With major issues to resolve, the EU Summit kicked off on 17 October with few doubts that Brexit would dominate the discussions; and it did. The EU’s current challenges, however, extend beyond the conundrum of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal to the issue of enlargement with North Macedonia and Albania waiting to start accession talks, and a deadlocked Dublin regulation. Turkey actions in northern Syria, climate issues, and a shrinking budget for 2021-2027 also took time in the agenda.
The Council emerged, just before the stroke of midnight after the UK and the EU finally reached a deal on a new Withdrawal Agreement. With the EU’s support, it was now up to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to secure parliamentary support in the House of Commons for the new deal on Saturday – and as we went to print on Friday evening, things didn’t look promising.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing President of the European Commission was clear that Johnson would not be given an extension on the withdrawal and the situation would proceed as a “deal or no deal” by the 31 October deadline. In reality, Juncker’s ultimatum was a signal that this is the final negotiation on the matter. An extension to iron out the details may be required no matter what transpired on Saturday.
Talking about Turkey
While France and Germany announced an arms embargo against Turkey and proposed imposing sanctions, the EU opted not to follow suit. It condemned Turkey’s action launch of a military offensive in northern Syria and of drilling illegally in Cyprus’ special economic zone and stressed that Turkey needs to pull back its troops from the Kurdish regions inside Syria that are along the Turkish-Syrian border. A ceasefire was announced, only for accusations that it had been broken to follow quickly in the press.
The EU also offered economic support to Ankara to assist the Turkish government in managing the millions of refugees that are already located within Turkey. Despite proposing reforms based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity, the bloc seemed to lack the necessary political will to effectively address the migration issue and reaching a consensus on reform of the Dublin regulation – the European Union law that determines which EU Member State is responsible for the examination of an application for asylum submitted by those seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention and the EU Qualification Directive within the European Union.
Mind the gap in the 2021 – 2027 EU Budget
The fallout from Brexit, with the UK being one of the EU’s top contributors, has brought a massive shortfall in funding. The €12-14 billion gap needs to be covered through spending cuts and increased contributions. The common agricultural policy and regional spending will most likely suffer the biggest cuts. Talks at the EU summit demonstrated the diametrically opposed viewpoints of some of the bloc’s members when it came to the allocation of the budget and the distribution of financial burdens. In regards to the Multiannual Financial Framework, the EU’s long-term budget, some members called for an increase in the overall spending of GDP and adding that the Commission’s proposal for around 1.15% of GDP is insufficient. Incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants climate change, innovation, technology, and the EU’s global role to be the top priorities of the European budget for 2021-2027. No new positions were, however, formed during the summit.
Climate takes a back seat
The EU’s long-term strategy on climate did not seem to top the summit’s list as the heads of the bloc spent only 12 minutes of the entire meeting discussing the issue. The Council concluded that the EU will implement the Paris Agreement through a green transition that is “socially fair”, a move that could translate into an additional €4.8 billion for a “Just Energy Transition Fund” for the EU’s budget to assist European regions to green their economies. More discussions on the European target of a climate-neutral economy by 2050 will be held during the Council’s December meeting.
The 28 Member States failed to reach a consensus on opening membership negotiation talks for North Macedonia and Albania. Although the majority of the bloc, as well as the European Parliament and the Commission, believe that the two Western Balkan nations had met the conditions for negotiations to begin, France rejected that assertion. French President Emmanuel Macron clarified that reforming Europe must come before accession talks can begin, a sentiment that was echoed by the Netherlands and Denmark.
Some have suggested that Macron’s veto was a blowback for Sylvie Goulard being rejected as a Commissioner-designate by the European Parliament. Juncker called the outcome a “historic error” and added that “If Europe will be respected in the international arena one day, they have to stick to the promises they made”. European Council President Donald Tusk said he felt embarrassed for not having defended North Macedonia and Albania and hoped for a solution before May 2020. Opening negotiation talks with both countries would contribute to stability in the historically volatile Balkan region, but the decision for the time being has been to hit pause on the matter.