EU leaders set out to think big at their fall summit. Instead, they are on the edge of a big fail, before they even sit down to meet.
A step-back discussion on long-term Russia policy has been hijacked by events in Syria.
Hopes of sealing a trade deal with Canada have been dashed by regional Belgian lawmakers.
And an effort to shift the focus of migration policy to Africa risks ignoring warnings from architects of the EU’s migration deal with Turkey, who say it’s a ticking time bomb.
As British Prime Minister Theresa May attends her very first European summit on Thursday, the EU could hardly have put on a better display of dysfunction and disarray to justify her country’s decision to bow out of the whole mess.
The latest talking points from 10 Downing Street emphasize May’s desire for a “smooth, constructive and orderly” departure of the U.K. from the European Union — three words that don’t seem to apply to anything the bloc does these days.
For British officials and many others, the inability to complete the trade deal with Canada is the most worrisome development, showing the EU incapable of closing an agreement with a close ally that is overwhelmingly viewed as providing economic benefits, at a time when the Continent desperately needs to accelerate growth.
It is a failure that casts an ominous cloud over the formal Brexit talks, which are expected to begin early next year, and are likely to prove far more complicated than the trade accord with Canada.
“It’s not good for the European Union of 27 if it simply becomes incapable of doing trade deals and then on getting them ratified,” a senior EU diplomat said. “That’s a very bad thing in a Union where one of the key attributes of the Union over the last 40 or 50 years has been its capacity and strength on trade policy.”
The final written conclusions at European Council summits always undergo a certain amount of revision, but the draft that began circulating in Brussels on Wednesday evening was clearly in need of a major rewrite if leaders hoped to salvage their meeting.
Already, officials had bracketed off the line where they had expected to praise the completion of the Canada deal, leaving only a bland statement: “The European Council assessed the state of play of on-going free trade agreement negotiations with key partners.”
That was hardly the only unexpected development.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy had long pushed for a wide-ranging discussion on Russia policy without the pressure of an impending decision on renewing sanctions over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.
Instead, Russia’s role in the bombing of Aleppo has shown just how difficult it is to separate Russia policy from day-to-day world events, given President Vladimir Putin’s clear intention of being a dominant player on the world stage.
After meeting with Putin in Berlin on Wednesday night, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande of France said Russia shared responsibility for the situation in Aleppo and said that additional sanctions against Russia over its role in Syria were still possible.
For Renzi and other European leaders who have long expressed discomfort over the existing sanctions, there would seem to be little hope of lifting them anytime soon.
“There will be no question of the removal of sanctions given what’s not happened in Ukraine and what’s happened in Syria,” one EU diplomat said.
Renzi, who complained that an EU summit in Bratislava last month was a failure, will bear much more responsibility for this week’s meetings. He was not only the primary driver behind the planned dinner discussion on Russia, but also the force in setting the agenda for the discussion on migrant policy, which will focus this time on Africans arriving in Europe by the so-called central Mediterranean route.
For Renzi, who spent the early part of the week on an official visit in Washington, there is a risk that this could be his last summit. Italians will vote in early December on a referendum on Renzi’s proposal for major changes to the Italian constitution. If the referendum is defeated, it is unclear Renzi’s political career will survive.
The draft summit conclusions mention “Africa” three times in an apparent effort to please Renzi, who has long accused other EU leaders of not paying enough attention to the problem in the central Mediterranean, by which the majority of roughly 150,000 irregular migrants and refugees arrive in Italy each year.
Italian diplomats said the new focus was a step forward and but also stressed that it was not enough. They said Rome needs a new effort to step up the rate by which migrants are returned to their home countries and relocated to other EU states.
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At the same time, Renzi may choose to hold some of his fire for another battle: a fight with the European Commission over his budget proposal for next year, which includes greater deficit spending than agreed so far with the Commission.
Speaking in Washington, Renzi was blunt: “I expect an EU infringement procedure,” he said, referring to the process the Commission starts when a member country doesn’t respect the rules. “But for those countries that, after taking a commitment, didn’t relocate migrants, and not for Italy,” he added in a jab at Hungary and Poland, which have refused to take in refugees.