Amid an escalating trade war with the United States, political flare-ups over migration and new urgency around revamping the eurozone, EU leaders will convene in Brussels on Thursday for one of their busiest summits in recent memory.
Indeed, the agenda has grown so sprawling and controversial that European Council officials have scrambled to sweep out issues that might otherwise have been the subject of lengthy conversations — like the question of starting membership talks with Albania and the country that will soon be known as the Republic of North Macedonia, if a name-change deal with Greece holds up.
Heres what to expect at the mother of all EU summits.
No, its not 2015 all over again. Arrivals of migrants and refugees are down precipitously from their peaks three years ago. But migration is once again the EUs hottest topic, as domestic politics, particularly in Germany, collide head-on with the failure to revise the blocs asylum rules. A mini-summit of 16 leaders on Sunday offered a preview of the tough conversation awaiting the full 28 over dinner Thursday.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will be able to officially declare victory: The top point on the leaders agenda is tighter control of the EUs external borders. As for the next steps, first on the list is a plan to set up “regional disembarkation platforms outside Europe.” “Our objective should be to break the business model of the smugglers, as this is the most effective way to stop the flows and bring an end to the tragic loss of lives at sea,” European Council President Donald Tusk declared in his pre-summit letter to leaders.
Two crucial points: mandatory quotas for relocating refugees across the EU are effectively off the table; and consensus on a new Dublin regulation on asylum rules seems out of reach. Expect leaders to focus on bilateral or trilateral deals for now, in an effort to manage migration within the EU while protecting the Schengen common travel area. Other steps include a new, dedicated financing line within the blocs budget for combating illegal migration, as well as stepped-up cooperation with countries of origin and transit, including Libya.
Trade and Trump
Despite a spell of sunny weather in Brussels, a dark thundercloud hangs over the Councils Europa building and it has a name: Donald J. Trump. The combative, combustible and entirely unpredictable U.S. president and the trade war he has initiated are of great concern to EU leaders. Tusk, in his letter, warned the 28 to be prepared for “worst-case scenarios.”
Trump is threatening to further escalate the trade war by imposing tariffs on EU automobiles, on top of the levies on steel and aluminum that have already prompted EU retaliation. EU leaders are expected to declare their unanimous support for the Commissions response, which includes not just counter-tariffs but also a continued push to complete free trade agreements with other international partners as a sign of commitment to “international, rules-based trade.”
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will soon carry that unified message to Washington, where he has been invited to visit Trump at the White House, as first reported in POLITICO.
The Trump factor also explains the emphasis at the summit on an appearance by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and a plan for increased defense cooperation, including on “military mobility.” Leaders are deeply worried that Trump might put further strains on the alliance at next months NATO leaders summit in Brussels.
Leaders of countries in the common currency zone will hold a separate “euro summit” on Friday where they will begin adopting long-planned efforts to strengthen the EUs monetary and banking unions.
These include steps to strengthen the European Stability Mechanism (along with rebranding it with a new name) and providing the bloc more robust tools to absorb economic shocks, including a “backstop” mechanism for the so-called Single Resolution Fund, which is used to wind down failing banks.
Also on the table will be the joint declaration of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their meeting at Meseberg Castle last week, including a controversial proposal for so-called “fiscal capacity” — essentially an effort to improve anti-crisis capabilities by creating, for the first time, a budget for the eurozone. A number of nations oppose the concept, and the discussion about it will likely continue through the autumn.
The EUs budget is usually a summits highest priority and most controversial topic. Not this time. With so much else going on, leaders are expected to call for speedy work by national governments and the European Parliament on the Commissions proposed seven-year financial plan, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Few officials think it will be possible to complete the MFF before next years European election, but Merkel and others see no reason not to try. The Councils draft conclusions call for everyone to get down to business “as soon as possible.”
The bitter divorce talks with Britain are not much closer to a final resolution. Officials once predicted this summit would be a crucial marker. Instead, Brexit has fallen far down the agenda. There has been little to no progress on the main issues dividing the two sides, most notably on a backstop plan for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The U.K.still has only half-proposed its alternative backstop for avoiding a hard border, and Prime Minister Theresa Mays cabinet has yet to agree the second half. (OThey meet for another summit at Mays country residence, Chequers, next week.)
Leaders will urge negotiators to accelerate the pace of talks and reiterate their hope for the completion of a withdrawal treaty by October, leaving six months for the ratification process in the European and U.K. parliaments before the official withdrawal date of March 29, 2019.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Charlie Cooper, Bjarke Smith-Meyer and Florian Eder contributed reporting.
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