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The European Council Meeting: Answering the “Call of History”– Expert Quick Takes

In this article, our Wilson Center experts share their insights on the results of the European Council meeting on December 14 and 15, and how they set the EU's course for the future.

European Council Summit
European Council Summit in the Europa Building, Brussels, December 14-15, 2023

On December 14 and 15, 2023 European Union leaders met for a summit in Brussels. Despite happening multiple times a year, this meeting was historic for the future of EU integration. The EU leaders gave a green light to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, and grant candidacy status to Georgia. They also held discussions on several other vital issues, such as the EU’s next Strategic Agenda, the ongoing concerning situation in Gaza, the Union's security and defense capabilities, and the mid-term review of the current EU budget (2024-2027), that includes the much need financial lifeline for Ukraine—in the end blocked by Hungary. Our experts share their insights on the results of the Summit and how they set the EU's course for the future.

Merissa Khurma, Director at Middle East Program, The Wilson Center

The ongoing Hamas-Israel war and the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict was at the top of agenda during last week’s EU Summit. While more EU members voted for a ceasefire at the United Nations General Assembly last week, the EU failed to unify at the summit around ending hostilities. Those in favor of a ceasefire have indicated growing concerns over the surging number of innocent civilians killed by Israel’s military operations in Gaza as well as the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the besieged strip. Their argument is that taking such a stance will empower the EU to play a more integral role in diplomatic, humanitarian, and developmental efforts post war. 

The EU is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian people, through the Palestinian Authority that rules over the West Bank but has also long been a supporter of Israel and its right to defend itself against Hamas and other militant factions listed as terrorist organizations by the EU, the United States and other countries worldwide. Striking a balance during this war has proven challenging, precisely because different EU member governments have taken divergent positions. Countries such as Germany and Austria have held steadfast in their ironclad support of Israel, while others such as Ireland and Belgium have been critical of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and called on Israel, rather emphatically, to respect international law. Many member countries in the EU have also witnessed waves of protests calling for a ceasefire as well as the release of the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7th that have shaken the Palestinian-Israeli and wider regional arena, which remains to be integral for Europe’s national security. 

The EU remains to be a critical market for Israel as well as other countries in the MENA region and up until this attack and the ensuing war, the EU was seen a lot more favorably than the United States in varying public opinion polls of the region. The EU remains to be a critical partner in any diplomatic efforts led by the United States or the international community to prioritize a political solution to the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both the EU and the United States have reiterated their commitment to the two-state solution that is adopted by the Palestinian Authority as well many other countries across the Arab and Muslim world. The ongoing war and the divides across the region as well as in Europe highlights the importance of the EU’s pre-October 7th efforts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September to resuscitates diplomatic peace process through a comprehensive peace package that results in an independent Palestinian state living side by side to Israel in peace and security. It is imperative that the EU stays on course to play that role even as the going gets tough. It is the only path to peace.

Nicholas Lokker, Research Associate in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

The historic decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine is a very welcome signal of the European Union’s willingness to respond strategically to the geopolitical shock of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Yet as it moves forward with Kyiv’s integration, the EU can no longer continue to ignore the elephant in the room when it comes to enlargement—namely, the ongoing stalemate in the Russia-Ukraine war.

As long as active fighting continues, full EU membership will not be possible for Ukraine, given that the bloc’s mutual defense clause would require other member states to become directly involved in the conflict. While EU leaders are well aware of this potential issue, the debate on enlargement has so far refrained from directly addressing it. Instead, they seem to be operating under the assumption of future peace in Ukraine. This is most obvious in European Council President Charles Michel’s promise of membership by 2030—a date by which peace is by no means guaranteed.

Rather than making promises it may be unable to keep, the EU should find pragmatic ways to integrate Ukraine even while fighting continues. This will mean pursuing forms of progressive or gradual accession, which while frequently proposed, have yet to make it on to the EU's high-level political agenda. Offering Kyiv (and other candidates) benefits of integration prior to full membership could help sustain the momentum of the enlargement process, even if it takes time to overcome the thornier barriers in its way (which, in addition to the war, also include the need for reform to the EU's institutional functioning).

However, partial integration in the short-term cannot replace the ultimate goal of full integration in the long-term—an understandable fear that has so far prevented the concept from gaining enough support. The EU must therefore strike the right balance in its approach, making clear to Ukraine that although it remains committed to welcoming it as a full member once peace is reestablished, it will meanwhile work to bring Kyiv as close as possible to the bloc under current conditions.

Iren Marinova, PhD Candidate in Political Science, Colorado State University

Among several strategic topics that were discussed at the European Council Summit on December 14 and 15 in Brussels, one of them was the EU’s Strategic Agenda over the next 5 years. With the upcoming European Parliament elections and the change of the Commission in 2024, a question that will undoubtedly be asked relates to the geopolitical role and ambitions of the EU and whether they will persist or change over the next five years. In a period of continuous crises, security threats, and global order shifts, the Summit outcomes on some critical foreign policy issues hold important clues to this matter.

First of all, the idea of a “geopolitical” EU remains murky. Attempts have been made to provide clarity by addressing some scholarly concerns about the nature and implementation of the concept. Specifically, it has been presented as a more “realistic” vision of the world by the EU that relatively moves away from previous rather “naïve” over-reliance on the power of economic interdependence and towards a sobering realization of the true nature of the international system based on competition and conflict. It also means being ready to take risks and face the consequences. A question that is rarely asked, however, concerns the perceptions and visions of EU member states and their leadership on what “geopolitical” EU should and could look like.

The historic achievement from the Summit is undoubtedly the agreement to open membership talks with Ukraine. Simultaneously, the highly anticipated €50 billion aid package meant to support Ukraine could not pass. In both situations, the deciding common denominator was one and the same—Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—who continues to play the role of the rogue European leader in high-stakes matters. In the first case, he had to exit the room for the decision to pass, while he decided to block the financial package in the second. Whether Orbán will be persuaded to lift his veto in the next round of talks in January, or whether the EU will find other ways to circumvent him will be a key issue to observe in the coming weeks. With the uncertainty surrounding the United States’ commitment to the Ukrainian war effort and the country’s upcoming tumultuous election year, the EU’s ability to find ways to continue its support for Ukraine would be important not just for Kyiv, but for the EU’s “geopolitical” vision and its long-term security.

Another concerning outcome of the Summit was the inability to achieve consensus on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in light of several member states’ call for ceasefire. The lack of a decision on the matter demonstrates a persistent division among member states that continues to call into question the EU’s vision for being a key geopolitical player on a regional and a global stage.

Whether the EU has become more “geopolitical” or whether it will transform itself into a “geopolitical power” and what that means is still open to interpretation and remains to be seen. A question that deserves attention is what the concept means in theory and practice to the member states and if a common vision on the matter can be achieved.

European Council President Charles Michel
European Council President talking to journalist immediately after the approval to open the accession negotiation with Ukraine and Moldova, December 14, 2023.

Maša Ocvirk, Program Coordinator at Global Europe Program, the Wilson Center

Last week's meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels was historic. The decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova is a high water mark for EU enlargement. However, as uncertainty on this and other decisions prevailed until the last moment, it also—more than ever before—showed a clear need for internal EU reforms. While the Council conclusions do recognize this need, it is only in the context of welcoming new member states into the Union. In the current geopolitical context, the need for EU institutions to function effectively should be reason enough on its own terms, the enlargement momentum only adding to the urgency of internal EU reform. 

The future of enlargement as well as the EU’s capability to act might otherwise be at stake. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban walking out amid the vote on the future of Ukraine's path toward EU membership cannot be a sustainable solution to reach decisions. Hungary's later decision to block the approval of the Ukraine Facility—a crucial financial lifeline for Ukraine—and with that postponing the adoption of the revised EU budget to February 1, 2024, is a case in point.

The EU is beginning to run out of symbolic options to show support for Ukraine. By opening negotiation talks, where each further step needs unanimity from member states, progress becomes increasingly more intertwined. The latest EU Summit should therefore be a wake-up call, if the EU wants to continue having EU enlargement as its most important and successful geopolitical tool. 2024 will be a defining year for the EU in many ways, let’s hope one of them is getting closer to answering the call of history.

Robin S. Quinville, Director of Global Europe Program, the Wilson Center

In September’s “State of the Union” speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen challenged Europeans to “answer the call of history.” European Union enlargement, she emphasized, was the future–for Ukraine, Moldova, the Western Balkans, and Georgia. History demanded that the EU “work on completing our Union.

And the EU has been working. November’s Enlargement report set the stage for the December Summit; it recommended opening negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. The recommendation was a powerful recognition of the tough reform decisions both Ukraine and Moldova have taken, specifically to convince the EU they are also ready to tackle the demanding accession process.

Despite the report’s strong recommendation, the December 14-15 Summit meeting was a nail-biter. Hungary signaled early it could play the spoiler, stalling negotiations. But in the end, Hungary split its decision–allowing the EU to open negotiations but blocking much-needed funding for besieged Ukraine. Individual EU countries have indicated they will step up bilateral efforts, and the EU will revisit this issue in January. The process is a strong reminder to both EU institutions and the member states: they can no longer paper over the long-standing divergence between Hungary’s government and the EU’s values. Managing Hungary is the EU’s new challenge. 

Dr. Dimitris Tsarouhas, Research Director at Center for EU and Transatlantic Studies, Virginia Tech and Adjunct Professor at Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Last week’s European Council was a vital demonstration of Europe’s steadfast support to Ukraine’s cause. Opening accession talks with Ukraine (and Moldova) and awarding Georgia the candidate country status was far from a foregone conclusion, given well-documented objections by Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban, the inherent complexity that each enlargement entails, and the war-related fatigue that has settled in the west as we approached the conflict’s second anniversary. By use of a highly creative and rarely used formula ten years after the Euromaidan, 26 EU leaders circumvented Hungarian objections and sent out a powerful message: the future of Ukraine and Moldova lies irrevocably in Europe. President Zelensky’s enthusiastic reaction to the decision indicates that, for Ukrainians, the decision is far from only symbolic: Europe has embraced them and their search for belonging in a community of values they can call their own is over.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest all is done and dusted: accession talks will last unpredictably long, admission remains subject to veto players obstructing progress, and EU public opinion is wary of admitting more net “takers” from the EU budget. However, Ukraine’s heroic pushback since February 2022 and its application for membership have revived enlargement as a geopolitical tool. Most EU leaders now recognize that admitting new, vulnerable members in the post-Soviet space and the western Balkans is first and foremost in Europe’s own interest.

The challenge now facing the Union is twofold: first, to convince Western Balkan states to return to a reformist path to move their EU admission prospects meaningfully forward. The decision to open accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina soon reflects the realization that too much precious time has already been lost, but the lack of progress regarding Albania and North Macedonia indicates that the current stalemate has yet to be overcome. Second, to prepare the ground for enlargement through internal reform that will enhance EU absorption capacity but also apply strict yet fair conditionality. Given the continued controversy around Hungary and its access to EU money, the Union needs to apply technical criteria that fulfill set milestones whilst mindful of the political repercussions of its actions, and the message this sends to friends and foes alike.

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more