France and Germany head into summit divided, UK seen as sidelining itself
By Honor Mahony
The EU summit kicked off on Thursday (18 October) amid a public stand off between France and Germany on what should be discussed at the meeting and how to proceed with a banking union.
French President Francois Hollande arrived at the summit - having given a combative Berlin-critical interview to several European newspapers the day before - saying the only decision needed at the summit was on having a banking union by the end of the year.
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It was a direct challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel who has indicated she wants to move more slowly on the creation of banking union, which entails setting up a European bank supervisor.
But Merkel also came to the summit well-armed.
In an address to the Bundestag on Thursday morning she said the European Commission should have far-reaching powers to challenge national budgets.
She noted that even though the idea would be unpopular in some quarters - with France keen on retaining sovereignty in this area - Germany would "make the case" anyway.
The two leaders had a brief meeting before the summit. A German delegation source said it took place in a "good atmosphere" and that the summit programme for further development of economic and monetary union was discussed. French diplomats, according to Reuters, briefed that the two leaders agreed on the need for a tight timetable for a banking union.
The banking union - meant to prevent banks building up dangerous debt holes - has become the symbolic battle ground for the different stands of thinking in Berlin and Paris.
While Berlin wants fiscal discipline and centralised budgetary oversight before it will open its coffers, Paris wants more solidarity, particularly towards struggling countries - before committing to such ideas.
Both sides are increasingly frowning at one another in self-righteous incomprehension.
Adding to the strained dynamic of the summit - meant to be a no-decisions affair on how to further political integration - is the relation between euro and non-euro countries.
The eight mainly eastern non-euro countries that are obliged to join the single currency want to make sure that eurozone area decisions do not adversely affect them.
But one non-euro country in particular is stealing the limelight. Britain, which has no obligation to join the euro, is increasingly being seen as slowly disengaging itself from the EU.
Its notoriously lukewarm stance towards the Union was underlined when it refused to take part in a fiscal discipline treaty late last year and further emphasized when earlier this week announced it intended to opt out of 130 pieces of EU justice and home affairs legislation.
And in a symbolic move Prime Minister David Cameron for the first time since he became UK leader attended a pre-summit meeting with politicians from the anti-federalist Conservatives and Reformists faction that his Conservative Party aligns itself with in the European Parliament.
A post-meeting photo makes it clear, Cameron is not sitting with the power-wielders of Europe.
Remarking on the development, Finnish Europe minister Alex Stubb said Britain appeared to be slowly saying "bye bye" to the EU.
"I think Britain is right now, voluntarily, by its own will, putting itself in the margins," he told Reuters news agency.