March 5. 2024. 2:37

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The Brief — A clear line in the sand

Yesterday’s European Council, which had been billed as a ‘special’ migration summit, was effectively gatecrashed by the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who completed his tour of European capitals on a mission to secure more military equipment ahead of an expected Russian offensive in the coming weeks.

A day’s discussions of migrant returns and border controls were squeezed into a couple of hours as leaders enjoyed a collective love-in and photo session with the Ukrainian president.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who likely has her eyes on replacing Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission chief next year, looked particularly pleased to be in Zelenskyy’s presence.

Yet – despite packing the migration discussions into the space between dinner and midnight, and though EU leaders did not actually agree any concrete policies – the tone and rhetoric could hardly have been any clearer.

Austria found few allies in its campaign for EU funding to build a fence at the Bulgaria-Turkey border, and the Commission has only pledged to strengthen protection infrastructure using other means.

But the threat to suspend aid, tariff-free trade and visa access to countries who refuse to take back failed asylum seekers stayed in the conclusions and had consensus support, said, national diplomats. This is the first time such threats have made it into an EU summit communique.

Voices from France about the need to focus on poverty reduction and economic development in the Global South – the only long-term solution to migration – were drowned out.

Even Irish Taioseach, Leo Varadkar, whose country has historically seen some of the largest migratory movements in Europe and the world, said that the EU needed to be “fair, firm and hard” when dealing with migration and “a big increase in the number of people who are coming from outside Europe on an irregular basis”.

For the moment, nobody seriously thinks that the EU will suspend development aid or trade access to countries that do not cooperate on migrant returns. In any case, it is a rather blunt tool. Suspending aid or access to the EU market would cause economic damage and increase poverty, two of the main reasons why people attempt the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas.

So, where does that leave the EU? Probably in a situation where ‘cash for migrants’ deals are on the cards, modelled on the €6 billion which the EU has paid Turkey since 2016 to keep its borders closed, potentially with the likes of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

Fortress Europe won’t stop people from desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea or Western Balkan route. In many cases, it will simply make them more desperate to make it to Europe.

But by effectively promising to ‘do whatever it takes’ to prevent thousands of migrants from arriving and then staying, the EU has drawn a clear line in the sand.

The Roundup

Moldova’s pro-Western government resigned on Friday (10 February) after months marked by economic turmoil and the spillover effects of Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Small and medium enterprises will be central to ensuring the twin green and digital transition succeeds and that technologies such as AI are integrated into these processes, stakeholders emphasised in Brussels this week.

Belarus on Friday slammed a decision by Poland to close a border checkpoint between the two countries as “catastrophic”, saying it could lead to a “collapse” on both sides of the border.

Russia launched a wave of attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia on Friday morning as Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was underway in the east.

Nuclear-reliant France rejoiced on Thursday as lawmakers in the European Parliament’s energy committee defined low-carbon hydrogen, agreeing to put it on the same level playing field as renewable hydrogen in the race for decarbonisation.

Don’t forget to check out the weekly Tech Brief: AI Act’s Parliament crunch time, Twitter’s yellow card and Agrifood Brief: Just beet it.

Look out for…

  • European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg Monday-Thursday.
  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets chiefs of Social Democrats and EPP, Iratxe García-Pérez and Manfred Weber, on Monday.
  • Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn meets Werner Hoyer, president of European Investment Bank, and Nadia Calviño, Spain’s first deputy PM and minister for economy and digitalisation, on Monday.
  • Eurogroup meeting on Monday.