Bit of breathing space from Brexit at EU summit

Climate change and multiannual financial framework also on agenda at Brussels

Banquo, the celebrated “ghost at the feast” whose presence cast a pall of bad memories on the assembled guests, was at least at the feast.

Boris Johnson, whose bumbling spirit will haunt EU leaders when they gather on Thursday, is not turning up. He has electoral business elsewhere, and will be represented by the president of the European Council, Charles Michel.

For the first time in years Brexit will not dominate the agenda of a European Council, although the leaders will return to the issue briefly on Friday morning. Not, we are told, to discuss the implications of the overnight election count, but to say, as Michel put it on Wednesday, "we are ready for the next steps" and to endorse a continuing role for Michel Barnier in future-relationship talks that must start almost immediately after the UK leaves the EU on January 31st.

Agreement appears difficult, even to the conclusions' wording that 'endorses the objective of achieving' the 2050 target without committing anyone

That, anyway, is the working assumption – that Johnson will win with a sufficient majority to pass the withdrawal agreement and take the UK out into transition.

Johnson’s infuriating ghost, however, is the expression of that niggling doubt that maybe all will not turn out as expected and that a majority is not assured. But there is here an unspoken sense, a heresy that dare not be spoken, that although no one wants the Brits to leave, it is now, in said ghost’s immortal words, time to “get Brexit done”.

There is no illusion, however, that the difficulties will end here. In a discussion of the leaders’ “conclusions”, ambassadors removed a reference in the agreed text exhorting the union negotiators to move quickly to try and meet Johnson’s wild expectation that talks can be completed successfully by the end of 2020.

No chance, all understand. And the British PM’s repeated assertion that he will not ask for another extension by the treaty’s specification of the end of June fills many with the sense that we are again heading for a no-deal cliff edge, this time without a prospect of escape.

Target and roadmap

The agenda proper of the summit will be dominated by two other issues – responding to climate change, and the not-unrelated EU budget (multiannual financial framework or MFF) talks .

Michel wants to be able to send a signal to the final sessions of the COP25 climate summit in Madrid of an EU willingness to provide global leadership on dealing with climate change with a solemn commitment by the union to carbon-neutrality by 2050. That target and a roadmap to get there were set out in the commission’s Green New Deal published on Wednesday.

But the commitment to 2050 is being held up by three member states – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – who argue that their dependence on fossil fuels makes the challenge particularly onerous for them.

Scepticism over the project was reflected in a senior official's blunt insistence that the central thrust of the EU's work programme had to remain its strategic agenda

They say that they will not agree to 2050 unless they get “new” money in a “just transition mechanism” to help states with particular problems. The mechanism is acceptable in principle to the other states but no one will talk yet about funding.

Agreement appears difficult, even to the conclusions’ wording that “endorses the objective of achieving” the 2050 target without committing anyone. “That is extremely ambitious for some,” one senior EU official said. “We can’t have more than that on language.”

Transition mechanism

The problem is that funding issues are matters for the MFF discussion and are currently so far from specifics that even a hint at how the transition mechanism will be funded is out of the question. The commission has spoken of €100 billion but that is little more than an aspiration.

The MFF debate will happen over dinner on Thursday night and no one is expecting any more than a restatement by leaders of their respective positions. The issue is now taken on board by Michel, whose team have let it be known that they expect to convene a special new summit in February to finalise an agreement. The best that could be said, one senior official said, is that “we are at the end of the beginning” of the process.

The Finns have attempted to put figures on the broad outlines of a deal which is significantly less ambitious in spending terms than the commission’s original proposals. Few have been kind about it, although on Wednesday both Dutch and Irish sources were willing to venture that the “negotiating box” “has some merits”.

The leaders will also agree conclusions on the establishment from next year of a conference on the future of Europe. Some member states, like Ireland, approve in principle but are adamant it must not lead to treaty changes or an intergovernmental conference.

Some scepticism over the project, a particular favourite of the European Parliament, was reflected in a senior official's blunt insistence that the central thrust of the EU's work programme had to remain its strategic agenda, of which climate change is a central part. A senior diplomat echoed the point. The conference "must not monopolise the bandwidth", he warned.