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There was a time when EU summits used to be boring, predictable affairs where travelling was better than arriving and talk substituted action. There is still plenty of talk and plenty of grandstanding, but when European leaders gather in Brussels later on today, they are likely to take part in a meeting which will be remembered as one of their most significant summits in years. They are expected to approve a special deal for Britain in return for its promise to stay as a member of the European Union. And they are also expected to adopt new measures to police the EU’s frontiers, now breached from all directions by refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. Agreement on one issue would represent a huge achievement; real progress on both problems will be little short of amazing.
Prime Minister David Cameron appears to have secured significant concessions from the rest of the EU. But he is also encountering significant obstacles. Take first the question of restrictions on welfare benefits to which newcomers from other EU member states will be subjected for a period of years. The principle has been accepted that Britain will be able to invoke a derogation from the rule that EU citizens cannot be discriminated against in other EU member-states, by refusing to pay EU citizens legally resident in the UK the same welfare benefits paid by local Britons. British Eurosceptics dismiss this as irrelevance; they claim that this will not prevent ‘scroungers’ because the restriction only applies to newcomers rather than those who entered Britain until now, and that the derogation from the obligation to pay the same benefits to all EU citizens is subjected to the approval of the EU Commission, which in effect means that the British government remains beholden to ‘Eurocrats’ who may or may not grant Britain this right.
Yet the reality is quite different. First, Mr Cameron has registered a major triumph: his is the only country which looks likely to obtain derogations on such a critical and sensitive issue as freedom of movement of people and workers. Secondly, while it is true that the UK will have to get the EU Commission’s approval for imposing a ‘brake’ on welfare payments for newcomers from the EU, the EU Commission with Jean-Claude Juncker at its head has already confirmed that it has done an ‘internal assessment’ which – surprise, surprise – apparently has found that Britain would be justified in using the measure. So, although the Commission will examine every British move, it remains clear that it will not end up blocking it.
Britain’s real problem at this stage is to reassure the East European states from where most of the migrant labourers come that other members would not be able to pounce on East European workers by using the UK model to impose new, national restrictions on migrant welfare benefits. Mr Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, the EU’s highest decision-making body, claims that not many countries will be copying the British model, since they would have to engage in their own negotiations with the EU about special derogations. Still, the battle over the precise wording of the concessions offered to Britain at the summit today will be fierce.
The UK has also been promised that, despite its refusal to accept the euro, it will be able to influence future Europe-wide financial decisions; that addresses another long-standing British fear that London, by far Europe’s biggest financial centre, could be disadvantaged by future European legislation.
But the problem here is French opposition to any such concession. British commentators may be mystified as to why France is proving so obdurate. In reality, there may be a mixture of motives which drives French policy-makers. The first is a historic resentment, going back to the nineteenth century, about British domination in the banking capital sector. The French also argue that Eurozone banks will have banking supervision imposed on them which will not exist on British banks, allowing the British to have their cake and eat it. Finally, there is a French inherent opposition to any special deals which allow countries the ability to escape from the central decision-making mechanism in Brussels, where France has maximum influence.
Could a deal be reached, allowing Mr Cameron to return home waving a piece of paper and claiming victory? The chances are good that that is precisely what will happen. Many EU governments resent the idea that Britain should be granted special treatment just because it is the most awkward member in their club. And quite a few are angered by the extent of the concessions which Britain may have secured. But although leaders in most EU states grumble, they are also likely to grant Mr Cameron all his wishes, in the hope that this would make the EU more palatable to British voters in the run-up to a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the Union. For there is a growing realisation in most European capitals that if Britain votes to leave the EU, that would have a catastrophic impact on the continent, and may well lead to the EU unravelling. Faced with that, other member states have opted for the route of concessions. The prime minister may well return to Britain in a jubilant mood, stamping his authority on the referendum campaign.
But no such optimism is expected in the summit’s discussion over immigration controls. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to keep the internal borders between EU member states open, and argues instead that they should share the incoming migrants between them; at the moment, Germany is the destination for over 80 per cent of the 4,000-odd asylum-seekers which enter the EU daily.
But the East Europeans, who fear a repeat of last year’s chaotic scenes as one million migrants landed in the EU, want border controls imposed around Greece, the country through which most asylum-seekers come. A possible compromise may be feasible, with the Germans dropping their demands to relocate refugees throughout the EU, while the Eastern Europeans drop their insistence on imposing border to controls. But all that would do is to keep matters as they are, just as weather gets warmer in Europe and another wave of migrants is in the offing.
Recriminations between EU leaders have already taken an ugly turn: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has claimed that Germany’s ‘welcome culture’ towards refugees has ‘encouraged terrorism and spread fear’, the sort of language which remains deeply unhelpful. But quite a number of Western European leaders are furious with the Eastern Europeans, and are expressing this in ways which also damage the unity of the continent. And, as always, everyone claims that there is no ‘Plan B’ for immigrants, that the only choice is between the East European demand to close border and the German demand to accept and disperse migrants, while in fact everyone inside the EU is busily drafting alternative plans.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Tusk is already touting the possibility of yet another emergency summit in March, should the current summit fail to produce the necessary results. That may not be necessary after all, since EU leaders know what is at stake, and wish to avoid another public failure.
Still, there is no doubt that, quite apart from dealing with Britain and with the policing of its frontiers, the EU will have to engage in a much more substantial and longer-term process of internal healing. Nothing would be more poisonous for the future stability of the continent if a new gulf emerges between the ‘old’ and far richer Western European governments and their poorer Eastern counterparts. There is only one person who benefits from such disputes and divisions in Europe, sitting in a gilded office in the Kremlin.
Jonathan Eyal is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director for Strategy and Partnerships at RUSI
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