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25th May 2019

EU divisions on menu at Salzburg dinner

  • Summit venue was also used in finale of film classic The Sound of Music (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Leaders met in the vast Salzburg theatre in Austria, ate Wiener schnitzel, and discussed EU fragmentation on Wednesday night (19 September).

The dinner began with four hours of talks on migrants, followed by brief talks on Brexit, and saw Europe's illiberal club recruit a new member - Bulgaria.

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  • Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz (l) greets Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte in Salzburg (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU Council president Donald Tusk appealed to states to end the "blame game" on migration, which has pitted Italy and Hungary, among others, against the EU establishment in France and Germany.

"We can no longer be divided into those who want to solve the problem of illegal migrant flows and those who want to use it for political gain," Tusk said.

His mention of "political gain" referred to the rise of nationalist-populist governments in Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and further afield.

The anti-migrant bloc wants to fortify external borders, but is itself divided on whether it wants EU sharing of asylum-seekers (Italy) or to block such quotas (Hungary and Poland).

The axis' concerns were aired by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who currently holds the EU presidency and governs Austria in a coalition with a far-right party.

EU plans to deploy a 10,000-man force on external borders ought to be agreed by the end of the year, he said.

But this should not mean states cede control of borders to EU institutions or that the EU's border agency, Frontex, should kettle migrants in Italy, Kurz added.

"As far as sovereignty is concerned one can be very much flexible and we can also make changes ... to the [European] Commission proposal," he said.

"In some countries, there's also the concern that more Frontex could lead to more registration and it could therefore become harder to wave migrants through," he added.

British appeal

British prime minister Theresa May then urged the EU-27 to accept her so-called 'Chequers plan' for future trade and border arrangements.

Her idea is to adopt EU rules on trade in goods, but not services, and to use high-tech gadgets, instead of physical checks, to screen traffic on the EU's future border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

But Europe says the way to avoid a hard border is to keep Northern Ireland in its customs union, in a position that did not budge over dessert.

"The commission's proposal for this protocol - that I should assent to a legal separation of the United Kingdom into two customs territories - is not credible," May said.

She asked leaders if any of them would agree to a "legal separation" of their countries, but her words met with silence.

"She spoke. There was no reaction. 'Thank you' and we moved on," an EU diplomat told the Reuters news agency.

A Brexit deal was still "far away", with just six months before the UK leaves the EU in March, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said.

"I don't think we're any closer to a withdrawal agreement than we were in March [this year]," Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar said.

Illiberal club

With the anti-immigrant axis on one side and Brexit on the horizon, another EU dividing line, on rule of law, also sharpened on Wednesday.

The Bulgarian government, earlier the same day in Sofia, vowed to veto EU sanctions on Hungary.

Its decision came after the EU triggered a sanctions procedure against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban last week for "systematic" breaches of EU values and laws.

"We think that this is a violation of the sovereignty of an equal member state of the European Union," Krasimir Karakachanov, the Bulgarian defence minister, told press.

"Today it's Hungary, tomorrow it could be Poland, and one day it could be Bulgaria in the dock," he said, amid alarm bells that Bulgaria's rulers are up to the same thing as Orban at home.

"Central and eastern European countries should act in solidarity ... because they have common problems," Karakachanov said.

Bulgaria's veto on Hungary adds to Poland's promise to also block EU action on Orban.

These in turn add to Hungary and the Baltic states' pledges to stop EU sanctions on Poland, in a merry go round which began last year.

Vetoes multiply

The multiplication of vetoes could leave EU institutions looking weak on illegality in Europe's own ranks.

But Bulgarian leader Boyko Borissov played down its importance in the margins of the Salzburg talks.

Bulgaria's decision was not set in stone, he said, even though he personally favoured blocking EU sanctions.

"There's no drama, there's nothing decided," Borissov told press, on the eve of a second summit day, on Thursday, with migration back on the agenda.

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