It has been dubbed the summit of gloom.
For the next two days, the European Union’s 27 national leaders will meet in Brussels and try to reach agreement on a series of thorny issues, from the bloc’s future trading relationship with post-Brexit Britain to an ambitious climate action plan to reduce carbon emissions and achieve “climate neutrality” by 2050.
They will also discuss how to coordinate the bloc’s coronavirus pandemic response. Breakthroughs on all of these issues are not likely.
The EU’s increasingly fraught relations with Russia and Turkey will also be discussed.
On the eve of the summit, Russia threatened to break ties with the bloc amid an intensifying diplomatic dispute over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s biggest domestic foe. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, issued the warning after the EU’s top diplomats agreed Monday to impose new sanctions on Moscow in response to the alleged Kremlin-sponsored plot to kill Navalny.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the poisoning.
First up on the agenda will be a discussion about the bloc’s future relations with Britain — and the failure so far to reach consensus on a post-Brexit trade deal. Midweek, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed “disappointment” at the lack of progress in the monthslong fractious talks among his aides and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Disagreements over fishing rights in British territorial waters, security cooperation and limits on state subsidies to British business have all held up a deal.
Last month, Johnson set this EU summit as the deadline for an agreement, warning that otherwise, he would “move on” and accept that there would be no deal. EU officials had also previously said a deal would need to be clinched by mid-October for there to be time for it to be approved by all member states and the European Parliament in time for the end of Britain’s transition period out of the EU at the end of this year.
Now, both London and Brussels appear inclined to allow the difficult talks to be prolonged. In a conference call Wednesday night, Johnson told Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, that a deal was desirable. Von der Leyen concurred, saying the EU wanted a deal “but not at any price.”
Past the deadline
The upshot, say diplomats in London and Brussels, will be that European leaders will slide over the previously advertised Brexit deadline.
“They will kick the can down the road,” said an EU official.
A draft summit text on Brexit has already been circulated among EU leaders. It notes “progress is still not sufficient” but calls on Barnier to “intensify negotiations with the aim of ensuring that an agreement can be applied from Jan. 1.”
Most of the other issues confronting EU leaders will also be delayed. In his official summit invitation letter, Michel said on climate action he would “like us to have a constructive debate on the issue, so as to pave the way for an agreement by the end of the year.”
On that front, climate action advocates got some good news before the EU leaders started to meet. The Czech Republic, one of the holdouts, said it was now ready to back the EU’s proposed 2030 target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55%, as long as the target applied collectively to the whole EU and did not require all countries to meet the objective.
Poland continues to oppose much of the EU’s proposed climate action plan.
Russia's refusal to conduct a real investigation into the poisoning of Navalny, and Turkey’s resumption of drilling exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, an action seen as a provocation by Greece and Cyprus, present EU leaders with a challenge.
Greece and Cyprus have been pressing their EU partners to agree to sanctions against Turkey, but they are unlikely to persuade them to do anything more than repeat their condemnation of Turkish actions. German officials say the EU will not change its stance on sanctions against Turkey just two weeks after the last summit's decision not to impose any punitive measures at this stage.
The European Union is unlikely to launch sanctions against Turkey at its summit amid the gas dispute, a German government source said.
Kremlin threats over planned EU sanctions for the Navalny poisoning may have the opposite effect from what Moscow wants. EU opinion is hardening toward the Kremlin.
This week, the EU sanctioned six members of the Russian government, including Sergey Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff to Putin, imposing travel bans and asset freezes on them. Sanctions also targeted the State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology in Russia.
Last month, von der Leyen warned against closer ties with Moscow, saying that the poisoning of Navalny was just the latest in a string of malign Russian actions that included military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, meddling in Western elections and the poisoning in 2018 of a Russian defector in England.
“This pattern is not changing,” she said.