Analysis: December European Council Summit


Thursday saw the beginning of the December European Council Summit – the most important council of the Union, which sees of European leaders the likes of Council President Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron among a series of other notables seated at its dinner table. There have been ever bigger and more ambitious expectations for this summit ever since crisis after crisis broke across the Union from the middle of the year onwards.

The Greek crisis, despite seeming to have abated, still goes on, with bill after bill being debated and fought over in Athens, as Prime Minister Tsipras attempts to power through reforms of the Greek economy to get his country back on track, and more crucially in the short term, unlock Troika money. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis still rages on, ever since the Paris attacks in November external security of the Union has been up for debate, and finally there are the ongoing negotiations by Prime Minister Cameron’s government over Britain’s place in the Union.

Pre-summit meetings

In keeping with tradition, the major parties (the centre-right EPP, the left-wing PES, and the liberal ALDE) in the European Parliament each held meetings before the main summit of European leaders to discuss their party’s line of the major issues for debate, and explain what they are looking for coming out of the last major meeting of European leaders in 2015.

In all honesty, with the three main parties each being a part of Jean-Claude Juncker’s ruling coalition in Brussels, much the same rhetoric came from the 3 meetings – support of the Commission’s recent proposal for a European Border & Coast Guard Agency, desire to see the negotiations between Britain and the EU go well and for Britain to remain in the Union, and a final expression that Turkey needs to live up to the promises it made at the summit in November, and work with the EU to restrict refugee flows into Europe. However there were key differences in emphasis and certain points as well.

ALDE representatives of note to turn up on Thursday include a range of Prime Ministers, leaders of opposition and Commissioners, as well as leader of the European Democratic Party and Mouvement Démocrate in France, François Bayrou, and leader of the centrist movement Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, campaigning currently in the Spanish elections to take place on Sunday. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the party and ALDE Group in the Parliament, as well as ALDE President Hans van Baalen were also at the conference. Van Baalen said as he continued to welcome the delegates to the meeting that “decisions not only had to be taken, but implemented”. I feel like Mr van Baalen may well be disappointed by the end of the summit after this comment, however we may see a few inroads made towards agreement.

ALDE placed the most emphasis, from what I could see, on the importance of the European Border and Coast Guard. Of course this may well have to do with the fact the party leader in the Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, has been calling for such an agency for months as the refugee crisis has worsened. My take is that ALDE is probably the most federalist in the parliament, in terms of creating European governing institutions, likely in keeping with their liberal traditions. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel also spoke about the need to secure Europe’s external border. The proposal has gained support from across the mainstream of European politics, including both the other major parties, and member states such as France and Germany. Verhofstadt said that European Leaders, Commissioners and parliamentarians were all ready to put the work in to find solutions to Europe’s ongoing crises. Greece put up some resistance this month in asserting they could maintain control over their own borders, however Tsipras’ government eventually conceded and allowed support from other European countries to operate on the Greek border. Poland’s PiS government under Beata Szydlo has also showed resistance to the plan, in particular to the fact that member-states will not have a choice over whether Europe takes control of the external border or not.

Meanwhile, the ALDE press-release is the only one to have mentioned anything about the recent passing of tighter European data sharing, in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Hans van Baalen said he looks forward to a “liberal approach” to PNR (passenger name records) as a part of the fight against terrorism. A strange wish if you ask me; passenger name records, whilst perhaps necessary, are not liberal. The idea that the country of your flight destination gets information about you before you even arrive in that country is far from keeping with the liberal spirit of right to privacy. There’s a reason it’s been held up in the parliament for so long – because such a proposal has to be done right. Interestingly, this bill saw no resistance from the EU Council as it was getting passed – funny that these countries are reluctant to give up independent border control, which really is move towards European solidarity, but have no problems with giving up personal data on their citizens. Van Baalen was also the only leader at these pre-summit conferences to make real mention to the Spanish elections. The Party’s President expressed how impressed he was at Albert Rivera, and his drive for a strong centrist movement in Spain. Van Baalen said he looks forward to the potential success in Spain, to add to the inroads made in Poland in October by Nowoczesna, as an expansion of centrist political parties coming to the forefront of European politics. Rivera himself had this to say; “We now have an opportunity for change in Spain, to change things from the centre and not from the extremes. In this sense, Ciudadanos represents the centre, the liberal democracy in Spain, and I hope that after the Spanish elections on Sunday we can be that change.”

The EPP meanwhile, expressed similar support for the Border and Coast Guard. However the party’s main emphasis seemed to be on two other areas – firstly, that Turkey needed to abide by the commitments it made at the summit last month on cooperation over the refugee crisis. Secondly, the EPP seemed to take the toughest line on Britain’s European negotiations; EPP President Joseph Daul said in a statement “the free movement of people still remains a non-negotiable condition for the EPP.” Of course this has been underlined several times by many of Cameron’s fellow European leaders, notably Chancellor Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (whose country holds the rotating presidency of the council from January), and lastly and perhaps most importantly, new Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, who it is widely believed oversaw the killing of that most controversial demand of Prime Minister Cameron. I think it was clear from the start that this was going to see the most resistance from the EU, despite some suggestions that the ‘red card’ proposal and enshrinement of Europe à la carte would prove more difficult. The fact is that the proposal would have hit at the core of European values – freedom of movement, equality before the law, and anti-discrimination. To think Cameron could just bulldoze this through without the rest of the Union realising is absolute madness. And I say this now because the EPP is the establishment party of establishment parties – Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker are a part of the party. Naturally, they have come out as the most opposed to Cameron’s threat to European values.

The emphasis on Turkey living up to its promises is not surprising, as it was Chancellor Merkel and the Commission (led by Juncker) who oversaw the summit in November and thus it makes sense that they would stick their necks out to make sure Turkey is held to account (not something the Turkish government has to deal with much at home these days). It also agrees with the other part of EPP policy recently – their tougher stance on the refugee crisis. Daul commended the Commission’s proposal for a Border & Coast Guard, as a symbol of the EU taking control of its own external borders. This is despite Angela Merkel still resisting major restrictions on the flow of refugees and migrants into Germany –  a policy which received significant support at the CDU party conference on Monday. The EPP may be in favour of open internal borders, but externally borders must remain firmly shut. It seems Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric has had a certain level of influence over the party’s line since his tough stance shown in the summer. Unfortunately, it came out on Friday that parts of the Euro-Turkish agreement already came under fire, as member-states demanded more evidence that Turkey is keeping to its promise of assistance in the refugee crisis, before agreeing to the resettlement scheme whereby some of the 2.5 million refugees currently in Turkey will be resettled in Europe. if I’m honest, I cannot see why this scheme is being approached more positively than the EU’s internal redistribution scheme that has come under so much fire over the past few months – there are already around 1 million refugees and migrants in Europe and it seems only Angela Merkel is willing to go near them. Perhaps it’s in goodwill to Turkey’s cooperation with Europe, but that itself involves the moving of refugees in Europe back to Turkey. It’s a strange ping-pong game that’s being played, Guy Verhofstadt put it this week in the European Parliament.

Finally, we have the PES. Most interestingly for me, this was the only party to have a British delegate there in the form of Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a gesture to show Europe that Britain still can and will get involved in European politics, regardless of Cameron’s reform plans. I was actually very pleased to hear Corbyn was in attendance. Naturally, the leftist attacked Cameron’s reforms, and for more reasons than one. Ultimately they go against Corbyn’s own ideal reforms for Europe, which he described himself on Thursday as “democratisation, workers’ rights, sustainable growth and jobs for all in a real social Europe”. These seem far more constructive to me, and I always hate to see Britain on the sidelines of European politics. The only disagreement area I’d have with Mr Corbyn is his overall analysis that Cameron doesn’t seem to have a point to his negotiations argument. I think he does – he wants to quietly mould Europe to Britain’s liking, and hopefully it would have been without the rest of Europe noticing. What’s Britain’s liking? A free market Europe where Britain has just enough political influence to block any reforms that could restrict a push for a more conservative Britain. Unfortunately with the die-hard champions of the European movement in Britain – the Liberal Democrats – down to 8 MPs, it’s fantastic to see the much larger labour party take up the pro-Europe cause, with Corbyn stating he will campaign to remain in the Union, regardless of Cameron’s rather anti-climactic negotiations.

Meanwhile, PES President Sergei Stanishev gave us the major take away points from the socialist meeting. Sadly, the PES was the only conference seemingly to have debated the push of far-right populism and the threat posed by Front National a few weeks ago, and the answer that the left has to give. Just as was said by SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel after the first round, democrats are going to have to wake up and start responding to their electorates, if they want to defeat the rise of populism, and Stanishev echoed this message Thursday. On the subject, he said “Against this [populism & the far-right], we will continue to promote our positive alternatives of jobs, inclusion and unity. Social democrats will defend our democracy and stand against the rise of nationalism.” Another departure was, along with support of the Turkish agreement and the border and coast guard, integration schemes must be considered and put in place for refugees who do settle in Europe, in order to make a smooth transition into European society. Again I see this as another let down from the ALDE and EPP – that’s 2 common sense points that democrats and parliamentarians should be discussing across Europe.

Thursday and Friday summit results

By evening Thursday night, EU leaders had sat down to dinner to open brief discussions on the important topics. Top of the list that night was the what turned out to be long discussion on the current obstacles in Britain’s negotiations with Europe. As the talks went into the Brussels night, again, much of the same was the result – goodwill for a settlement and to keep Britain in the EU, lack of consensus on most details but progress nevertheless, and most importantly, the social welfare issue being the most contentious and still lacking any agreement. However it seems that by the end of the discussions, Cameron had finally realised he will have to find a plan B –  along with the rest of Europe who killed the proposal – as the rest of the Union is not budging on the fundamental values of non-discrimination and freedom of movement. The feeling of optimism came off to me as simple political talk – I doubt whether there was a huge amount of progress made. Of course there was goodwill and optimism in the room, everyone is still under the impression a deal can be made which suits the parties involved, however the idea that any progress was made? I doubt it. The only real result is that the ban on welfare benefit has been totally scrapped, and a new solution is being looked at; not exactly the direction from above diplomats in the negotiations were looking for, but at least everyone knows a new deal has to be found. Perhaps another good outcome is that there is particular support for a post-dated treaty amendment after the referendum, to legally bind the changes. This seems to me like a concessions given in order to make up for the firm stance over the benefits proposal. Whether a deal will be made in February? Likely; February seems to be the month everybody wants to wrap things up by, however whether anybody will be pleased with the outcome of a February deal – that remains to be seen. The real point here is for the EU to show it’s flexible and reformable – to the British public and the rest of the EU. These talks have been widely highlighted as the first of their kind where a member-state has tried to renegotiate their membership terms, and regardless if I agree with the direction they are pushing in, I think it’s important for all sides to see that negotiations can take place and mean something. This is the EU’s opportunity to show they can work towards reforming the Union and they need to show that.

Finally, what seemed to be at the bottom of the pile for EU leaders considering its last minute entry, the EU Border and Coast Guard gained wide support from EU leaders on Friday, the FT reports. It seemed like a contentious proposal considering the failure of the relocation scheme and Mediterranean search and rescue proposal earlier this year. Yet despite this, nearly all EU leaders fell in line behind the proposal and agreed to implement the new agency within the next 6 months. I’ll be honest, this is a real surprise to me. After months of hearing it being called for in the European parliament, and the last minute addition of it to the schedule this week, I was certain it would get bogged down in EU decision making. But seemingly, the European Council has shown us it can get meaningful, targeted proposals through if it really tries hard enough. Paris, Berlin and Budapest all gave their firm backing, not surprisingly seeing as the idea was originally Mr Orbán’s. It seems that Greece was the only state to really voice objections. Hopefully this will not turn into another disagreement like the one we saw this summer, however considering the situation directly affects other member states, and Greece was the original source of the problem, I feel they will fall in line too. Even with the doubt and negativity this year, with constant crises battering the EU, it seems finally, we have an example of the EU moving forward with decent proposals quickly and efficiently, and that’s cause enough for optimism for the Union in 2016.

Sam Hufton

This commentary was first posted on The Hufton Post