Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

EU leaders hold 'Coke Light' summit on investments, Russia

  • Will Tusk (c) be able to keep EU leaders disciplined? (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

The first EU summit chaired by Donald Tusk, the new EU council president, already has a nickname: “Coke Light”.

The term was coined by Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister, who at one point was touted for the EU commission presidency.

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His criticism: the draft four-page text for the summit conclusions - circulated among ambassadors ahead of the meeting - is too short and too general. Last year in December, the summit conclusions were 26 pages long.

The current draft includes an endorsement for Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315bn investment plan. But the contentious points - such as whether countries will have a say on the selection of the projects, and how project spending will fit into deficit and debt calculations - have been omitted.

Several EU diplomats on Wednesday made light of Verhofstadt's remark. “I love Coke Light”, said one senior EU official, noting that “shorter, more focused conclusions will help streamline decisions and increase transparency.”

Another diplomat said MEPs always try to bash the council ahead of summits, and that since this time they could not pin anything on the “decisions made behind closed doors,” they went for the brevity of the draft conclusions.

A third one said that conclusions in the past few years had been a compilation of national wishes allowing each leader to go home and flag up their big “achievement”.

A fourth source offered a different view. “Coke Light is good, but I don’t think they would like Coke Zero,” meaning that too brief a text would not look serious enough.

Cut one day shorter

To shake up the Brussels summitry even further, Tusk has hinted to leaders that they might wrap up Thursday night and not go into the traditional second day.

The summit will start at 16.00 local time, an hour earlier than usual, with the formal session dedicated to the investment fund and the informal dinner reserved for a debate on Ukraine and Russia.

But despite his good intentions, Tusk will not be able to prevent leaders from bringing up their own isssues.

Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic want a “geographical” distribution of funding from the Juncker plan. They also would like the EU commission to extend by a year the deadline for submitting receipts for the 2007-2013 cohesion funds.

Investment and deficits

Italy wants guarantees that if it chips into the Juncker fund, it will get away with its budget deficit and debt, something the EU commission has indicated will be the case.

One diplomat called this as “the old Italian idea put forward by Mario Monti - investments not to be counted as deficit - which Juncker now tried to get in through the back door.”

Germany wants to avoid a discussion on “flexibility” of the deficit and debt rules; Romania is asking for its defence spending not to be counted in the deficit and Bulgaria wants reassurances it will not be left in the cold now that the Russian gas pipeline - South Stream - will no longer be built.

Belgium has an issue with the European Parliament blocking a draft bill that would allow EU governments to share air passenger data in a bid to prevent foreign fighters from returning from Syria and Iraq and posing threats to European countries.

Russia

And then there is Russia. Tusk is keen not to open the “strategic debate” on EU-Russia relations - which would expose the rift between doves and hawks.

But he does want to take stock of the latest developments - the rouble in free fall, the sanctions biting “way more than we expected” - ahead of next year’s bigger debate on whether to scrap or renew the sanctions when they expire.

Ukraine with its multi-billion funding gap nobody seems keen on filling is another issue. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko tried to get himself invited to the summit, but was declined.

Another EU diplomat noted that Tusk is “very happy to have a strategic debate, as the current EU-Russia framework does not apply anymore.”

But the source also does not expect that debate to take place on Thursday, rather for Tusk to feel out the general mood and see where he can forge a common position.

According to the same source, the general mood has shifted away from sanctions, particularly since the Russian economy is falling apart with the currency devaluating rapidly and oil and gas revenues almost halved due to a steep fall in the global oil price.

“Unfortunately, in the Putin entourage there are more nationalists than oligarchs, so despite all these very serious consequences, we still haven’t put Putin in a situation to revise his position on Ukraine,” the diplomat said.

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