Editor’s Note: Tim King is a British journalist based in Brussels who has been covering European politics for more than 20 years. He currently writes various publications. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
This week’s meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels will not match the excitement of last week’s Brexit brinkmanship. There will be no unscheduled predawn flights, nor prebreakfast press conferences.
Instead, it will be a reversion to type: EU summits are supposed to be pieces of theater drained of all drama.
Of course, the EU’s ways are not the ways of Westminster. May’s government suffered a surprise defeat on its EU withdrawal bill on Wednesday night, losing a crucial amendment to the EU withdrawal bill by just four votes.
Brussels, on the other hand, prizes predictability, or, failing that, procrastination.
That is not to belittle the summit’s agenda. In addition to the attention-grabbing subject of the Brexit negotiations, there are some sensitive issues to be discussed: greater cooperation on defense and divergent levels of social protection, for instance.
But the summit will not – thanks to Theresa May’s crucial breakthrough last week – carry the same possibility of disastrous failure that it once did.
Various protagonists on the EU side – Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit – have already concluded that the talks with the UK have made “sufficient progress” for the EU27 to move to the next phase.
In that sense, the meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday is, like so many other EU summits before it, a false summit: it’s not the top at all, just a stopping-off point, where the government leaders can pause, take stock, admire the view (both behind and ahead), before setting off again.
If the outcome of an EU summit is not known in broad outline beforehand, then it is usually an indication that something has gone horribly wrong; the eurozone crisis provided several painful examples, notably on the bail-outs for Greece. But they were never supposed to be like that.
This week, there is no such air of crisis, so the conclusions on greater defense cooperation have been fashioned well in advance. The launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation was a goal set at an EU summit five months ago.
Similarly, the conclusions on social policy, also approved on Tuesday, have been a while in the making: they build on the Gothenburg Social Summit of November 17.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the noise and fury created by the Brexit negotiations, then this EU summit would be an occasion to assess the extent to which the European Council is united.
For all the recent talk of unity among the 27 member states that remain after Britain goes, there are simmering tensions between east and west, north and south. Those might surface during a discussion on Thursday evening on the lessons from Europe’s migration crisis.
And although the economic outlook for Europe is much improved, the politics are fragile.
Both Poland and Hungary’s governments have been taken to task over the rule of law and respect for democratic values.
Spain is struggling to contain its Catalan separatist movement and the President of Catalonia has taken refuge in Belgium.
And perhaps the most important uncertainty is that the composition of the next German government is still unknown. Will Angela Merkel remain the force she has been in European affairs? Or is she about to be eclipsed on the European stage by Emmanuel Macron, France’s new President?
Or will the pair of them combine to advance Franco-German interests, as seemed likely in the summer, and has so often been the case in the past?
The countries of central Europe suspect that Macron is intent on making the eurozone the new vanguard of Europe and leaving the rest behind.
Tusk has scheduled talks on the future of economic and monetary union for Friday morning and he acknowledges that there is no agreement on what needs to be done to strengthen the eurozone or on the urgency of the task.
Still, for the moment, Brexit holds the EU together – or at least, the 27 states that will remain after the UK has left. The last act of the summit will be a discussion between the remaining 27 – with the British Prime Minister excluded – over the next steps for the negotiations.
Tusk and Barnier are already stressing how little time is left before the date of Brexit – March 29, 2019 – with so much yet to be decided. But May is caught in a double bind.
At home, she needs more time to bring her Conservative Party round to a settled position on Brexit. The defeat that her government suffered in the British Parliament on Wednesday night was an untimely reminder of her party’s divisions.
In Brussels, she needs to take advantage of what goodwill still remains on offer; further delay will simply weaken her negotiating position.
The calm of this summit offers only a brief respite for a domestically weak Prime Minister trying to negotiate Brexit – and a Union of nations still grappling with populism in its various threatening guises.