017 (15% of the contents between January and October).[1] Nevertheless, the agenda of the European Council continued to be dominated by migration – probably still the most divisive topic in the EU. Almost a fifth of the text in the Conclusions was dedicated to migration. This is somewhat less than in 2016 but the forthcoming discussion in December might make the topic even more prominent. Moreover, in late November EU leaders participated at the fifth summit between the EU and the African Union, at which migration was a dominant theme.[2]

Other topics that won a considerable share of the attention in the Conclusions were external and internal security (12% and 8% respectively). After a 2016 decision to provide a new impetus for European defence policy, in 2017 discussions focused on the need to create a more integrated and competitive defence industry, foster research on new defence technologies and investment in them, and the launching a permanent structured cooperation (expected to materialise in December). Internal security discussions circulated mostly around the fight against terrorism on EU territory, but also touched upon cybercrime and human smuggling. Furthermore, macroeconomics, business and finance retained prominence similar to the level in 2016, as was the case also for foreign policy. Other somewhat prominent topics included external trade and digital Europe.

The European Council in 2018

Considering the Leaders’ Agenda, migration is likely to remain a key priority of the European Council in 2018. Furthermore, even if the number of asylum applicants in Europe has declined over 2017, still some 60.000 asylum applications continue to be lodged every month in the EU plus Norway and Switzerland.[3] Governance matters related to Brexit are also likely to feature on the agenda in 2018. Their intensity will depend on the extent to which consensus has been achieved on the main negotiation points. Security concerns and work on new initiatives in this area could also be expected, together with regular reviews of the economic situation and the new proposals on digitalisation. Finally, in the European Council one should also be prepared for the unexpected as crises can reshuffle priorities and we have witnessed quite a few of them in the last decade.

Petya Alexandrova is Analyst at the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Note that the views expressed in this article are the author’s opinion and do not represent the position of the EASO. Petya Alexandrova is also Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute and coordinator of the EU Policy Agendas Project. Previously she worked as Lecturer in European politics at the University of Oxford.


[1] An explanation of the methodological approach to analysing European Council Conclusions is available at

[2] The last such summit was held in 2014.

[3] For more details see the monthly asylum trends of the European Asylum Support Office