Double act Tusk and Macron look to shape EU beyond Brexit ‘bump’

Ahead of this summit, Donald Tusk toured EU capitals to sound out a ‘leaders’ agenda’

French president Emmanuel Macron arrives at a meeting in Brussels. Photograph: François Lenoir/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron arrives at a meeting in Brussels. Photograph: François Lenoir/AFP/Getty Images

 

It’s not just that Emmanuel Macron, who will be the star of this summit, is the new kid on the block. He is a young, modern, dynamic leader with coherent, radical, ideas about the post-Brexit future of Europe that can clearly enthuse, and a representative of a state that, with Germany, has traditionally driven the EU’s political direction.

The key thing is that, at a summit whose subtext is the beginnings of an as-yet-unstated tussle for control of the EU tiller between member states and Brussels (and so with the latter’s high priest, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker), Macron represents the primacy of the member states, not on every issue, but in spirit.

When Juncker made his state-of-the-union speech to the European Parliament in September, setting out a road map for closer integration, it was laced with proposals for strengthening the role of the commission: the merging of the commission and council presidencies, a new role as EU finance minister for the commissioner for economic affairs, and new euro-zone powers for the commission.

But while there is a broad consensus among member states on the need to begin to embrace a new integrationist agenda as a counterpoint to the deadening effect of the Brexit obsession, an agenda expressed in general terms at the Bratislava summit last year, there is certainly no consensus about the centrality of the commission’s role.

Leaders’ agenda

Ahead of this summit European Council president Donald Tusk embarked on a tour of capitals to sound out views on what he called a “leaders’ agenda”.

In part it is a detailed rolling calendar of meetings over the next two to three years at which pressing big issues could be debated and decisions taken.

In part it is also an argument that, in order to effect change, leaders must take control of the union’s cumbersome decision-making. He proposes more regular meetings, using leaders’ authority and political clout to break logjams in ministerial councils, regular accounting or reporting back to ensure that when they take decisions, these are actually implemented, and new means of managing discussions at leaders’ level to cut through to the nub of any disagreements.

This will involve a new role for himself as their chairman in preparing their debates. “Instead of dealing with the issues at stake,” Tusk argues, “leaders allow them to get lost somewhere between their collaborators or in the decision-making system. I am really pleased that you agreed in Tallinn that it is high time to take things into our own hands.”

Double act

In a real sense, Tusk and Macron form a double act. Macron is setting out ambitious aspirations for the agenda-boosting military co-operation, tightening the EU’s monetary union, imposing more rigid screening of foreign investments, tougher anti-dumping duties, overhauling rules on workers posted outside their home country, and creating a new system of political conventions and transnational lists in European elections.

Tusk may not agree with all of this, any more than many member states do, but he is setting out in a practical way how the leaders can realistically get to grips with that level of ambition.

His repeated and emphatic emphasis, however, on preserving “unity” in the process marks an important difference between him and Macron. This is code for concerns, expressed most by the eastern Europeans, at the danger of exacerbating division in an EU already moving at different speeds.

Tusk is reported to have sought and received assurances from Macron at their recent lunch in the Elysée Palace that the French president would pursue unity on every issue before falling back on the so-called “enhanced co-operation” procedures that allow groups of member states to move ahead of others with particular projects.

The council president’s “leaders’ agenda” will get its first airing on Friday morning ahead of the summit’s discussion of progress in the Brexit talks. That is no accidental sequencing; the message here is: we are looking beyond Brexit, an inconvenient and not inconsiderable bump in the road. But definitely a surmountable obstacle.

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