Brexit way down agenda for European leaders at Brussels summit

Europe Letter: States aim to agree 55% emissions cut and vaccine co-ordination

Our exposure to the economic damage of Brexit has ensured the issue is high on the agenda of the Irish Government and in media coverage this week, as it is for our nearest neighbours.

But for much of Europe, Brexit long ago slipped down the list of priorities, even before the Covid-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to states and transformed the day-to-day lives of hundreds of millions of people.

In Brussels press conferences, questions about the EU-UK talks can produce groans and wearied responses, while journalists from southern and eastern countries – for which the topic is of now vanishing urgency – can grow frustrated that it is taking up time they would rather spend asking about tensions with Turkey, accession talks, or economic recovery.

This is reflected by the reluctance of member states to allow the issue to gatecrash their summit on Thursday and Friday this week, in which national leaders will meet in person for talks in Brussels.


Vaccine roll-out

The agenda is a heavy one. Leaders will discuss the pandemic, particularly how to co-ordinate on rolling out the vaccines that the EU jointly bought from pharmaceutical companies, with the first doses expected to be administered within weeks. This item was described as the overriding “priority for leaders” by an EU official.

A number of foreign affairs issues are also on the table, including whether to ramp up sanctions on Turkey for drilling in contested waters in the Mediterranean, and how to relaunch relations with the United States as the incoming president Joe Biden prepares to take office.

The Green Deal was tied in to €1.85 trillion budget and stimulus plan designed to counteract the economic damage of the pandemic

But perhaps the most far-reaching plans are on climate. Leaders expect to agree to cut emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, in order to achieve the bloc’s ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050.

As part of plans to achieve this, the European Commission this week began to lay out proposals to transform transport systems on the continent, with the aim of achieving 30 million zero-emission vehicles in the next decade, boosting rail and cycling systems, and incentivising the use of low-emission airplane fuel.

The outbreak of the pandemic caused speculation that the so-called European Green Deal could be sidelined due to the suddenly more immediate priorities. But instead, it was wrapped into the crisis response.

The Green Deal was tied in to €1.85 trillion budget and stimulus plan designed to counteract the economic damage of the pandemic, with member states required to spend the money on projects to modernise and “green” their economies.

Frans Timmermans, the EU's climate chief, described the plan as "a leap into the future".

The delegation of the negotiating process to the European Commission and Barnier's team was a deliberate choice to cordon off the talks

“Since 1990, the EU’s combined GDP has grown by over 60 per cent while net greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by almost a quarter. Moving ahead on climate action does not mean a return to the past. We will be developing clean tech, precision-farming, and new energy sources like hydrogen,” he said.

“Across the world, we are about to spend enormous amounts of money to build back better. We should not waste this money by locking ourselves into soon-to-be obsolete technologies. It would be dereliction of duty if we invest in sectors with a limited future, only to create stranded assets and economic problems later on. Let’s focus our recovery on our common future instead.”

Negotiating principles

Despite prime minister Boris Johnson's trip to Brussels this week, the talks with the UK are not up for debate in the summit. At most, leaders expect to be updated by commission president Ursula von der Leyen on the state of talks. They insist there is little to discuss: that their joint negotiating principles agreed in February and handed to chief negotiator Michel Barnier will not change.

"We don't want to be dragged into a debate on this," an EU official said. "The mandate is very clear. The European Council has no intention to change the mandate or embark on a discussion of different aspects."

The delegation of the negotiating process to the European Commission and Barnier’s team was a deliberate choice to cordon off the talks, and allow for other EU business to continue, whether on climate change or economic policy. The EU did not want the talks with Britain to consume attention and prevent it from planning its future.

But it was also strategic. EU leaders have long suspected the British government of trying to divide and conquer them in the Brexit talks, by using the different interests of states against each other. They see their greatest strength as remaining unified in their demands.