Migration topped agenda at EU Summit (28-29 Jun) but other issues also weighed on the EU leaders
Italian newly minted Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, representing a coalition of far right and anti-establishment parties, threatened to block the summit conclusions if Italy does not get more help from the EU in managing the refugee crisis. However, after lengthy discussions into the wee hour of Friday morning, a tentative deal was reached. The broad agreement included the proposal to create new voluntary asylum processing centres in EU countries, setting up regional disembarkation platform along the rim of the Mediterranean sea with the help Africa and Middle Eastern countries to break up the human smuggling business; allocating €500 million to the EU Trust Fund for African to tackle development challenges and stamp the tide of economic migrants; reduce the movement of asylum seekers between Schengen member states; more action from EU countries on returning migrants who do not qualify for asylum statues; and to drop the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers. However, no agreement was reached on how to reform the Dublin asylum system.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz cautioned that the broad agreement reached on Friday (29 Jun) morning was “by no means the end of the debate within the EU on asylum and migration”. German chancellor Angela Merkel also acknowledged that deep divisions remained but was nevertheless happy that the leaders could agree on a common text on this challenging issue. The leaders promised to continue working to revise the overall asylum rules.
While migration issue topped the agenda and took up most of the leaders’ time, another contentious issue was the call by Italian prime minister to ease sanctions on Russia. Italy’s policy shift is not likely to be looked upon kindly by the Baltic states and Poland. The call to review EU’s sanctions toward Russia came at a sensitive time as the US announced a summit between Trump and Putin on 16 July in Helsinki. With uncertainty hanging over NATO because of Trump, the Summit conclusions reiterated the need for EU to take greater responsibility for its own security and to take steps to bolster European defence and strategic autonomy by enhancing defence investments, capability development and operational readiness.
In response to the increasing trade tensions, the EU also made a point to reaffirm its support for the rules-based multilateral trading system and to look at how the functioning of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) can be further improved.
Brexit Bill passed yet businesses urge speeding up negotiations
Last Saturday (23 June) marked the two-year anniversary of the historic Brexit referendum by the British to leave the EU. Tens of thousands of people gathered in London for the People’s Vote march to campaign for a second referendum, culminating in a rally outside Parliament. Professor John Curtice explained that people took to the street mainly because they had little confidence that the government is able to get a deal that is favourable to the country. But he also warned that the second referendum would not change the result because two years down the road few people have changed their mind.
The British government’s flagship Brexit legislation, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, officially became law on Tuesday (26 June) after receiving royal assent, but the Brexit negotiation has been deadlocked over immovable issues like customs union and Irish border. As a result, the risk of a no-deal scenario looms large and the Commission had already asked member states to prepare their airports and aviation sector for a “no-deal” Brexit. Unions and companies urge EU countries to speed up the negotiations and soften their stances to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. In a joint statement, unions and business organisations representing 45 million workers and 20 million employers across Europe urged the EU “to put the economic interests and people’s jobs, rights and livelihoods first.” (Nevertheless, businesses also send a message that the integrity of the EU single market is more valuable.) In the UK, carmakers worry that the government’s options for post-Brexit cross-border arrangements — the so-called “maximum facilitation” or “customs partnership” models — are complex, expensive and not deliverable over a short period of time. The British (monetary) authorities on the other hand lay blame on the EU for dragging feet on Brexit planning.
While the UK and the EU countries are at loggerheads over economic issues, the two sides seem to be making some progress on the defence and security front. Nine EU countries, including the UK, on Monday (25 June) pledged to form a joint European military intervention force that will allow British support to last post Brexit. The European Intervention Initiative, spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron as part of the plans for an autonomous European defense force outlined in his Sorbonne speech in September, will be tasked with quick deployment of troops in crisis scenarios near Europe’s borders. The group includes Germany, Belgium, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Estonia, Spain and Portugal.
With respect to border cooperation, Theresa May told her Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday (26 June) that Britain will send an extra border patrol boat to the Aegean Sea to help curb the flow of illegal immigrants and refugees into Europe. Clearly the offer is limited in scope, but it is seen in Westminster as the type of collaboration which should continue after Britain’s departure from the EU next year beyond the traditional security area.
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