Clouds are gathering over the Salzburg summit

The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, here with his minister for foreign affairs whose marriage was celebrated in the presence of Vladimir Putin this summer. [EPA-EFE/ROLAND SCHLAGER / POOL]

Brexit, internal security and immigration: the items on the agenda of the informal European Council summit in Salzburg on Thursday (20 September) could lead to lively discussions. EURACTIV France reports.

It may be informal but it will still be complicated. The Salzburg summit, which will bring together all of the European heads of state on Thursday and Friday, is not being held under the best auspices.

The French president has gone for broke by meeting the Austrian Chancellor Kurz on Monday, before having lunch with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, on Tuesday.

This was a necessary diplomatic shuffle since two of the items on the agenda – internal security and immigration – are sensitive issues. The third issue, Brexit, will be swiftly addressed but, at the moment, this matter is not synonymous with the tensions between the member states.

Brexit: a still-imperfect withdrawal agreement

“The discussions about Brexit are not concluded, so it’s complicated. There are difficult problems under discussion, but the main one is the matter of the Irish border,” a source at the Élysée said. The EU considers that the United Kingdom is putting the cart before the horse by moving on to the framework of the future relationship, even though the divorce itself has not been finalised.

“It’s a bit like sharing child care and the house before the divorce has been registered,” a source at the Élysée underlined. The EU particularly wants to provide Ireland with a “safety net”: a system which avoids re-establishing a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, whatever the type of relationship the EU may build with the United Kingdom in the future.

With respect to the other items on the agenda, the role of the Austrian presidency – whose government includes members of the extreme right – seems ambiguous. At a General Affairs Council in Vienna last week, meetings which usually take place behind closed doors, the Italian interior minister posted a video on Facebook in which he makes racist and xenophobic comments.

Matteo Salvini mentioned the fact that Italy did not want to resort to “African slaves” and would prefer to increase its birth rate than accept migrants on its territory.

“Et merde alors”: the divisive subject of migration

This was a comment which exasperated Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s minister of foreign and European affairs. Asselborn reminded Salvini that tens of thousands of Italians had come to Luxembourg in the past in search of ways to feed their children. “Et merde alors,” (“bloody hell”) concluded the Luxembourg minister.

Lively discussions are also expected in Salzburg, even if the Élysée aims to be pragmatic on the subject of migration. The discussion will resume on establishing new “hotspots” funded by the EU and each country committing to show solidarity on the subject of migration, even if some countries will not be accommodating migrants in concrete terms.

“Matteo Salvini has shown a denial of reality by stating, as he has done recently, that it would be better if migrants do not come to Europe. The reality is that migrants are arriving, so we must manage this matter,” was the comment from within French President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage.

In addition to new hotspots distributed among the countries of migrants’ first entry, the last European Council in June – which only ended in the early morning because of major disagreements on the subject of migration – had mentioned the idea of establishing refugee camps in third countries which would be organised by the EU.

Albania was one of the countries mentioned, despite the fact that the main migration routes changed in 2018: 40% of migrants arrive via Turkey and then Greece, 40% via Spain and only 20% by crossing the Mediterranean towards Italy.

However, this idea of outsourcing refugee management to undemocratic countries does not convince everyone. The Austrian Chancellor has established contacts with the Egyptian head of state, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to set up this kind of camp in Egypt, according to the Élysée. The former Egyptian marshal was elected by a landslide in 2014 and then re-elected this year, against nominal opposition.

This is a context which offers few guarantees with regard to the protection of human rights, while migrants are still being enslaved in camps in Libya, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Another contentious issue that will be discussed is revising the Dublin II Regulation. This is a subject on which even the most anti-migrant countries, such as Italy, Hungary and Austria disagree with each other.

In this context, Brexit may well be the meeting’s lowest common denominator, paradoxically. This is because, given the risk that the text of the withdrawal agreement will not be finished in time for the European Council summit in mid-October, France is already mentioning the idea of a second summit on the subject in November.

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