In two days, the 28 EU leaders at their Brussels summit covered a wide range of internal and external issues, well beyond the press obsession with Brexit.
The leaders heard reports of the substantial fall in both migratory flows and deaths in the Mediterranean, and of the limited success in the policy of returns to African and other source countries. They pledged to increase their support for Italy’s efforts in the central Mediterranean and with the Libyan authorities to enhance border management capacities.
The summit promised to increase financial support for the €2.9 billion EU Trust Fund for Africa which is providing assistance to 23 north African and Sahel countries to address the root causes of instability and migration. Ireland will increase its commitment from €3 million to €6 million.
The Taoiseach also expressed serious concern at the conditions being faced by refugees in prison camps in Libya.
The leaders echoed the findings of the Tallinn digital summit last month on the need to complete the digital single market and to work together to enhance cybersecurity. On digital taxation, Ireland led a group of states determined to put the focus on the need for measures at the broadest level internationally.
The Taoiseach argued, with strong support from the UK's Theresa May, that European measures alone would undermine EU states' competitiveness. The word "global" was added to the conclusions at his instigation; they call for "an effective and fair taxation system . . . it is important to ensure all companies pay their fair share of taxes and to ensure a global level-playing field in line with the work currently under way at the OECD".
A “good compromise”, Leo Varadkar asserted. But the council also promised to “pursue its examination” of commission proposals for EU-based tax measures.
Widespread concern over the autocratic leanings of the Turkish government of Reccip Erdogan – Turkey is “no longer on a European path”, the Taoiseach said – prompted a discussion on financial sanctions against Ankara. The leaders are anxious to preserve intact the largely successful EU-Turkey deal which has stemmed the flow of migrants to the EU. Under the deal, Turkey agreed to halt the flow of migrants or take back migrants who enter Greece.
In exchange, EU agreed to give Turkey €6 billion and allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The summit agreed, however, to mandate the commission to "cut and reorient" the EU's separate pre-accession aid to Turkey. German chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists that EU assistance should instead focus on those "who want to see Turkey develop differently, for the people and citizens of Turkey". She also said the EU should keep paying to improve the lives of the mostly Syrian refugees living in Turkish camps.
“We should stand by this obligation, because these funds go to help refugees, who are in part living in very difficult conditions,” she said.
An initial discussion of proposals from council president Donald Tusk – the "leaders' agenda" – saw the proposed calendar of meetings over the next two years to discuss what is being called "the future of Europe", and a new suggested working method for the leaders' meetings, unanimously endorsed.
The issues listed range from migration, to completion of the banking union, the digital market, and the reform of the euro zone, and represent an attempt by the EU leadership to focus its leaders on life beyond Brexit.
Leaders reiterated their commitment to launch a new EU defence co-operation structure – Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) – early next year. It will pool some member-state resources to conduct specific operations and provide funding for joint research and procurement. The initiative is a joint German-French project, although the two differ over how easy the club will be to join. The French prefer a tighter group with more specific financial obligations, the Germans wanting to make it more flexible for as many as possible to join.
Mr Varadkar said that Ireland would be keen to take part in Pesco but had not yet made a formal expression of interest because it needed to wait until its full remit was clarified. There could be no question of getting involved if it impinged on Ireland’s neutrality but Ireland was not neutral on issues like terrorism and cybersecurity.
The summit reaffirmed the EU’s solid commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and its disappointment at President Donald Trump’s attempt to decertify it.
Mercosur trade deal
President Emmanuel Macron raised his concerns over the proposed trade deal – notably with the EU's offer of 70,000 tonnes of beef concessions – with the four Latin American countries of Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay). But at the final press conference commission president Jean Claude Juncker insisted that a deal could still be done by the end of the year. A sceptical Taoiseach described that view as "optimistic".
The summit heard a report from the European Commission on the process for reallocating the two London-based EU agencies, the European Medicines Agency, and the European Banking Agency. Behind the scenes member states, Ireland included, were busy lobbying for their own patch. The Taoiseach was actively involved.
“They all heard our case,” an enthusiastic senior Irish diplomat said. The decision will be taken at next month’s General Affairs Council in a vote described by one diplomat as a “prolonged Eurovision count”.