After what seemed to be an endless round of contentious talks that ran into the wee hours of Friday morning, European leaders wrapped up their two-day summit in Brussels with a tentative deal on migration and Eurozone reforms.
“It is far too early to talk about success, but we have managed to reach an agreement in the European Council. But this is the easiest part of the task compared to what awaits us when we start implementing everything,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, who said that the talks wrapped up in a cordial mood that was less directly confrontational after Italy’s two attempts to block any agreement until their demands were met.
The effectiveness of the entire summit had been in doubt when Italy threatened to veto the bloc’s entire text unless other EU states did more to help Rome in dealing with hordes of migrants that arrive on Italy’s shores on a near-daily basis.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was castigated by his counterparts and accused of hijacking the meeting when he threatened to block the entire summit conclusions unless he got what he wanted.
Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had to cancel the first day’s press conference as Italy refused to compromise on their migration policy and rejected all efforts to force them to accept the conclusions of the first day’s talks. The EU’s leaders were later able to convince Conte to agree to their conclusions after they included language which specified that the EU Member States should help alleviate the burden on Italy and Greece by doing more to assist migrants that are rescued from the Mediterranean or who wash up on shore in Southern Europe.
“The leaders accepted three proposals that I put forward – the creations of disembarkation platforms outside of Europe, a dedicated budgetary tool in the next Multiannual Financial Framework to combat illegal migration, as well as boosting EU support for the Libyan Coast Guard. On top of that, we have sent a clear message to all vessels, including those of NGOs that operate in the Mediterranean that they must respect the law and must not obstruct the operation of the Libyan Coast Guard,” added Tusk, on the migration deal.
The new migration deal is a victory for Europe, according to the French President Emmanuel Macron, who said the prospect of coming to an EU-wide consensus seemed like an impossibility just days earlier,” but Europe’s leaders succeeded in finding a way forward, Macron said to the press following the two-day summit.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said more work needs to be done to fight traffickers and smugglers, but admitted that much needs to be done to establish a better and more effective cooperation between the EU and the countries of North Africa.
The full details of the agreement remain vague, however, and few believe that the proposed “shared effort” envisaged by the summit’s conclusions has a chance to hold as it remains in force only on a voluntary basis.
At the core of the agreement is a plan to establish what EU leaders are calling “migrant processing centres” that would stretch across the Maghreb – meaning countries that include Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia would be given substantial EU funds to filtrate and register those who are trying to get across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Those centres would be mirrored by similar locations in countries that would include Italy and Greece, with the purpose of creating a mechanism to monitor and catalogue the arrivals of new immigrants both before and after they cross the borders of the EU.
The plan remains in doubt, however, as none of the countries listed has committed to taking part in the process, or to establishing processing centres, which the EU was quick to point out would not resemble detention or internment camps for illegal migrants.
Dublin Agreement is desperate need of an overhaul
The wording of the new Common European Asylum System did see some significant change, as EU leaders acknowledged that the negotiations for a new asylum system was a long way off and would not be concluded before the end of the year. Along with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, Italy has demanded that the EU needs to clearly define the status of the Dublin Agreement, which defines which Member State has the obligation to evaluate the asylum claims presented by those who arrive in Europe.
The issue over the Dublin Agreement helped expose the increasingly raw nerves of many of the Member States and brought to the forefront longstanding divisions on the basic question of migration between Eastern Europe, as well as Italy and Austria, all of which are now headed by right-wing nationalist governments, and their counterparts in the rest of Western Europe, who are seeking a degree of EU-wide “solidarity” over how to deal with the burden of incorporating Middle Eastern and African migrants into the fabric of European society.
Bilateral migration deals are now the way forward
In an effort to put a positive spin on the summit and to shed light on the achievements made during the two days of talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that bilateral deals on migrations had been struck with Greece and Spain.
“What we’ve achieved here is perhaps even more than what I expected, even if it’s not complete,” she said during a press conference at the end of the Summit. “I’ve always said that we won’t conclude a joint European asylum system. But the more we agree with each other, the faster we get to a broader European solution. I’m convinced of that,” a visibly exasperated Merkel said.
Germany and Spain have committed themselves to support a full reform of the Dublin Agreement by the end of 2018 and to support the European Commission’s initiatives for direct financial support for five east Aegean islands that have been hit the hardest by the migration crisis.
Lack of Brexit deal weighs heavily on EU leaders
The EU leaders were also under pressure to come to a consensus on the prospect of hammering out a deal with the UK over Brexit, with Merkel suggesting that the timeframe is “tight” as the March 2019 exit date is rapidly approaching.
“The European Council expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved when it comes to agreeing on a solution for Ireland/Northern Ireland. It recalls the commitments undertaken by the UK in this respect in December 2017 and March 2018, and insists on the need for intensified efforts so that the Withdrawal Agreement, including its provisions on transition, can be concluded as soon as possible in order to come into effect on the date of withdrawal,” write the conclusions.
Juncker and Trump to discuss trade, Russia sanctions to remain in place through 2018
European leaders agreed to roll over the bloc’s sanctions against Russia by six months and to modernize the World Trade Organisation (WTO). They also expressed their desire to find common ground with the US on trade amid tense relations in the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
The stated proposal comes ahead of an important meeting between Juncker and US President Donald J. Trump, who has taken an unprecedentedly combative approach towards the EU after he slapped crippling tariffs on European aluminium and steel imports last month. His isolationist approach to trade and negotiations garnered further attention on June 29 when the Washington Post reported that Trump offered Macron favourable trade terms if Macron unilaterally withdrew from the European Union.
Trump’s recent statements that Russia will inevitably have to be let back into the community of nations and readmitted to the G7 has angered his NATO allies in Europe and Canada, while Trump’s statement that he would consider recognising Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula has fundamentally rattled Eastern Europe as Poland, the Baltic States, and non-EU Member Ukraine fear that Trump’s stated fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin may lead to a compromise with the autocratic Russian leader that could threaten their national security.
All of these factors will certainly add additional intrigue to the meeting when both Juncker and Trump sit down to discuss EU-US relations, particularly at a time when the “America First” Trump Doctrine appears aimed at dismembering the post-World War II world order that saw the Euro-Atlantic alliance between Europe and the US acts as guarantors of stability and progress for the majority of the world.