Debate on migration at leaders’ dinner distinctly unpalatable

Tusk has tried to reform the way in which leaders approach crucial issues at summits

Much of the agenda of European Council meetings is "precooked". Ministers and their sherpas prepare the ground for leaders who assemble to sign off on texts that have been carefully calibrated to avoid clashes, and make for frictionless, seamless, frankly boring, summits that often gives the impression – rightly – of only incremental movement.

Such an approach is not conducive to sharp turns, radical forward movement, or getting to grips with fundamental divisions. Yet Thursday night’s leaders’ dinner was certainly not precooked – if anything its main fare, a debate on migration, was distinctly unpalatable, and deliberately so.

European Council president Donald Tusk has tried over the last six months to reform the way in which leaders approach crucial issues and decision-making at summits. Instead of continuing to discuss what could best be described as lowest common denominator texts, bland and uncontentious, Tusk has attempted to synopsise real differences so that debates can focus on how to bridge such differences.

Inevitably, that will mean antagonising some member states, as he has done this time in insisting on a profound review of migration, by trying to express hard and unpalatable truths that need to be confronted. He has done so by suggesting a review of policies forcing member states to accept mandatory relocation quotas adopted in 2015 by qualified majority.


Highly divisive

“The issue of mandatory quotas has proven to be highly divisive, and the approach has turned out to be ineffective,” he told leaders bluntly in his letter setting out the summit’s agenda.

This has provoked uproar. Migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Tuesday denounced the president's plans as "anti-European," while some ministers accused him of betraying the frontline states which are receiving the trans-Mediterranean flow of migrants.

There is also considerable anger about the refusal of states like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to accept their share of asylum seekers – they are being sued in the European Court of Justice for their refusal to adhere to the mandatory quota law agreed in 2015.

The European Parliament added its contribution on Thursday night with an insistence to the leaders by president Antonio Tajani that the system for the allocation of refugees must "be automatic and to be based on fair and objective criteria, in keeping with the spirit of solidarity on which our Union has been founded from the start".

‘Dublin regulation’

The argument is also about the future, with member states divided over how to replace the “Dublin regulation” – under which the country in which an asylum seeker arrives is responsible for them.

Tusk has not yet got a consensus but may, as he hopes, have started the ball rolling to achieve one.

Tusk’s new proactive approach to setting the tone of summits – he has characterised it as the “leaders’ agenda” – will, he hopes, allow the heads of government to give new impetus to and take firm control of timeframes for a broader “future of Europe” reform programme.

On Friday morning it involves a similar wide ranging debate on the future of monetary union.