These are all the issues the European Union is now debating without us

Theresa May left standing on her own at Brussels EU summit

European political leaders met in Brussels yesterday for the final summit of one of the most difficult ever years for the EU. The agenda had a significant Russian and Ukrainian theme and EU sanctions against Moscow were extended for a further six months, including curbs on access to international financing, and restrictions on defence and energy cooperation.

Correspondingly, the EU’s future relationship with Ukraine was also discussed following European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s announcement last month that the EU will grant Ukrainians visa-free travel across the continent by the end of 2016. While Brussels would now like to see stronger political, economic and trade ties — with Ukraine getting EU “associate status” — the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won a concession that this does not automatically confer military assistance from European countries in the future for Kiev, nor that it will necessarily accede to become a full member of the EU in the future.

These issues are key for Rutte, whose coalition government could lose power in March’s elections, since the Netherlands is still haunted by the MH17 disaster in which 196 Dutch citizens died when an aircraft was shot down over Ukraine. In April, the Dutch populace voted two-to-one, in a low-turnout referendum, that the government should not sign into law the EU-Ukraine treaty which has been ratified by the other 27 member states, and Rutte had threatened to scotch the deal unless he secured yesterday’s concessions.

On the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht deal, widely seen as one of the high moments of European integration, Brexit was also on yesterday’s agenda. Although UK Prime Minister Theresa May attended the summit, she was not invited to the evening discussions when the UK’s pending exit of the EU was the key topic of conversation.

With May having re-stated that she wants — before end-March — to trigger Article 50, the mechanism for formal exit negotiations to begin between the United Kingdom and the EU, yesterday’s discussion helped set the agenda for what could be a very important European summit meeting in Malta in February. The tone between the sides appears to have, recently, hardened and the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has indicated that any deal must now be done in 18 months, rather than two years, to leave enough time for the European Parliament, the United Kingdom, and the 27 EU member states to approve any settlement.

As well as the UK exit deal, the EU is also mapping out how it best moves forward post-the UK’s referendum in the context of what could be another complex election year with national ballots in The Netherlands, France and Germany. This is a potentially divisive agenda for the remaining 27 states, but one area where there is consensus is enhancing security and border protection to emphasise the resilience and integrity of the continuing EU project.

EU security policy has come under intensified focus with recent terrorist atrocities on the continent; the ongoing migration crisis; and also Russia’s assertive posture; and Tusk has said that “people expect that the EU...will again be a guarantor of stability, security and protection”. Moreover, there is also an added political ‘window of opportunity’ to move forward on this agenda with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, having launched in June a new global strategy on foreign and security policy, which helped trigger a discussion at yesterday’s summit about what Europe can potentially now do to aid citizens in and around Aleppo in Syria.

Several leading politicians have already called for a new, Twenty First Century European security pact. This highlights that a carefully crafted package of measures, including greater EU intelligence cooperation and strengthening Europe’s border force, could secure significant political traction, and, more controversially, the EU Commission also put forward a draft European Defence Action plan that proposes greater European military cooperation post-Brexit.

Beyond this, however, there is much more disagreement on the EU’s best way forward. Some senior decision-makers, including Juncker, favour a stronger integrationist response in select areas, but recognise the sensitivities of this, especially given the key upcoming 2017 national ballots.

Other policymakers, including Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Chair of the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, have argued for caution, asserting that if the “negative outcome of the UK referendum should be interpreted as a vote against Europe, it doesn’t make sense in my view to respond immediately by asking for more Europe” in the form of a new, potentially grand integration schemes. This Dutch scepticism of the wisdom of further integration is echoed in the French and German Governments given the significant potential for popular backlash against such moves ahead of the 2017 national elections there.

In Paris, for instance, there is concern that further controversial EU initiatives could provide a fillip to the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. She is currently riding high in opinion polls and has promised a referendum on French membership of the EU if she is elected the country’s president in May.

Taken overall, EU political leaders are still scrambling to come to terms with the Brexit vote which will continue to set the political weather across the continent for months to come. Decisions taken in coming months, including on the security front, will define the longer-term political and economic character of the EU in the face of the divisions still remaining about how best to respond to what could be the union’s most significant ever setback.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics

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