End-of-Year EU Summit: Another Test of European Solidarity

Three days after EU leaders met in Brussels, the European Union took the formal decision on extending economic sanctions against Russia until July 31, 2016.

On December 17-18, the EU leaders gathered in Brussels for their end-of-year summit dominated by Europe's refugee crisis and Britain’s European Union membership referendum. In an interview with Valdaiclub.com, Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli, Associate Professor at the European Integration Faculty, MGIMO-University, and Tatiana Romanova, Associate Professor at the European Studies Department, Saint Petersburg State University, shared their opinion on the significance of this meeting.

The refugee crisis was predictably high on the summit agenda with almost a million refugees having arrived in the EU in 2015 by sea alone. Last month, EU reached a milestone agreement with Ankara to deliver financial support to refugees from the war-torn Syria, who constitute a significant part of the refugee influx into Europe. This time, a decision was taken to establish a fully-fledged European border guard service to better protect the EU external borders.

“The EU already has joint border guard units, called Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT). The novelty is that the new border guard service will have the authority to enter an individual member state despite the objections of its government,” Tevdoy-Burmuli said. “This has already sparked criticism from Greece, whose national legislation does not allow non-Greeks to protect the country’s borders, but the decision has been taken at the EU level, and Athens cannot challenge it,” he added.

The suggestion that other countries should protect Greece’s borders was first voiced by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in September and at that time was widely seen as a provocation.

“Another important move on refugees was the decision to go back on the Dublin regulation which stipulated that refugees should apply for asylum in the country through which they first entered the EU,” Tevdoy-Burmuli said. The regulation was de facto suspended last summer by Berlin, when it allowed refugees who had entered the EU via Hungary, to seek asylum in Germany, he added.

Asked if Britain and the EU managed to bridge their differences during the summit, Tevdoy-Burmuli said that only one moot point was remaining. Britain refuses to pay social security benefits to EU migrants, which some of the EU member-states, like Hungary and Lithuania fiercely oppose. But the very idea of a British EU membership referendum serves as a bargaining chip for London to negotiate a better position within the EU, the scholar believes.

“The idea was put forward in the intra-British political context”, Tevdoy-Burmuli said. “[On the one hand, Prime Minister] Cameron posed as a Eurosceptic, winning votes of the [anti-EU] UKIP and, on the other hand, tried to negotiate preferences with Brussels,” he elaborated.

However, if Britain votes to quit the European Union, Scotland said it would hold a second referendum to leave the UK, something Cameron wants to avoid. “If the EU referendum leads to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, it may spark various economic and political upheavals and the Conservatives will be to blame,” Tevdoy-Burumli said. “Therefore, Cameron faces a dilemma: he has to support his image of a Eurosceptic and defender of British interests and seek compromise with Brussels.”

“But the whole EU system is built on compromise,” he concluded. “Without the ability to make a compromise the Union would have fallen apart years ago.”

Three days after EU leaders met in Brussels, the European Union took the formal decision on extending economic sanctions against Russia until July 31, 2016. Prior to the summit Italy blocked approval of the sanctions extension, saying it wanted a fuller discussion of the issue. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other leaders are believed to have indirectly aired their concerns during the summit, although the sanctions issue is missing from the European Council conclusions.

According to Tatiana Romanova, Italy raised the Russia sanctions issue to demonstrate its concern about European solidarity. “By initial blocking of the sanctions prolongation Italy showed that European solidarity was its priority,” Romanova said. “Italy was in fact saying that it had sacrificed its interests, when it joined the EU sanctions, despite being one of Russia’s major trade partners and tried to call other countries to share the losses instead of separately pursuing joint economic projects with Russia”, she added, referring to the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline constructed by Russia’s Gazprom and several European energy giants.

Ukraine was another topic missing from the official conclusions, Romanova said. Prior to the EU Council meeting, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko arrived in Brussels for what was dubbed as “an EU-Ukraine mini summit”. “This is not the first time that third countries’ representatives are invited to Brussels during major EU meetings, but this is usually reflected in official communiques, which was not the case this time,” she elaborated.

The European Union faces a dilemma regarding Ukraine, Romanova said. “The official reason for prolonging sanctions against Russia is its non-compliance with the Minsk agreements, but it is obvious for Brussels that Ukraine does not comply with them either. However the EU believes it is politically wrong to pressure Kiev over this, hence the support Ukraine enjoys in Brussels,” she added.

On the last day of the EU summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker backed Ukraine’s bid for visa-free access. “The visa-free regime for Ukraine is a purely political decision,” Romanova said. “This time the EU decided the human rights situation in Ukraine qualifies the country to apply for visa-free status”, she added.

If approved by EU member states and the European Parliament, citizens of Ukraine, as well as of Georgia and Kosovo, could be permitted visa-free short-stay travel within the Schengen zone as soon as 2016. It is widely believed that the European Parliament will vote in favor of visa-free travel for these countries, but it might prove difficult to gain approval from some member states, especially those most hit by the refugee crisis.
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