October’s Brussels summit shows the EU getting back to business by ignoring Brexit

The European Union has been battered so badly in recent years, that it seems these days that no news article about it can avoid the word ‘crisis’. The ongoing economic and migration sagas, terrorism threats, tensions with Russia, and the near-collapse of its trade policy have all forced themselves onto the EU agenda. And, of course, Brexit: the UK’s June vote to leave the EU has shocked the bloc, raising deep, existential questions about the European project.

Yet despite this in-tray from hell, the EU achieved a minor success at its October 20-21 summit in Brussels: it got on with business.

After months of shadow-boxing with Britain over Brexit – both before and after the June referendum – the 28 leaders returned to work on some of their more serious, immediate challenges. Indeed, Brexit turned out to be the dog that didn’t bark.

Most of the discussion focused on whether or not to change the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on Aleppo, as well as the cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns that he is presumed to have ordered. At one point in the run-up to the summit, there was talk of loosening the sanctions, with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi leading the argument against more economic punishment for Russia. But the rest of the EU held firm, with British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande seeking to exert the maximum pressure on Putin.

The knottiest summit challenge involved trade, and the drama playing out just 60km down the road from Brussels, in Namur. It was there that the parliament of Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia was voting down a trade deal that the EU and Canada had spent seven years negotiating. All the leaders around the summit table back the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which would scrap almost all tariffs and lift an array of non-tariff barriers like duplicate standard setting. But due to some decision-making quirks in both the EU and Belgium, Wallonia has a veto power on trade agreements.

Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, in tears, wondered how the EU was unable to agree a deal, “even with a country that shares European values such as Canada, even with a country that is so kind and patient.” She spent much of the weekend working alongside Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and European Parliament President Martin Schulz to reassure Walloon officials and salvage the deal, but to no avail.

The Canada trade debacle also illustrates the huge task ahead of the UK’s Brexit negotiators. Any future trade deal between a Britain fully outside the EU and the rest of Europe will need ratification by 36 national and regional parliaments. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat pointedly noted, “If there are all these problems to have a trade agreement with Canada, imagine an agreement with the UK.”

As for Theresa May, at her first summit since becoming Prime Minister, this was a sober lesson in EU politics.

She arrived in Brussels, declaring that the summit would be the chance for the other leaders to hear her Brexit plans. But her lonely moment only came at around 1am on Friday morning, after at the end of a five-hour working dinner of pan-fried scallops, crown of lamb and iced vanilla parfait. It took no more than five minutes, with most of the leaders tired, and itching to get back to their hotels for some sleep. She then told them nothing more than what they had already read in news reports.

And what was the response? Stony silence. If May was hoping to find hints of their intentions, she would have been disappointed: the other 27 leaders proved resolute in their insistence that there will be no negotiations until the formal exit process begins.

She should have expected it. Her ‘hard Brexit’ rhetoric at the Conservative Party conference appalled other leaders, and some EU officials are talking about a ‘dirty Brexit’, with no deal being reached during the two years of formal talks starting early next year. Before the summit, Angela Merkel said the Brexit talks would be ‘rough going’ for Britain, while François Hollande warned, “If Theresa May wants a “hard Brexit”, the negotiations “will be hard.”

May, whose game plan was to win friends at the summit, also irritated the other leaders by demanding that Britain should remain at the heart of EU decision-making until it leaves the bloc. She interrupted a discussion on migration policy to tell the EU leaders not to hold summits without Britain. “I expect to be fully involved in all discussions related to the EU 28,” she said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk tersely replied that there were reasons for the 27 to meet without the UK and she needed to accept that. German MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament and a key ally of Angela Merkel, said May was “really creating a lot of anger” with her demands. “If you want to leave please do so, but don’t decide for the European Union,” he said.

The unflinching response from the 27, a collective cold shoulder, is a taste of the tough negotiations to come for May and her government. The tough tone towards May, who , marked her first 100 days as Prime Minister during the summit, even extended to language, with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier hinting that the withdrawal talks could be conducted in French.

All this goes some way to explaining why the summit mattered. The leaders did little to solve any of their crises. But they did recognize that these crises need to be tackled seriously. And, crucially, they were not side-tracked by Britain’s own drama. That might be a small achievement, but it is worth valuing.

Words Leo Cendrowicz, David Harley & Karen Massin (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr European Council

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