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Brexit will dominate Council summit behind the scenes

UK & Europe

Brexit will dominate Council summit behind the scenes

With London and Brussels going head to head over Brexit, the EU’s leaders are eagerly awaiting Theresa May’s first European Council summit this week. EurActiv France reports.

This Thursday and Friday (20-21 October) will be a baptism of fire for Theresa May.

The EU’s 28 heads of state and government will tackle a packed agenda, focussing on immigration and security on Thursday and trade on Friday. The British prime minister has been assigned a short speaking slot during dessert at Thursday’s dinner.

And while Brexit itself is not on the menu, the subject will very much be present, guiding discussions from behind the scenes. Not least because the newly-appointed Security Commissioner, Julian King, is British.

Each item on the agenda will impact the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc, so London’s views are eagerly awaited. “The 27 will pay very close attention to the United Kingdom’s positions on the issues that no longer concern them,” a French source said.

If London tries to block subjects that are important for the EU’s future, it may be forced to pay a high price when the Brexit negotiations begin in earnest next year.  But British diplomats are determined to push their interests right to the bitter end. One UK source said, “We are full stakeholders in the EU, until we leave.”

Security, free movement and trade

High on the security agenda is the EU Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), the European equivalent of the American ESTA.

The registration system will apply to the citizens of all countries with visa-free access to the Schengen zone, and EU leaders hope the mechanism will help secure the bloc’s external borders.

But as a “hard Brexit” begins to look increasingly likely, with May’s government refusing to accept the free movement of EU citizens, it is highly likely that the Brits, business people and holidaymakers alike, will have to pay their way into the EU in two years’ time.

Non-EU citizens will pay to enter Schengen area under future ETIAS scheme

The EU’s future passenger registration system could bring in up to €2 billion per year, which could be used to counter EU budget cuts. EurActiv France reports.

The United Kingdom’s future access to the internal market depends on the freedom of EU citizens to live and work in Britain. On the continent, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have all repeatedly stressed that free movement is a non-negotiable requirement for single market access. But this is a red line the Brexiteers are unwilling to cross.

Also on Thursday’s agenda, immigration is another burning issue for London. The EU plans to establish “migration pacts” with five African countries (Niger, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Ethiopia), but the UK supports bilateral measures on migration.

And London’s position will also be important on the talks regarding Russia, Thursday’s main event. The EU’s stance on Putin’s bombardment of Syria depends largely on Britain’s willingness to flex its military muscles.

Friday’s trade discussions are likely to involve a deal of EU soul-searching, following the failure of the bloc’s flagship free trade agreement TTIP and the questions raised over CETA, notably by Belgium’s Walloon parliament and the German Constitutional Court. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK plans to negotiate its own parallel trade deals, the country’s strength, according to May.

Cynical UK trade negotiators may see it as their duty to scupper the EU’s trade agreements with the United States and Canada, in order to improve their own country’s attractiveness as a trading partner.

And finally, the question of simplifying the organisation of Council summits, which is also on Friday’s agenda, appears to be a direct response to criticisms expressed by the Brexiteers.

The five stages of mourning

The prime minister also plans to hold a series of bilateral meetings with her colleagues. But one French source, who was surprised to see London clinging to the hope that it could pick and choose which Europeans to allow across its borders, said this did not constitute a threat to European cohesion.

“The United Kingdom is in mourning. After the denial stage, this summer, they are now going through the anger stage. Later we will see depression, resignation and finally, acceptance, hopefully around March 2017,” the source said.

The next 27-state EU summit will take place in Malta this winter. And all 28 will meet on 9 and 10 March to discuss how to proceed with Brexit.