Strategic success from the Sibiu summit

All eyes were on Sibiu on 9 May for the Future of Europe summit. [Photo: Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Romania’s EU presidency: A glance back.

On 9 May, EU leaders gathered in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu to discuss the future of Europe. What conclusions did heads of state and government reach in the Romanian hills? And what will be the summit’s legacy for the EU in the years to come?

The Sibiu gathering was meant to be the first major summit after the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc but fate had other plans for the Romanian presidency of the EU.

After Britain successfully lobbied for an extension to the original 29 March Brexit date, the summit shifted its focus away from the purely post-UK stock-take that was envisaged to a broader, future-gazing affair.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May did not make the Transylvanian trip and although European Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker said “I miss her”, he also said that, whether Britain was in attendance or not, “it’s almost the same, really”.

Juncker explained at the Sibiu summit that his September 2017 proposal to hold a meeting in the town was because “I wanted you to fall in love with this place”.

The spell seemed to work its magic on Council chief Donald Tusk, who said that it was “one of the most memorable events of my political career”, adding that “the whole of Europe is in love with Sibiu”.

Indeed, several leaders were visibly pleasantly surprised by the welcome they received in the city, with hundreds of the locals gathering outside the meeting venue to wave EU flags and chant messages of support.

On the nitty-gritty details, Juncker said the summit was “one of the easiest I’ve ever attended. First, because the Romanian Presidency, in particular President Klaus Iohannis, prepared this council in the best possible way.”

“Secondly, because there was no urgent decision to take. This was more a trial run for the June council,” where EU leaders struggled to decide who should land the bloc’s top jobs.

Leaders acknowledged all along that the meeting was not aimed at agreeing on law changes or new proposals but rather a reflection period.

Observers of EU politics suggested that Sibiu could be a blueprint for all future summits, given the conviviality on display at the meeting, as well as the fact that it achieved what it set out to do: boost the debate about the future of Europe.

A strategic result

The main tangible outcomes of the May meeting included the Sibiu Declaration, a broad-brush list of ten commitments ranging from defence and solidarity to the rule of law, and a first draft of the Council’s five-year-plan, known as the strategic agenda.

Leaders took only a matter of minutes to give their seal of approval to the declaration. But it was quickly dismissed as vague, particularly by some environmental groups, who insisted that climate change was relegated to “an afterthought” in the text.

However, the declaration ultimately fed into the strategic agenda. After the June summit, in which the broader document was adopted, President Iohannis said it “reflects entirely the 10 points under the Sibiu Declaration, the ‘Spirit of Sibiu’ as I call it”.

EXCLUSIVE: What countries really think of the EU's strategic agenda

EU member states broadly supported priorities highlighted for the next five years, although they called for a more “positive” vision. Despite the demands made by the capitals, the latest version only included few changes, according to the latest draft and the minutes seen by EURACTIV.

The strategic agenda prioritises defence and migration, economic stability, climate action and improving Europe’s standing on the global stage. It is set to guide the work of the EU institutions for the next five years.

Angela Merkel said after the summit that “it was important for us today to define our role in the world, to say once more that we are fighting for a Europe of values and everybody, or mostly everyone, agreed, one country cannot solve the world’s issues.”

EU leaders also preserved a united front on the Brexit issue and diplomats told EURACTIV at the Sibiu meeting that it was in partly thanks to the Romanian presidency for the way in which it had organised meetings in the lead-up to the main event.

Start of the top job saga

Sibiu also saw the beginning of the end for the Spitzenkandidat process of selecting the EU’s main institutional postings for the next five years.

Although the process, which elevated Juncker to the Commission presidency in 2014, survived the Future of Europe summit, Donald Tusk did not confirm that it would be used again to appoint the Luxemburger’s successor.

The writing was on the wall though, as leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Xavier Bettel voiced their strong criticisms of Spitzenkandidat.

Spitzenkandidaten survives Sibiu, Tusk calls summit for 28 May

Europe’s leaders on Thursday (9 May) agreed to attend an emergency summit immediately after the EU elections on 28 May, as European Council President Donald Tusk said he wanted to have the distribution of the bloc’s top jobs decided in June.

Tusk ultimately called an emergency meeting for 28 May, immediately after the EU elections. It is now known that the Council decided not to give their blessing to Spitzenkandidaten like Manfred Weber or Frans Timmermans.

The European Parliament will later on Tuesday vote on the candidacy of the Council’s alternative pick, Ursula von der Leyen.

If the German defence minister manages to secure an absolute majority of more than 374 votes, it will be safe to say that Sibiu was the cradle where a decision on the EU’s leadership first saw the light of day.

Regardless of the result though, the programme that will influence the work of the next Commission president was first sketched out at the Transylvanian summit, meaning that the meeting’s legacy will definitely influence the future of Europe as intended.

The Sibiu summit will ultimately be fondly remembered for being the first informal summit held on Europe day by one of the EU’s newest members, at a time when the bloc sorely needed to take a good long hard look at itself.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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