View from Brussels: Après Brexit, le déluge... EU summit finds its flood of ideas dammed

EU leaders met in Romania for their supposed first post-Brexit summit in May, but the UK’s failure to leave put the blinkers on an intended look at the future.

Two years ago, when this meeting was planned, it seemed like a good idea for Europe’s remaining premiers to put their heads together and dream up some policies to talk about before the end-of-month EU elections.

French President Emmanuel Macron in particular was expected to use the meeting in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu to make good on his numerous proclamations and musings on reforming Europe over the past two years. This was, after all, meant to be the summit of big ideas about the future.

Sibiu seemed to boost the imaginations of the Brussels diplomatic corps, as one enthusiastic official even insisted that the EU would push on with even more cooperation on defence and work towards the now infamous idea of an ‘EU army’.

In the end, all that was revealed was a damp declaration that promises to stay united when faced with issues like rule of law and, as a postscript, climate change.

Indeed, climate change’s inclusion only at the very end of the joint position drew the ire of many environmental groups like Greenpeace and WWF, which said they were “appalled” by the outcome and accused leaders of “only paying lip service” to the issue.

So what went wrong? And why did Sibiu fail to deliver anything of note?

First and foremost, the delay to Brexit, currently pushed back perhaps as far as the end of October, robbed the summit of its primary purpose. EU Council President Donald Tusk has conceded that the chances of Brexit being cancelled are now as high as 30 per cent. So it is not surprising that the PMs and presidents were unable to really get into the ‘Future of Europe’: it’s still uncertain who that future will include.

Another reason why there was a lack of anything tangible is that the 27 leaders are probably keeping a variety of cards extremely close to their chests.

While the ‘Sibiu Declaration’ was widely circulated in draft form before the meeting and adopted “within a matter of minutes”, according to diplomats, a more complex document, the ‘strategic agenda’ remains shrouded in mystery.

That agenda is intended to guide the work of the European institutions over the next five years and will be adopted at the next meeting of leaders in June, a meeting that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will be invited to join (unlike at Sibiu).

June will be the moment when the big ideas will, if ever, emerge. Diplomats are already suggesting that the agenda, unlike the declaration, will react to the recent spate of climate marches, Facebook’s dominance and Europe’s struggles to compete globally, particularly regarding China.

While EU officials are less optimistic about a full-fat climate deal being agreed, they are hoping that leaders will agree in principle on carbon neutrality and then argue about the date some other time.

The recent axing of a proposed merger between France and Germany’s biggest train builders is also likely to be addressed, with a reform of competition laws set to be enshrined in the work programme. Berlin and Paris were furious that the Commission ruled the tie-up to be illegal and have vowed to tweak the rules so that ‘European champions’ can be created.

June’s summit will also be a crunch moment for the men and women vying for the EU’s top jobs like the heads of the Commission, Council and Central Bank.

Nominations and horse-trading behind closed doors are expected, and the content of the strategic agenda will influence and guide the decision-making process.

If, as many industry groups have requested, industrial policy is positioned at the top of the political wish-list, candidates that have best demonstrated their credentials in that field could see their chances of landing the Commission job improve.

More-influential nations will want their representatives in Brussels to be in charge of high-profile portfolios like finance, energy, industry and foreign policy, although the new Commission chief could choose to create new areas of focus.

Calls have already been made for the next president to have someone in charge of things as diverse and specific as AI, batteries, renewable energy and shipping. Others want to see the next Commission streamlined, with fewer Commissioners and portfolios merged.

Sibiu may have fallen victim to the Brexit malaise but it hasn’t slowed down the EU’s planning. It just means that everyday people were denied a look behind the curtain before the official debut of the big ideas in June.

Bad news for anyone interested in strengthening European democracy, given that it was an opportune moment for EU leaders to set out their stall before the elections at the end of the month and tell people what they could be voting for. 

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