29 June 2018

There was little Brexit talk in this EU summit – not least because there had not been much progress made in the negotiations leading up to it. Instead we saw two days that were dominated by discussions about migration and the Eurozone. In both cases there is agreement that the status quo is not tenable in the long run, but deep divides on which steps should be taken to remedy this render meaningful progress difficult.

Migration is back on the agenda

The numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the EU over the past months is low – so far, arrivals in Italy and Greece are less than 5 percent of what they were in 2015. Still, the ongoing repercussions of the crisis three years ago and much political pressure have put the topic front and centre on this summit’s agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel needs a European success to defuse her domestic crisis; in Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wants to put his mark on EU migration reform; and in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is looking to finally take ensure other member states take pressure of the country.

“Don’t call them camps…” 

The member states decided to “swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms” – these are proposed camps outside of EU territory, where asylum seekers stopped crossing the Mediterranean would be brought to have their claims assessed. The EU wants this to be done in close cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). But first reactions from UNHCR were cautious to say the least. Many critical questions need to be answered before this concept can be implemented – some of those I outlined earlier already in the thread below:

Member states also agreed on setting up closed centres within EU territory, where “rapid and secure processing […] with full EU support” is supposed to allow for quick decisions on which arrivals have a right to protection and which will be returned. At what point these camps may become operational, and whether they will ultimately be effective, remains to be seen. The Council conclusions stipulate clearly that “all the measures in the context of these controlled centres, including relocation and resettlement, will be on a voluntary basis.” But beyond commitments on paper, member states remain deeply divided on how this could be implemented and where the centres should be based.

Outsourcing migration management

The European Council also agreed to further strengthen the EU’s border control agency FRONTEX “through increased resources and an enhanced mandate.” In earlier discussions, some EU actors proposed increasing staff levels to 10,000 by 2020. The Council not only wants FRONTEX to do more on border control, on its own as well as with Libyan authorities, but also to play a more active role in the return of rejected asylum seekers.

Countries also agreed to “support, financially and otherwise […] countries of origin and transit, in particular Morocco, to prevent illegal migration.” There are already several agreements in place between certain EU member states and African countries to control migration, a practice the EU wants to expand on.

Of winners and losers

Germany

The fate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been the big underlying story of this summit. Having come under extreme pressure at the hands of her coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) to which also her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer belongs, Merkel urgently needed a success out of this summit to calm her domestic troubles. It is not really clear whether she achieved that. The Council conclusions promise tougher measures to reduce irregular migration to the EU, but their effects are unlikely to be felt anytime soon.

The CSU had demanded that Merkel deliver a European solution to reduce refugee arrivals in Germany by next week. If she failed, the CSU’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he would begin rejecting certain asylum seekers directly at Germany’s borders, an act that would undoubtedly cause a domino effect of further border closures across the EU. Merkel’s hope now largely lies with the bilateral agreements that several of her EU partners said they were open to conclude with her and which would reduce secondary migration or refugees within the EU. These agreements would oblige the partnering governments to take back all those refugees from Germany who were registered in their countries first. Greece and Spain have already agreed to such agreements. Other EU member states are well aware that if Merkel’s government falls, the current German crisis would soon escalate and become a problem for all of Europe.

The final assessment of Merkel’s (non-)achievements will take place this Sunday and Monday. She certainly will not have achieved as much as the CSU demanded, but this was never likely in the first place. Her advantage however may be that the CSU is increasingly becoming aware that it has overplayed its hand – public support for the party’s aggressive course towards Merkel has plummeted. The CSU, seeing that further escalations will erode its electoral support even further, will likely take Merkel’s bilateral agreements as a suitable excuse for a truce.

Italy

In Italy, the general reaction to the agreement has been cautious, if not outright sceptical. The analysis presented in most newspapers contrasts starkly with the version proposed by Prime Minister Conte leaving the summit, when he presented the conclusions as a clear victory for Italy. Most newspapers stress the voluntary nature of the solidarity that has been agreed, concluding that the agreement might well collapse when put to the test. Most also agreed that it is unclear whether Merkel has obtained enough to defuse domestic troubles.

Left-leaning La Repubblica takes a critical stance, writing:

Conclusions are a total defeat for Italy, who gives up on most of its red lines, only in exchange for some vague voluntary commitment.

In another article, the same newspaper welcomes the agreement however. Not so much because of progress as much as because a step back on migration was avoided. Still insists that

The agreement is “fragile and on a voluntary basis.”

Centrist La Stampa is somewhat more optimistic. It argues that it is a good thing an agreement was reached, which did not look possible. However, it stresses that the deal does not concede much substantially to Italy and it also remains to be seen if what has been agreed will be enough for Merkel domestically.

France

In France reactions are mixed. While the summit is largely credited as successful in avoiding a major EU crisis, the solutions reached are still seen as fragile and not particularly convincing.

Business newspaper Les Echos sees a showdown avoided, and writes,

Europe spares itself a major political crisis… The blow-up feared by Angela Merkel has been prevented, but the proposed solutions will be difficult to put in place.

Centre-right Le Point thinks that

Migrants: Italy’s show of force paid off.

Centre-left Le Monde summarises the agreement as

The story of a night of negotiations that ended in a fragile agreement between Europeans

 

No breakthrough on the Eurozone

After Macron set out his proposal for a radical Eurozone reform in a speech at the Sorbonne last year, and Germany in March finally managed to form a government following months of political impasse, everyone thought that the June summit would be ‘the Eurozone summit’. However, even before migration raised to the top of the leaders’ agenda, it had gradually become clear that the summit would fall short of providing an overhaul of the Eurozone architecture. Diverging views between the EU’s big two – France and Germany – meant that some proposals initially put forward by French President Macron, such as the creation of a European Finance Minister.

Last week, Merkel and Macron in Meseberg managed to agree on a common proposal, which included the creation of a Eurozone budget and a reform of the European Stability Mechanism. Their proposals certainly were not radical. Yet even the limited Franco-German proposals  were criticised by other member states, particularly those 12 members of the so-called Hanseatic League of Nordic and eastern EU member states; something which promoted French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire this week to accuse those governments of acting in “bad faith,” and to stress that the creation of a Eurozone budget was “non-negotiable” for France.

The Council conclusions reflect the deep divisions that exist among member states on the issue. There is little mention of the Franco-German proposals, most notably the Eurozone budget. While leaders agreed that “the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) will provide the common backstop to the Single Resolution Fund (SRF)” – an important step in completing the Banking Union and agreed by France and Germany – decisions on a wider reform of the ESM were postponed to later in the year. Furthermore, leaders only agreed to start discussion to set out a negotiating roadmap on the third pillar of the Banking Union, the creation of a European Deposit Insurance Scheme, a topic on which Germany remains in any case extremely cautious.

Nothing new on the Brexit front

As expected, this EU summit did not mark progress in Brexit negotiations. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier noted “huge and serious divergence” remains between the UK and the EU on the key issue of the backstop arrangement for the Irish border. Today’s Council conclusions also call for work on the political declaration for the future bilateral relationship to be “accelerated.” This follows reports from the BBC this morning that a source close to negotiations has warned “we are nowhere” on discussing the future partnership.

Prime Minister Theresa May used her short address at the European Council yesterday to focus on the future security relationship, stressing in particular the risk to the safety of European citizens if the EU insists on restricting bilateral security cooperation after Brexit. She said, “The existing legal framework for third countries will not allow us to realise the ambitious future security partnership that I believe is in all our interests.” The EU is currently framing its offer within the strictures of traditional third country cooperation mechanisms, with for instance a significantly paired-back extradition agreementlack of access to the secure element of the EU’s satellite project Galileo, and exclusion from EU policing databases. A senior EU official also said yesterday, “We don’t want a security gap. If there is a security gap, that is caused by Brexit, not the EU.” However, the security partnership is an area where there should be significant overlap in UK and EU interests. The UK government has on multiple occasions stated its unconditional commitment to European security after Brexit– the European Commission’s strict legalistic position in this area risks turning a positive-sum game negative.

This also comes at a time of increasing geopolitical instability and heightened tensions between the US and the EU. European Council President Donald Tusk noted yesterday, “Despite our tireless efforts to keep the unity of the West, transatlantic relations are under immense pressure,” warning, “It is my belief that while hoping for the best we must be ready to prepare our union for worst-case scenarios.” Elsewhere, a summit later this month between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised concerns that the US might agree to soften its military commitments to Europe. Against this backdrop, maintaining a strong UK-EU strategic partnership after Brexit should be a key priority for both sides.