Brexit forces its way on to EU summit agenda

Union leaders feel need to remind UK of stances on withdrawal accord and extension

Leader of the European People’s Party and German candidate for the presidency of the European Commission Manfred Weber with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Juan Herrero

Leader of the European People’s Party and German candidate for the presidency of the European Commission Manfred Weber with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Juan Herrero


EU leaders had hoped for a Brexitless summit this week. It was not to be. The unfinished, noisy Tory leadership contest, not least the endless bragging by candidates that they, and they alone, could get a new deal from Brussels, has broken the 27’s vow of Brexit omerta and forced the issue on to the summit agenda.

Diplomats on Monday scheduled for the leaders of the EU’s 27 states to hold a brief, informal discussion on Brexit on Friday after discussion of the future of the euro. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier is also expected to have a bilateral with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

No official statement is expected out of the meeting, but it appears likely that European Council president Donald Tusk will use the end-of-summit press conference to reiterate the mantra that the EU’s withdrawal agreement with the UK will not be reopened for amendment.

There is some concern in Brussels to disabuse British MPs of the repeated assurance from foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, universally disbelieved in Brussels, that the French and German leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, have given him to understand they are willing to renegotiate the backstop.

Officials say the EU will listen politely to whoever is elected PM and then ask the UK to decide one way or the other if it wants to leave on October 31st. There is understood also to be some pressure to make clear that the October extension deadline will not be automatically renewed as some of the candidates imply.

Preparations for the summit, which begins on Thursday, are continuing apace on multiple tracks. It is supposed to settle the “top jobs” issue by picking candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, Council , European Central Bank, and high representative for foreign policy.

Stature and experience

The challenge is to find candidates of suitable stature and experience, to balance the allocation between member states, regions, political parties, and to provide a measure of gender balance.

There is also the European Parliament’s insistence on its treaty right to “elect” the commission president by insisting that leaders must nominate the candidate, known as “spitzenkandidat”, who has been presented to the electorate by parliamentary groups and who can garner majority support among MEPs.

The largest group in the parliament, the centre-right EPP, has nominated Manfred Weber, but the socialists and “liberals”, now rebranded as Renew Europe, also have their candidates in commissioners Frans Timmerman and Margrethe Vestager. None of the groups has a majority and they are desperately scrabbling to build alliances.

Four parliament committees representing the four biggest groups (including the Greens) have been meeting to forge a common programme/work plan for the next parliamentary term, which is expected to be published on Tuesday, as evidence that there is a solid pro-EU majority among MEPs.

At loggerheads

Leaders are not impressed and have themselves established working groups of two from each of the top-three parties to broker an agreement. With Germany and France understood to be at loggerheads over Weber and Macron’s alternative, Barnier, there is some expectation that the leaders will postpone a decision. A special summit on July 1st is being spoken of.

They could agree two of the positions, the European Central Bank and the European Council, helping to narrow the options, and may decide to throw the ball back in the European Parliament’s court by calling MEPs’ bluff about their ability to produce a majority for any candidate.

Diplomats have also been working on draft conclusions for the summit, but have yet to reach agreement on at least two other items: whether to accept the commission’s strong recommendation to open negotiations on accession with both Albania and North Macedonia; and language on the level of ambition on the proposed euro zone budget, part of the agreement on completion of monetary union.

High representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini has made a strong appeal to member states on the accession decision, warning that time was running out and that much is at stake strategically for the EU.