Brexit just one topic at widely focused EU summit

Brussels discussion included migration, Pesco, banking union and Jerusalem

Prime minister of Belgium Charles Michel: “Solidarity cannot be unilaterally applied.” Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Prime minister of Belgium Charles Michel: “Solidarity cannot be unilaterally applied.” Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

 

While much media attention at the EU summit was focused on Brexit, EU leaders repeatedly insisted their gathering in Brussels “is not a Brexit summit” but one just as preoccupied with the future of the EU.

It was very Belgian – like René Magritte’s famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe, which certainly resembled a pipe, the summit was hard to see in any other way.

But Brexit was dealt with in just an hour yesterday – approval of both “sufficient progress” in phase one talks and of the guidelines for both the next phase of talks on transition and a framework for the future relationship between the union and the UK.

The leaders’ discussion focused on the timetable for the next rounds – starting at the end of January – and the challenge of putting what has been agreed into a legally binding “Withdrawal Treaty”.

A two-year post-Brexit transition is proposed, in line with British thinking, during which the UK would continue to enjoy the benefits of EU membership, and its responsibilities, but would be excluded from decision-making.

A strong emphasis was being placed, however, on defence, both the launch of the union’s new Pesco framework for defence co-operation in research and logistics, and in the strengthening of EU-Nato relations.

Ireland participated in the Pesco ceremony following Dáil approval last week. The issue that provoked strong disagreement – an “open and respectful” discussion was the gloss being put on it by, among others, the Taoiseach – was the attempt by European Council president Donald Tusk to launch a major review of the union’s migration strategy.

Mandatory relocations

Tusk’s suggestion before their dinner discussion on Thursday that the union should abandon trying to enforce their ineffective policy of mandatory relocations of asylum seekers to member states prompted strong reactions from Germany and Sweden. They have been angered by the continuing refusal of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to share the burden of housing asylum seekers by taking their quotas, as agreed in 2015.

The debate, one source suggested, moved from one about migration to the principle of solidarity within the union.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel told journalists that he was still prepared to see the policy forced through by majority vote. And he warned the Visegrad countries that: “Solidarity cannot be unilaterally applied. If the solidarity for the financing of cohesion in a couple of European countries is great, then the solidarity for migration must also be great.”

Tusk remains hopeful that a new consensus will emerge by June’s summit on how to reform the Dublin Convention, under which the first EU state a would-be asylum seeker enters is responsible for their care.

There was strong support for the idea of setting up a permanent fund in the union budget to deal with funding refugee policy, and a consensus on the need to continue strengthening the EU’s external action, notably its financial support for African countries to assist stemming the flow.

Single Resolution Fund

A debate on reforming economic and monetary union saw a broad consensus on a timeframe for completing key elements of banking union, notably the creation of a deposit insurance scheme in the form of a backstop to the EU’s Single Resolution Fund.

More ambitious proposals from the French, such as the idea of an EU finance minister or a debate on expanding the EU fiscal capacity, were deferred to another special summit agreed for March.

The summit addressed two other foreign policy issues. It renewed sanctions against Russia over its failure to implement the terms of international agreements on Ukraine. And, responding to US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the leaders reaffirmed the EU’s support for a two-state solution and insisted that none of the member states would follow suit.

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