I want to congratulate you warmly on your election as President of the European Parliament, and to wish you and all the Members of the House well for 2017.
No-one can have any doubts that it will be an extraordinary year for Europe and the European Union. Last year, we managed to make progress on migration, security and the economy in spite of the unprecedented difficulties we faced. This was thanks, in great part, to your hard work and sense of responsibility in responding to events. Similarly, I trust that we will rise together to meet the challenges of the next months.
I would now like to briefly outline the main results of the December European Council. Leaders discussed our efforts to regain control on migration. The radical drop in irregular migration on the Eastern Mediterranean route was possible thanks to our decision to get back to Schengen, the closure of the Western Balkan route and Turkey's co-operation. In this context, leaders stressed their commitment to implement the EU-Turkey Statement, which also requires efforts from the Turkish side.
As regards the Central Mediterranean route, High Representative Mogherini reported on the progress with African countries. Last year, one hundred and eighty thousand migrants arrived irregularly to Italy. This is a situation that cannot continue. That is why Libya and our approach to the Central Mediterranean route will be the key point of the next informal summit in Malta. As you know, the EU supports the Government of National Accord and its efforts to consolidate peace and stability in Libya. We stand ready to step up the EU's engagement to strengthen the capacity to address security issues and consolidate institutions, in full respect of Libyan sovereignty.
As for Ukraine, we adopted a legally-binding decision of the leaders to facilitate the ratification of the Association Agreement in the Netherlands. This decision addresses the concerns expressed by the Dutch voters last year. Now, the responsibility lies with the Netherlands. The ratification is important not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe's geo-political standing and credibility. We did what we could to help save the Association Agreement already ratified by 27 Member States and the European Parliament. Now the ball is in the court of the Dutch.
On the Minsk agreements, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande gave their assessment of the Normandy process for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Their clear recommendation was, that since Russia has still not implemented the Minsk agreement, sanctions should be prolonged. They are now in place for a further six months.
The world has become a more dangerous place, whether we talk about open conflict, terrorism or so-called hybrid war in the form of cyberattacks and public disinformation. Therefore, leaders agreed to step up work on defence, in partnership with NATO. They have also agreed to increase co-operation on external security across the board - from research to how we develop military capabilities, right down to how we conduct our missions and operations. More resources will be needed, most importantly at the national level on defence spending, but also through funds from the European Union. Your support to this work will be critical, given the institutional and financial questions involved. The objective is clear. European countries should do more in the face of immediate security threats facing our citizens, and so should the European Union.
Leaders also discussed internal security. The political agreement on the EU's Counter-Terrorism Directive, which criminalises foreign fighters and their activities throughout the European Union, is a right step forward, but we need more. Leaders called for the remaining decisions which can prevent future terror attacks to be swiftly finalised and implemented, such as for example tougher legislation on firearms. We have called on the co-legislators to agree by June on an Entry/Exit System, and by the end of 2017, on a European Travel Information and Authorisation System. This will ensure that visa-exempt travellers are screened systematically. These are tough deadlines, but the situation requires that we work more quickly than normally.
Leaders also discussed several initiatives aimed at making the European economy work for everyone. We had an exchange with President Draghi, who underlined that the improved economic situation still needs reform efforts. The statistics are better, but the important thing is for ordinary people and businesses to feel confident about the future. This is why the European Fund for Strategic Investment will be extended, our trade defence instruments will be modernised, and the Youth Guarantee will be continued. To strengthen our recovery, 2017 needs to be a year of great ambition for the Single Market, both in terms of deepening and modernisation. The Parliament's role is obviously vital here.
Finally, on Brexit. The EU27 had a short informal meeting where we agreed procedural arrangements and reconfirmed our principles, namely the indivisibility of the four freedoms, the balance of rights and obligations and our rule of 'no negotiations without notification'.
The European Council will maintain political control over the process, while ensuring that the Commission is the Union's chief negotiator. The leaders fully realise the important role of the European Parliament in the process. With this in mind, they invited the chief negotiator to keep the Parliament closely and regularly informed, and agreed how the European Council will interact with the Parliament throughout the coming months. With this work now done, the EU stands ready to start the negotiations when the UK notifies its departure.
Lastly, let me make one comment. Yesterday's speech by Prime Minister May proves that the unified position of 27 Member States on the indivisibility of the Single Market was finally understood and accepted by London. It would be good if our partners also understood that there will be no place for pick-and-choose tactics in our future negotiations. At the same time I want to underline, that we took note of the warm and balanced words of Prime Minister May on European integration, which were much closer to the narrative of Winston Churchill than that of the American President-elect Trump.