Aleppo's fate overshadows EU summit
The war in Syria disrupted an EU summit on Thursday (15 December), highlighting the bloc's military impotence amid talk of future defence cooperation.
EU leaders "strongly condemn[ed] the continued assault on Aleppo by the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia and Iran, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and hospitals."
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They urged them to let people be evacuated and to let in aid. They also said that “hostilities … must cease immediately”.
Earlier in the day, the mayor of eastern Aleppo, Brita Haj Hassan, briefed EU leaders on the situation on the ground.
What he said was "depressing," German chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists.
She said that she and her EU colleagues were "not in a position to do what we want to do,” however.
"We have to stand there watching," she said.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said: "It is impossible to stop this conflict by force … The EU has no intention and no capacity to take these kinds of measures."
French president Francois Hollande said he hoped a resolution would be voted at the UN on Friday "simply to ensure that in Aleppo it is possible to feed and [medically] treat a population of 50,000 to 100,000”.
He said he could "not even imagine" that Russia could veto that resolution.
EU leaders did not threaten to impose additional sanctions on Russia over its role in Aleppo, but Denmark and Sweden said these could be an option in future.
Individual leaders, such as Ireland’s Enda Kenny, also accused Syria, Russia, and Iran of “committing war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
Tusk said the EU should not be blamed for the conflict, even if its diplomacy could have been more effective.
The Belgian leader, Charles Michel, said that the EU would have more influence if it had a joint military.
Leaders on Thursday endorsed an EU “global strategy” that contained plans for defence cooperation by a vanguard of willing member states.
These included the creation of a mini-military HQ in the EU foreign service, in what the leaders called a “permanent operational planning and conduct capability”.
They included better “usability and deployability” of EU battlegroups, small forces made by coalitions of EU countries.
They also included plans for joint procurement of assets such as drones and helicopters and joint military R&D, in an endeavour to be backed a European Defence Fund.
Merkel said this would amount to “institutionalisation” of EU joint defence.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who participated in the summit, said the EU would "avoid duplication and ensure complementarity" with the transatlantic alliance.
EU leaders did agree to renew economic sanctions on Russia for six months over its aggression in east Ukraine.
Merkel and Hollande, who represent the EU in talks with Moscow and Kiev, reported to colleagues that Russia had failed to abide by the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreement.
Amid Russia’s continued intervention in east Ukraine, “all member states understand that it [sanctions renewal] is inevitable,” Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said.
EU leaders also agreed to help Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte get ratification of an EU-Ukraine association treaty through the Dutch parliament.
They issued a joint statement which reaffirmed that the treaty did not give Ukraine a promise of EU enlargement or any ”collective security guarantees".
The treaty is meant to align Ukraine’s economy with the West, but Dutch voters said they did not want it in a non-binding referendum in April, putting Rutte in a pickle.
Tusk said ratification was "important not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe's geopolitical standing and credibility."
Martin Schulz, the European Parliament president, said Ukrainian people had died for the EU treaty in the Maidan revolution in 2014.
On migration, leaders renewed calls for better control of the EU's external borders.
They said that an initiative, already under way, to pay African states to limit the numbers of people coming to Europe was “an important tool for addressing illegal migration and its root causes”.
The initiative so far covers Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, and Senegal.
Some countries had floated the idea of extending it to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt, but an EU diplomat said “we would need deeper experience" with the existing projects before going ahead.
Leaders spoke at length about their asylum policy, but agreed only to try to agree by June.
The topic contains the controversial issue of migrant relocation quotas and prompted an awkward moment between Slovak leader Robert Fico and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at a joint press briefing on Thursday.
Juncker originally proposed the quotas, which are hated by Fico and others in central Europe.
Fico, who recently proposed a different model in which EU states could pay to avoid quotas and who held the EU presidency for the past six months, said on Thursday that “the Slovak presidency was very successful.”
Juncker said “it was …” and trailed off into silence.
Thursday's summit started at noon in the hope of finishing earlier than usual, in the middle of the night.
Long discussions on migration and Syria pushed back the timing by four hours, however. As a consequence, a dinner at 27, without British PM Theresa May, to discuss future Brexit negotiations, was reduced to a quick end-of-summit chat.
As expected, the 27 leaders decided that Michel Barnier, a French politician who is the Commission’s Brexit point man, would be the EU negotiator.
The European Parliament’s Brexit man, Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, will not be at the negotiating table. Parliament representatives will be invited to "preparatory meetings" but will not participate in the talks.
EU diplomats said that while parliament must consent to the final deal, it was not entitled to codecision, with capitals keen to retain control of the process.
"There will be transparency and reporting but everyone will have to stay in his place”, an EU diplomat said.
Schulz, the parliament chief, warned that MEPs could make life difficult if they felt slighted, however.
“If we are not adequately involved, we may not be able to give our consent … and in this situation the UK would face the hardest Brexit possible”, he said.
British prime minister Theresa May, before leaving her 27 colleagues, had given what the Irish PM Kenny described as a “short” briefing.
She said she wanted the issue of the rights of EU citizens in UK and of British citizens in the EU settled in an early phase of the Brexit talks.