SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Another European Union leaders’ summit and more big decisions to make — on Brexit, migration and the future direction of the bloc. Or more likely there will be a postponement in making them.
This time the gathering is in the hometown of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austria’s Salzburg, overlooked by the Alps.
Mozart’s music was classical in style but full of contrapuntal complexities and at the Salzburg summit the EU leaders will once again grapple with "melodic" lines pulling against each other but without the skill of the composer to gather them into overall harmony.
Two opposing camps will lock horns in Salzburg: one headed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who will lobby for ambitious reforms to boost integration between member states and to centralize economic governance, and the other headed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and like-minded nativists from Austria, Italy and Poland, championing an end to immigration from outside Europe’s borders and insisting on greater flexibility for national governments on how they govern and with less meddling from Brussels.
Clouding the meeting will be embarrassing revelations that former European politicians, including a former Austrian chancellor and a former Italian prime minister, were recruited after they left office by President Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, to lobby covertly in the U.S. on behalf of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych before a popular uprising ousted him.
Manafort, who pled guilty last week to two criminal charges filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller, pulled together European politicians secretly in what has become known as the Hapsburg Group.
The lobbying effort has become part of Mueller’s legal case against President Trump’s former campaign chief, but it also raises questions in Europe about the integrity of what some analysts describe as the EU’s “establishment class” characterized by the readiness of some its members to cash in on their careers and to line their pockets by lobbying on behalf of interests they opposed when in office, adding to populist disdain of the EU.
The British are holding out hopes that the Salzburg summit will break the Brexit deadlock and mark a way station in their efforts to secure a departure deal from the EU that Prime Minister Theresa May can sell to her divided Conservative Party and fractious House of Commons.
Discord has been the major theme of the long-running and often stalled Brexit negotiations, but in recent days EU negotiators have appeared to soften their tone in an apparent bid to give May a helping hand just days away from a likely feisty British Conservative conference, where the seeds of a challenge to her leadership could be sown by among others her former foreign minister Boris Johnson.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested a deal might be “possible” within two months and has recently talked uncharacteristically in jaunty terms about how opposing negotiators are eighty percent in agreement.
And European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker avoided inflammatory taunts about Brexit in his annual state-of-the-union address to the European Parliament this month.
Angela Merkel reportedly is keen to get a Brexit deal in order for the EU to focus on the even more potentially dangerous issues to the bloc’s cohesion, such as disputes over migration policy and rule-of-law challenges being mounted by populist nationalist leaders in Italy, Hungary and Poland.
Poland was banned Monday from an EU body representing member states’ judicial institutions for the perceived erosion of the independence of country’s judiciary following changes introduced by the right wing Law and Justice (PiS) government.
Brussels has threatened further sanctions over what it terms “systemic threats” to the rule of law in Poland after a purge of the Supreme Court through the forced retirements of one-third of the justices.
Polish President Andrzej Duda rebuffed EU threats telling supporters this week at a rally in the south of Poland, “they should leave us in peace and let us fix Poland.”
According to a readout from German and Austrian officials, Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is hosting the summit, discussed Monday ahead of the EU leaders’ gathering the importance of avoiding Britain crashing out of the EU without a trade deal, which would hurt Britain more but would have an adverse impact on some EU states. “We have the same view that we must do all we can to avoid a hard Brexit,” the Austrian Chancellor said.
The British hope the EU leaders will soften their instructions to Barnier and his team of negotiators, allowing him to make concessions on May’s so-called Chequers Plan. Her plan would see British firms being allowed frictionless access to the EU market in goods, but not in services and in return it would accept some rulings from the European Court of Justice and tie Britain to common standards and manufacturing regulations.
But there’s still considerable resistance from Brussels to May’s plan, which was agreed by her cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence known as Chequers. EU officials and member states see her proposal as amounting to cherry-picking, which could serve as an example to other member states to follow suit. They worry also that Britain could end up as a floating assembly plant for non-European manufacturers mainly from Asia, who could locate there enticed by low-tax deals and enjoy privileged access to the bloc.
Officially the Salzburg summit is an informal meeting of EU national leaders without the legal power to make binding decisions. By holding a talking-shop EU leaders hope that non-agreement on migration and the EU’s future shape — as well as on Brexit — will not be seen as a setback, EU officials concede.
“This allows them the opportunity to clear the air and talk more frankly without there being any expectations,” an official told VOA. Any decisions that are ‘informally taken could be rubber-stamped at a scheduled formal summit next month, he added.
Beefed-up border force
On migration, no one expects any breakthroughs. Every time EU leaders discuss migration policy they seem to worsen disputes.
The latest proposals, which include plans for “controlled centers” inside the EU to process migrants as well as the establishment of “regional disembarkation platforms” for migrants in North Africa have earned the scorn of both populists and liberals. Populists argue the centers should be closed camps arguing if they are open, migrants will just wander off. Liberals fear the closed camps will be squalid camps with migrants open to abuse. They point to the centers in operation in the Greek islands, where the poor conditions have been condemned by rights groups and the UN.
The EU Commission is also pushing for the establishment “genuine border police” and a beefing up the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG), which was created in 2016. But critics say the EU’s border is too large for it to be effectively secured.
Some member states dislike the idea of EU police taking control of the border, preferring national border guards do that without meddling from Brussels. In June this year, the commission proposed strengthening the EBCG with around 10,000 border guards.
Mozart’s most famous piece for string quartet, No. 19, was nicknamed “Dissonance,” because of its unusually slow introduction. It is not listed as one of the pieces to be played at any of the formal events during the Salzburg summit.
WATCH: Henry Ridgwell's Preview of Summit