EU summit: a hard day’s night with meagre results

EPA/STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

French President Francois Hollande with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the EU summit meeting, at the European Union council in Brussels, Belgium, 18 February 2016.

EU summit: a hard day’s night with meagre results


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Tired leaders haggled deep into the night of Thursday to Friday, until they agreed on migration, leaving the question of Brexit for a further meeting. “We made some progress but a lot remains to be done”, said Council president Donald Tusk. We “are going to stay for however long it takes” Tusk also said.

After a 15-hour day in which EU leaders discussed Britain’s goal of a new deal with the bloc, and the unfolding migrant crisis, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “There was unanimity that we need a European response to the refugee crisis, not unilateral actions”.

Late in the night again, Juncker and Tusk started a separate meeting with David Cameron, other bilateral meetings being foreseen for Friday.

A main source of tension was the length of time that Britain’s limit on welfare benefits for EU workers would last. The Czech Republic is opposing the U.K.’s goal of a seven-year freeze. Nobody knows yet whether the transitional period of the safeguard mechanism would be four years, five years, seven years, or more than seven years.

French President Francois Hollande is warning European leaders against making too many concessions to Britain as it debates whether to stay in the European Union.

Speaking upon arrival at an EU summit Thursday in Brussels, Hollande said that could prompt other countries to seek “special rules” and undermine the principles of European unity.

The lingering disputes belie the fact that the other member states cherish Britain as an economic and diplomatic giant in a struggling EU.

“I’m going into this debate with the position that we would like to do everything to create the conditions so that Great Britain can remain part of the European Union,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

On the refugee crisis, there was also the question of Austria saying it would cap the number of migrants it lets in at 3,200 a day from Friday. The EU migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told Vienna earlier in the day its decision to set a cap on the number of asylum applications it is ready to accept was illegal and “plainly incompatible with Austria’s obligations” under EU and international law.

Austria said nevertheless it would go ahead with introducing daily caps on migrants despite warnings from Brussels that the move broke European Union rules, which have already been badly stretched by the migration crisis engulfing the bloc.

An alternative plan suggested by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not go down well. For one thing, closing borders would bottle up migrants in Greece, likely leading to major humanitarian problems in a country already struggling with its own deep economic crisis.

The four easterners, which have also strongly opposed the German proposal for distributing refugees around the EU, have been backpedaling and increasingly seek to portray their proposal as another leg of EU’s strategy, not an alternative to seeking progress with Turkey.

In the face of this, the Italian Renzi insisted over dinner that the four countries to take on migrants, otherwise net contributors would cut them off EU subsidies.

The EU will also hold a special meeting with Turkish leaders on the migration crisis at the beginning of March, European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had been due in Brussels on Thursday but canceled his trip due to a bomb attack in Ankara the previous day.

The EU has promised billions of euros, an easing of visa restrictions and fast-track membership for Turkey to persuade it to tighten border controls.

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