At the EU Summit in Brussels, talks on CETA broke down, while there was no continuation of sanctions against Russia despite clear warnings.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis dominated October’s European Council meeting of leaders in Brussels, but the 28 member states could not agree on new sanctions. Instead, they pledged to consider all other available options.
No deal on new Russia sanctions
EU leaders condemned Russia for the bombing of civilians in Syria’s besieged city of Aleppo, but failed to impose new sanctions against Moscow, facing resistance from Italy, Hungary and Slovakia.
Leaders pledged to “keep all options open” and to respond to any atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and his Russian backers. They stopped short of threatening Moscow with sanctions.
France, Germany and the UK wanted to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin over what they described as “atrocities” and “war crimes” in Syria.
“Russia’s strategy is to weaken the EU,” said European Council President Donald Tusk at the end of the meeting’s press conference in Brussels. One of the fundamental reasons for the EU’s internal divisions over dealing with Putin is economic. Unlike the United States, the EU depends on Russia for much of its energy. Russia is also a major market for EU exports.
Due to EU sanctions and the retaliatory measures imposed by Russia, trade between Hungary and Russia dropped by nearly half in 2015. Also, Italy and Slovakia, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, are both reluctant to back harsher sanctions.
France has sought to isolate Russia diplomatically, first at the United Nations Security Council in New York with a failed bid to force a ceasefire, and then with last week’s formal condemnation by all 28 EU foreign ministers against Russia’s strikes in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had earlier denounced the air strikes on Aleppo as “completely inhuman”, pledged to do all she can to extend the ceasefire. Adding to the EU’s problems in the region, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told EU leaders that he was not optimistic that a deal over a partnership agreement between the EU and Ukraine would be reached. The deal was rejected by Dutch voters in a referendum in April.
CETA at dead end
The Council’s last session on October 21 concluded without a final accord, which was expected, on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada. The negotiations proved unfruitful.
CETA was fully supported by the 27 member states less Belgium, where there is still no consent among its five regional governments. Walloon Governor Paul Magnette continues to resist pressure to back the EU-Canada deal. According to Magnette’s speech in Namur at the Walloon parliament, arbitration issues and the settlement mechanism are still not satisfactory for his government.
Freeland: The EU is incapable of reaching an agreement
Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland left Walloon government’s “Elysette” seat disappointed, announcing the end and failure of CETA discussions with Wallonia. Freeland considered the failed talks a missed opportunity.
“Over the past several months, we have worked very hard with the European Commission and member states, including Germany, France, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania,” said Freeland. “Canada has worked, and I personally have worked very hard, but it is now evident to me, evident to Canada, that the EU is incapable of reaching an agreement – even with a country with European values such as Canada, even with a country as nice and as patient as Canada,” the Canadian minister added.
“Canada is disappointed and I personally am disappointed, but I think it’s impossible. We are returning home. At least I will see my three children tomorrow at our home.” According to Walloon parliament sources, Magnette was received at the plenary as a hero, while right-wing and Christian democrats appeared to be upset over the developments.
Just a few hours earlier, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggested that a solution is still within reach as the October 20-21 European Council was never considered to be the decision’s deadline, ahead of the October 27 EU-Canada Summit in Brussels.
One European Commission source told New Europe that the talks that started early on October 21 with the regional government of Wallonia have come to a halt.
“The European Commission doesn’t consider that this is the end of the process paving the way for the signature of the trade deal reached between the European Union and Canada,” said the source. Meanwhile, Merkel remained optimistic that a solution on CETA would be possible. British Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK is strongly in favour of the bloc concluding trade deals with other countries.
“I think it’s important that the EU is able to sign this trade deal with Canada,” she said at a press conference after the European Council meeting concluded on October 21.
On Brexit, May suggested that Britain’s way out of the EU would take time. After her first appearance at a European Council, May also suggested that she is ready for some difficult moments, but remains hopeful as regards the EU’s mature and cooperative relationship with the UK after Brexit negotiations wrap up.
“Obviously we’ve got negotiations ahead of ourselves. Those negotiations will take time, as I say, there will be some difficult moments, we are going to need some give and take,” said May.
On the UK’s trade future, May stressed that the UK will adopt a model that others have with the EU, as a new relationship status.
Migration: Greece unhappy with the Common European Asylum System review
On October 20, Jean-Claude Juncker called for a swift adoption of the revised Schengen Borders Code, according to the Council’s decision, in order to set up a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) that will allow for advanced security checks on visa-exempt travellers and deny them entry if and when necessary. High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini was asked to present the programme’s progress at the December European Council meeting. Progress should also involve returns, a rather challenging element for the EU-Turkey agreement.
On the EU-Turkey deal, the Council agreed to ensure a lasting stabilisation of the situation on the Eastern Mediterranean route, with more efforts to accelerate returns from the Greek islands to Turkey, by enhancing the efficiency and speed of asylum procedures. Among other things, the rapid appointment of permanent coordinators in the Greek hotspots is necessary to achieve results.
As regards the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the European Council called on member states to communicate, as soon as possible, the necessary experts to EASO. In turn, EASO will complement member states’ efforts by providing the necessary training and contracting, as required, additional experts or services with the support of the Commission. However, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras voiced his dissatisfaction with the reform of the Common European Asylum System, suggesting that the EU-Turkey agreement was instead meant to form legal refugee paths. “The review of the Common European Asylum System is unacceptable, as it does not provide any distribution perspective, but puts the burden on the member states of first reception and asylum request,” said Tsipras.