Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Feature

Sound of discord at 'Sound of Music' Salzburg summit

  • As EU leaders lined up for the family photo inside the garden with the Salzburg scenery in their background, most people had to admit one thing: Sebastian Kurz knows how to put on a good show. (Photo: eu2018at BKA/Andy Wenzel)

The residents of Salzburg are used to a lot of hype and fuss going on in their city. Every year during the summer months, the birthplace of Mozart hosts the world-renowned Salzburg music festival that attracts thousands of visitors, celebrities and politicians who all come to see the most exquisite opera, concerts and theatre.

This time around, there was no less hype when on Wednesday the 28 EU heads of state and government touched down on the small, regional airport of Salzburg.

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One official convoy after the other made its way into the centre, causing major disruptions and traffic jams in the small city of roughly 150,000 inhabitants.

EU leaders were welcomed by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz in front of the main Salzburg opera house. A wide area was cordoned off, with at least 1,750 policemen and an additional 850 soldiers taking care of security.

The idea to host a banquet on the stage of the famous Salzburg opera house seemed to have made an impression on EU leaders, as they all spoke of the positive and light atmosphere during their dinner talks.

While they ate their Schnitzel and other Austrian specialities, there were in fact many other tough issues on the table: Brexit and migration.

Meanwhile, former Austrian chancellor Christian Kern from the Social Democratic party, announced at the meeting of the European social democrats - that was held in Salzburg on the same day – his intention to run as lead social democratic candidate for the European election in May 2019.

Many commentators believed that this could have been a tactical manoeuvre to try and divert attention away from the EU summit that had been planned in detail by Kurz for many months.

A good show

Nevertheless, the EU summit took off on Thursday early morning to a bright and sunny day. EU leaders gave their doorstep statements on a red carpet, all expressing hope that progress could be made with regard to Brexit and migration.

"We have to avoid a hard Brexit. If we want to make a deal, both sides need to compromise," Kurz said in English to reporters.

He also reiterated his mantra that it was necessary to move away from a discussion on the distribution of migrants among member states, to a focused discussion on strengthening external borders instead.

He then guided EU leaders into the modern art gallery of Austrian collector Thaddaeus Ropac, where he welcomed them officially to Salzburg. The plenary meeting then started immediately next door inside the Mozarteum University, which is usually filled with music and art students from around the world.

After a first discussion in the plenary, EU leaders walked outside into the gardens of 17th century Mirabelle palace, where Mozart used to give concerts. The baroque pleasure gardens were also one of the most important filming locations from the famous musical Sound of Music.

As EU leaders lined up for the family photo inside the garden with the Salzburg scenery in their background, most people had to admit one thing: Kurz knows how to put on a good show.

Despite the classy setting and beautiful pictures, the pressure was on to deliver some concrete progress. While the informal EU summit is not mandated to take decisions, hopes were high that discussions would at least go into the right direction with regard to Brexit.

Because the stakes are extremely high and time is running out.

No solutions to sticking points

However, during the final joint press conference by Kurz, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk, it became apparent that the main Brexit sticking points could not be solved in Salzburg.

Instead, Tusk said that the Checkers white paper as it stands now would actually "undermine the EU single market".

He also stressed that there would be "no withdrawal agreement without a legally binding Irish backstop", referring to the EU's position to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

He also announced plans to hold a special summit on Brexit in November. This would, however, only be decided at the October General Affairs Council in Brussels, which he described as "the moment of truth".

On migration, Kurz expressed hope that progress would be made until the end of the year regarding the European Commission's proposal to increase Frontex personnel and strengthen the agency's mandate.

At the end of the day, some commentators criticised the enormous expenses and effort that went into the preparation of the Salzburg summit, compared to the lack of concrete results.

Others recalled that decisions in the EU are a complicated process of intense negotiations, quid pro quos and horse-trading, until an agreement can finally be reached.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria

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