October 18, 2019 / 4:25 PM / 25 days ago

EU leaders: united over Brexit, divided over much else

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Summits are usually a chance for European Union leaders to discuss problems and try to strengthen their union. But after two days of talks in Brussels, the only issue they could agree on is the very one that’s a symbol of disunity: Brexit.

European Union leaders attend a round table meeting at the European Union leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium October 17, 2019. Olivier Matthys/Pool via REUTERS

Ironically, on the question of actually adding two more member states, North Macedonia and Albania, the leaders bickered and agreed to disagree.

They made no headway on setting the bloc’s next long-term budget, and failed to set tougher climate targets ahead of December’s U.N. global conference on climate change in Chile.

While several leaders celebrated the unity that the 27 member states had maintained during the tortuous talks with Britain, their lack of summit achievements reflects strains and mistrust between them on a host of issues.

“The EU faces many very difficult choices,” said Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank. “One of the core problems is that on many issues France and Germany do not see eye to eye.”

“I expect that differences on key strategic issues will be overcome when the need is overwhelming. This way of operating is not optimal but the only way the EU advances at this stage.”

For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit was a win. On Thursday he clinched a deal that clears the way for Britain to leave the bloc on Oct. 31, and flew back to London where he now needs parliamentary backing for the agreement.

SUMMIT ENDS WITH A WHIMPER

Yet once the leader of the EU’s most troublesome nation was out of the way, the real divisions began.

Those who remained debated into the early hours of Friday whether to give the go-ahead to Albania and North Macedonia to begin talks on joining the club.

While most agree that the two Western Balkans countries have done enough to justify the opening of what are know as accession talks, France refused to approve it for North Macedonia and led a group of three who blocked it for Albania.

French President Emmanuel Macron said neither membership bid could progress until the EU changes how and when candidates are vetted on meeting the accession targets, which range from economic policy to human rights and the rule of law.

Since issues like enlargement require unanimity among member states, Macron’s unbending opposition scuppered any agreement.

That sent a chilling message not only to North Macedonia and Albania, but four others in the region - Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia - who have long held out the hope of joining the bloc and putting behind them the ethnic divisions that fueled the Balkans’ wars of the 1990s.

At the end of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, was apologetic to Tirana and Skopje, telling them it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t received a green light.

“I would like to send a message to our Macedonian and Albanian friends: ‘Please, do not give up,’” he said, adding that the EU would return to enlargement next May.

For Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, on the podium beside him, it brought the summit to a close with a whimper. It is their last gathering after five years at the EU helm, a period in which Brexit has dominated the agenda and little progress has been made elsewhere.

After the failure of the Balkans’ debate, and a cautious statement on Turkey’s incursion into Syria, the summit’s discussions on Friday - covering climate change, the long-term budget and the goals of the next commission - were wrapped up in a few hours, with no significant developments.

FUTURE AT ODDS

Despite the unity that Brexit has brought among the 27, fissures and discontent are appearing, posing questions for the future of a club struggling for answers to euroskepticism, frail economic growth and resurgent global powers China and Russia.

Already the next Commission, the executive that will soon be headed by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, has come in for criticism, with the European Parliament opposing three of its nominees and von der Leyen herself at odds with some EU leaders.

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Her Commission faces a welter of issues, all divisive, from migration and climate policy to justice and the rule of law.

As Britain leaves the EU stage, countries in east Europe, in particular Poland and Hungary, are looking to make their size and importance felt. Their more right-leaning politics and opposition to a shared migration policy puts them on a collision course with Brussels and member states like France.

And all the while the European Parliament, which regards itself as the only truly representative body among the EU’s institutions, is pushing for its powers to be more fully recognized. Yet the assembly itself is more fragmented and polarized disunited after elections in May.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott and Andreas Rinke in Brussels, Editing by William Maclean

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