EU Brussels summit came at dramatic moment

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (centre) speaks with fellow delegates during a family photo at an European Council leaders summit in Brussels on 12 February 2015 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (centre) attended the EU leaders' summit for the first time

This was officially an informal summit, but it came at a rather dramatic moment.

As such, it dealt with what are perhaps the two biggest issues facing Europe over the next few years.

First of all, there are social and economic dilemmas surrounding the eurozone, austerity and the vexed question of growth.

Greece has always been at the sharp end of that debate, even if - given the relatively small size of its economy - it may not pose the biggest long-term challenge.

But the election of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza has brought matters to a head, and big decisions will have to be taken before the end of February.

Mr Tsipras is challenging the established economic order in the eurozone, and he has an array of forces lined up against him.

A compromise still looks most likely: a semantic solution that can satisfy both sides. Technical discussions are getting under way, but the final decisions will come down to politics.

Nothing is guaranteed, and Syriza seems prepared to take things to the brink to fulfil as many of the promises it has made to its voters as possible.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be taking the lead in Europe's biggest challenges

But Mr Tsipras can take heart from the fact that no-one wants to lose Greece, especially at a time when the second big issue facing Europe is so delicately poised.

The future of Ukraine has become one of the main security challenges of our time, and the biggest threat to East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.

What approach should Europe take towards its eastern borderlands, and what kind of relationship is it wise or even possible for the EU to have with Vladimir Putin's Russia?

The focus now will be on sceptical monitoring of how well the repackaged deal drawn up in Minsk is actually implemented. The threat of continuing and perhaps further sanctions lurks in the background.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Doubts remain about the Ukraine peace deal, secured at talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France

There is a third big issue that the EU will have to deal with soon, and that of course is the question of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe, and whether one of the EU's largest member states will up and leave.

It is simmering for now, on the back burner until the results of the UK general election emerge in May. But fairly rapidly after the election, a so-called "Brexit" could be competing for attention at the centre of EU debate.

And there is something that binds together all three of these challenges - Greece and the eurozone; Ukraine and Russia; and the possibility of British exit.

That something is actually a someone: Angela Merkel.

Centre stage in the debate about Greece and austerity, reaffirming Germany's position as Europe's pre-eminent economic power.

Centre stage at the Minsk peace talks on Ukraine, having spent far more time with President Putin over the past year than any other Western leader.

And centre stage as the one leader above all that a future British government - of whatever colour - will have to have on side if it wants to change the relationship with the EU.

So wherever you turn - except perhaps in purely military matters - Germany seems to be taking the lead in Europe at the moment.

And Chancellor Merkel stands head and shoulders above everyone else as this continent's dominant political personality.