EU summit to avoid contentious issues

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A "no thrill" EU summit starting today (1 March) will avoid several contentious issues against the background of the French election campaign. Instead, leaders are poised to give speeches about "growth",  congratulate themselves for the re-election of Herman Van Rompuy as Council president and sign the 'fiscal compact' treaty.

As a senior EU diplomat described it, this was shaping up to be the first "quiet, normal" summit since the world economic crisis broke in 2008.

However, he admitted that it was difficult to judge whether this was a "return to normalcy", or if leaders had decided that contentious issues should be swept under the carpet.

Leaders are expected to speak about growth, which according to an EU diplomat is the new mantra after EU countries exhausted their fiscal policy resources.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso is expected to deliver the message that the EU needs to invest in order to get out of the crisis.

Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron is poised to leverage the support he got from 11 other leaders, including Italy and Spain, for a liberal agenda for growth. Last week, the 12 leaders sent a letter to EU institutions, calling for bolder economic integration with the USA and deepening trade and investment relations with Russia, China and other strategic partners.

Champagne three times

The choreography of the summit includes:

  • The re-election of Van Rompuy as Council president for a second 30-month term;
  • Van Rompuy's appointment as president of the eurozone;
  • A signing ceremony for the "fiscal compact" treaty designed to shield the eurozone from new financial shocks.

The strangest feature, as one diplomat put it, is the absence from the agenda of the transition from the current bailout fund – the European Financial Stability Facility, or EFSF – to the permanent European Stability Mechanism and boosting the ESM's lending power.

The new fund is to be launched once member states representing 90% of the capital commitments have ratified it, which is expected in July.

"We will reassess the adequacy of the overall ceiling of the EFSF/ESM of €500 billion ($670 billion) in March 2012," says Article 14 of the December 2011 EU Council decision. With no other EU summit planned this month, it is difficult to explain why the issue is not on the leaders' agenda.

Growing public hostility in Germany to eurozone bailouts could make it harder for Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree an increase in the currency bloc's financial firewall, which major economies are demanding as a condition for giving the International Monetary Fund more money to fight the fallout from the European crisis.

Greece is also missing from the agenda despite mounting concern that harsh austerity measures will deepen the country's five-year recession and make it impossible to cut a public debt burden amounting to 160% of gross domestic product.

'Unfinished business'

Leaders will discuss the bid of Bulgaria and Romania to join the Schengen border-free area.

But the Netherlands objects as it considers the countries unprepared to enter Schengen, citing Commission progress reports on judicial reform and fight against corruption, and there are few indications The Hague will change its position.

The issue appears on the agenda following successive failures of the Hungarian and Polish EU presidencies to resolve the case.

A diplomat told EURACTIV that he didn't expect any changes "before the French election". He implied that Paris was implicitly backing The Hague and made no secret that the French election was having an impact on the EU agenda.

Leaders are expected to grant Serbia the status of EU candidate after Belgrade reached a compromise with Kosovo on a pair of contentious issues – representation at international meetings and border control.

In a surprise move, Romania threatened to block Serbia's candidate status. Bucharest insisted that Belgrade should first guarantee the rights of about 30,000 ethnic Romanians living in the neighbouring country, but its effort to block Serbia was strongly criticised by foreign ministers of Germany and Sweden.

A diplomat from a country supportive of Romania's Schengen bid accused Bucharest of raising concerns for its minority to the EU table "on very short notice".

He described the conclusions of the meeting on Tuesday, when Bucharest raised it objections, as "a masterpiece of diplomatic language", which left the ultimate decision to the EU's highest table.

Romanian President Traian B?sescu could still veto Serbia's candidacy, though diplomats say that is unlikely.

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