EU summit in Brussels: A meeting in the shadow of Brexit

Difficult relations with Russia, long-term financial planning and the major Euro zone reform project: the EU heads of state and government have set themselves ambitious goals for the last summit this year. If it wasn’t for the Brexit.

In fact, the European Union wanted to move on to the agenda. Right on time for the end of the year, reforms are to be decided and successes presented. But the Brexit also overshadows the last EU summit of the year on Thursday and Friday in Brussels.

After the dramatic escalation in London, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her EU colleagues will once again have to rack their brains as to how the separation from Great Britain can take place in a reasonably mild manner. And it’s not the only difficult item on the agenda.

After months of negotiations there is a treaty package for the planned withdrawal of Great Britain from the EU on 29 March 2019. The British government has agreed, as has the EU – but the British parliament lacks the majority for ratification.

Prime Minister Theresa May is therefore asking the EU for new “assurances”. In doing so, it wants to refute criticism of the agreed rules for open borders between the EU state of Ireland and the British state of Northern Ireland and still achieve approval in the House of Commons.

The EU signals concessions, albeit within very narrow limits and without treaty changes.

Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is currently confirming this as well. Amendments to the Treaty on the withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union are excluded.

“There is no basis for unravelling this agreement,” the SPD politician told the Bundestag on Thursday. “That’s not going to change.”

What could be decided at the summit remained open until the end.

Russia and the Ukraine conflict

Do we need new sanctions against Russia? This issue has been the subject of controversy in the EU since the Russian coastguard violently prevented three Ukrainian naval vessels from sailing from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov at the end of November.

I don’t think there’ll be any agreement at the summit. In the end, however, new sanctions could be threatened in the event that Russia does not resolve the conflict quickly – for example, by releasing the arrested seamen.

This would be a compromise between opponents of sanctions such as Italy and Hungary and supporters such as Poland and Lithuania.

It is certain that the economic sanctions, which expire in January, will be extended again.

In the summer of 2016 it was decided not to lift it until the Minsk peace plan on the Ukrainian conflict had been fully implemented. This is not the case.

Disinformation

Chancellor Merkel issued an urgent warning against false news regarding the UN migration pact on Monday.

And also with a view to the upcoming European elections in May, EU leaders are worried about illegal influence by so-called fake news.

This is a “real challenge for our democratic systems”, according to the draft Summit Declaration. Merkel and her colleagues therefore call for swift action.

The EU Commission’s new plan against false news and propaganda on the Internet should be implemented as quickly as possible.

Among other things, it provides for doubling the funds for an already active EU analysis group, better bundling the measures of the EU states and making the social networks more accountable.

Migration

The major controversial issue of migration will occupy little space at this summit. A common line on asylum law is still not in sight. But far fewer migrants arrive in the EU than at the height of the refugee crisis.

The EU border protection agency Frontex predicts that in 2018 there will probably be as few illegal border crossings as there were last in 2013.

In the first ten months it was 118,900, about a third less than at the same time in 2017. The draft summit declaration acknowledges this. But it also says, “vigilance on all existing and emerging routes should be maintained.”

Especially on the western Mediterranean route to Spain, the figures rose significantly last year. By October, almost 46,000 people had taken this route – more than twice as many as in the same period in 2017.

Household

The heads of state and government want to discuss EU financial planning for the coming decade for the first time at the summit.

EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger plans to increase the budget for 2021 to 1,279 billion euros by the end of 2027, taking inflation into account.

More money is to be spent on defence, research, youth and border protection. Financial support for farmers and structurally weak regions, on the other hand, will be reduced.

A quick agreement is not in sight: net contributors like Germany want to accept a moderate increase in the budget at best.

However, countries such as Poland are fighting against cuts in funds for structurally weak regions, while France is against cuts in agricultural aid.

The draft summit declaration stipulates that the EU states must set themselves the goal of reaching agreement by autumn 2019.

Euro

The heads of state and government are to approve the strengthening of the ESM euro rescue parachute agreed by the finance ministers. The ESM grants loans to states in emergency situations in return for savings and reform conditions.

In the future it should be able to intervene earlier so that small problems do not turn into major financial crises. The ESM is also to manage credit programmes more strongly itself.

Even during the Greek crisis, the International Monetary Fund played a central role, but the Europeans did not always agree with it.

After all, the euro rescue parachute should be able to help out in the event of an emergency with bank settlements in the future and provide the so-called ultimate security if other means are not sufficient.

However, the introduction of a euro zone budget in the EU budget, as Germany and France want, is controversial.

It could serve to reduce economic disparities between countries. The euro finance ministers should agree on a position by mid-2019, according to a summit draft.

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