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17th Oct 2021

Analysis

Sibiu: EU leaders prepare post-Brexit show of unity

  • Jeane-Claude Juncker (l), Donald Tusk and Sebastian Kurz (r) - some of the key players in redefining the EU project (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU leaders will attempt to show unity and pledge to play a more assertive role globally, while tacking issues crucial to European citizens that can be only solved at EU level, when they gather in Sibiu, Romania on Thursday (9 May).

The Sibiu meeting was originally planned to relaunch Europe after Brexit. But the UK is still a member, and the upcoming European elections at the end of May, where nationalist-populists are expected to do well, will also weigh heavily on their discussions on the EU's future.

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After 10 years of crisis management, whether over the euro or migration, the EU-27 leaders will try assert themselves as the main drivers behind the European project, by setting the agenda for the next five years.

Leaders are expected to endorse ten commitments including for the EU to speak with one voice globally, pledging to stand together always, stressing that "we will stay united, through thick and thin".

There has been increasing momentum behind allowing some foreign affairs issues to be agreed by a majority of EU countries, rather than unanimity, and to have a stronger global EU voice on foreign affairs issues.

In the draft conclusions, leaders are also set to pledge to protect "our way of life, democracy and the rule of law".

In a separate document, prepared by EU Council president Donald Tusk, leaders will be asked to sign up to the outline of a strategic agenda for the EU until 2024, and endorse the final document in June.

That agenda includes aims such as "position Europe as a global player in the new strategic context" with China being a "systematic rival" for the EU and the US withdrawing to protectionism.

It also wants the EU to "maintain and develop the rules-based multilateral order".

It pledges that the EU should become a global leader in the fight against climate change, it should create a more inclusive society, "ensure fair and effective taxation", reform the asylum policy, protect its external borders and ensure the "good functioning" of the passport-free Schengen zone.

The aim of this agenda is to "guide the work of institutions when they start their new term," an EU official said Tuesday, referring to the upcoming European elections, and the fact that EU leaders will have to decide on the senior positions in the EU, such as the commission president.

EU heads of government will also have their first, preliminary, discussion on these top posts as Tusk will lay out how he envisages managing the nominations.

"It is difficult to discuss the strategic agenda of the future until 2024 without touching upon the renewal of leadership of the EU positions," the senior EU official added.

Unity...in what?

During the last 10 years, EU leaders were forced to step up as crisis managers to come up with new solutions when the institutions themselves proved to be too slow and rigid to handle crises.

The EU-27 are keen to be the driving force behind the European project, rather than letting the institutions decide on the scope and pace of EU integration.

But there is division on how to do it best.

The Dutch will raise the issue of more unified implementation of EU rules, and restructuring the EU commission in a way that allows it to have a more forceful role in monitoring implementation, and preventing divergence among EU countries.

Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz will push on a new sanctions mechanism in the areas of illegal migration, excessive public debt and the rule of law - but requiring a treaty change (a messy and long procedure that is usually anathema for EU leaders).

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who prepared his own advice for EU leaders, said on Tuesday that much of the effectiveness of the current EU treaty relies on member states' willingness to implement the rules.

"A lot can be done without reopening the treaties. I am not against treaty changes but a lot can be done if there is political will," he said, adding: "We have imperfect treaties, that can be turned into perfect treaties if the will is there, if we have perfect treaties but there is no will to implement than they will turn into imperfect treaties."

Rethinking the EU has been trailing EU leaders for years. The EU-27 know that the bloc's key asset is their unity, yet the challenges - such as migration, reinforcing the eurozone with a budget, more assertive foreign policy - deeply divide member states, making it difficult to take strong decisions on them.

In 2016, countries launched the 'Bratislava process' to redesign the EU, which culminated in the Rome Declaration in 2017, a fragile display of unity, with simmering divisions buried by the text.

The emerging new EU narrative ahead of Sibiu, from Macron to the centre-right European People's Party, is of a Europe "that protects" - whether it is from economic shocks, trade, climate change, or migration.

But to make the key decisions on a protective Europe, divisions would have to be bridged, or the dreaded discussion on multi-speed Europe could re-emerge.

Analysis

From Bratislava to Rome: Little more than a show of unity

The so-called Bratislava process of reflection for the EU came to an end on Saturday, but there were few tangible results that citizens could take away from the soul-searching. Despite that, unity among the EU-27 has been maintained.

EU leaders to have first talk on bloc's next top jobs

The discussion in Sibiu will focus on the 'how', rather than the 'who', on a successor to Jean-Claude Juncker. EU leaders will also have to decide on Donald Tusk's successor, the next EU's foreign affairs chief, and ECB president.

Polling booths open in UK's limbo EU election

Polling booths have opened in the UK for EU elections, with voters not knowing if Brexit will happen, if they have a prime minister, or caring that much who their MEPs will be.

May to step down after fourth EU vote

British prime minister Theresa May has agreed to step down after her fourth attempt to pass an EU exit deal in June - no matter what the outcome.

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