The December European Council debated in fact all the major crises that confronted Europe in 2015. Whether it was the migration and refugee crisis, EMU reform or Brexit, in all of these discussions we made some progress but for sure not enough. Let us have no doubt that 2016 will also be overshadowed by these challenges. Our community is experiencing a stress test. And what is most challenging is that we are being tested on all possible fronts at the same time. Today, let me say it loud and clear. I will not rest until we work out solutions to all these challenges. Our strength comes from our unity. Therefore keeping European unity will continue to be my main goal in 2016.
Dear members, let me start with the migration and refugee crisis, an existential challenge for the EU. As you remember I have emphasised for months, in fact from the very beginning of the migration crisis that there is no good alternative to border protection. This is a conditio sine qua non of any effective migration policy.
After the December European Council, we can be a bit more optimistic. The leaders’ discussion concentrated on ways and means to strengthen external border control. All leaders acknowledge that protecting Schengen requires difficult decisions. In this context, we agreed to rapidly examine the European Commission’s proposal to strengthen the EU’s external borders, including the idea of the European Border Guard. This is a priority for the Dutch Presidency and we should have political agreement in the Council by June.
The agreement of by Greece to accept a Rapid Border Intervention Team from Frontex already in December is another indication that we have started to move in the right direction when it comes to guarding the external border.
Despite political progress, I have to admit that there is a clear delivery deficit on many fronts, from hotspots and security screening in frontline countries to relocation and returns. The action plan with Turkey, although promising, is still to bear fruit.
I share the sentiment expressed by Prime Minister Rutte that we have no more than two months to get things under control. The statistics over the Christmas period are not encouraging with over 2,000 arrivals to the EU per day, according to Frontex. The March European Council will be the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it doesn’t we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen. For sure this kind of alternative to our strategy is not pleasant and so I appeal that Member States implement our agreements in full.
Dear members, let me turn to the UK. In December, leaders had a substantive and constructive discussion on the UK question. Prime Minister Cameron set out his position in detail, in particular regarding benefits and free movement. He explained his request for a model based on four years and reiterated the openness to alternative solutions but only if they achieve the same objective. Leaders voiced their concerns on specific issues, but also demonstrated willingness to look for compromises. Building on this positive debate, we agreed to work together to find solutions in all four baskets raised by PM Cameron: relations with the euro area, sovereignty, competitiveness and on benefits and free movement. Hard work on all these baskets is progressing and as we speak my people are working with the Commission to bring us closer to the solution. In the run-up to the February European Council, I will table a concrete proposal for a deal with the UK to all EU leaders. Let me stress again that from the very beginning of these negotiations I have been very clear. There will be no compromise on fundamental values like non-discrimination and free movement. At the same time I will do everything in my power to find a satisfactory solution, also for the British side. As of today the result of the referendum is more unpredictable than ever before. Time is of essence here. And this is why I will work hard to strike a deal in February. It will not be easy but it is still possible.
Dear members, the European Council also discussed counter-terrorism in light of the Paris tragedy. These outrageous acts only have strengthened Europe’s resolve to fight terrorism. Leaders agreed to operationalise our policies, including systematically sharing information on foreign fighters through Schengen and Europol, as well as between Member States’ authorities. Security services should conduct joint threat analysis if it can prevent future attacks. Europol has already reported a significant rise in information-exchange on foreign fighters through its new Counter Terrorism Centre with almost every Member State contributing data. Without vigilance and real co-operation, we cannot defeat this threat and the likelihood of further attacks remains very high. I urge all states to cooperate fully.
The European Council was an opportunity for the leaders to assess the state of play in building the Energy Union. There is a significant progress in the level of interconnections between states on the gas and electricity markets, including the parts of Europe that have been isolated until now. When I proposed the energy union concept as Polish prime minister, this was one of my major goals.
I am happy to see clear progress but still we need more. The European Council asked for all relevant legislation to be brought forward, including on strengthening the transparency on the gas market. Talking about the Energy Union, leaders had an exchange on the Nord Stream II project, some of them were very critical, and we also discussed the conditions that need to be met by major energy infrastructure projects. We reiterated that any new infrastructure should be fully in line with the Energy Union objectives. Not to mention the obvious obligation that all projects have to comply with all EU laws, including the third Energy Package. These are clear conditions for receiving support from the EU institutions or any Member State – political, legal or financial. Now the ball is in the court of the European Commission. But the political message of the European Council is clear and goes in a similar direction as the position expressed by the European Parliament.
Leaders praised President Hollande and congratulated him on the successful hosting of the COP21 and on the agreement of the first ever, legally-binding global climate deal. We have asked the Commission and the Council to assess fully what the Paris Agreement implies for our own energy and climate policy mix.
Last, but certainly not least, the European Council addressed economic challenges. Leaders confirmed their commitment to work towards completing EMU further based on the Five Presidents’ report. Even if Europe is overwhelmed by the migration crisis, we cannot afford to wait with the necessary EMU reforms for better days. In this spirit ministers were asked to advance their work rapidly on a number of areas, including the banking union.
The European Council also emphasised the importance of deepening the single market in key areas. Delivering a digital single market and building a capital markets union are our top priorities.
Finally, I want to warn against the increasingly alarmist rhetoric on the future of Europe. Neither naivety nor excessive pessimism will get Europe the results it needs. As Europeans we have to be both realistic and confident about our values and beliefs. I am reminded of Arnold Toynbee’s famous remark that civilisations die from suicide, not by murder. Europe is stronger than some may think, and we still have the power and the public mandate to do what is necessary. Thank you.