European Union (EU) leaders are now picking up again an agenda full of challenges, among them the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, the ratification of the seven-year budget and the negotiations with the United Kingdom over Brexit.
After seven extremely complex months, this September representatives of the European alliance will again analyse possible solutions to topics that have tested their capacity to respond and the unity of the bloc on multiple occasions.
As well as seeking more effective action against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and trying to avoid fresh outbreaks in different countries, the EU must finish the process of approving its long-term budget, something which depends on the European Parliament. The evaluation of each member state’s reform projects will also begin, a condition of access to money from the economic recovery plan approved on 21st July.
In addition, the European alliance will attempt to reach an agreement on its future relationship with the United Kingdom before the end of October, failing which the so-called hard Brexit will occur and both parties will face serious socioeconomic consequences.
If everything goes to plan, the heads of state and heads of government of the 27 will take part in a face-to-face summit on 15th and 16th October and, if they reach a deal with London, the national and European parliaments will have to ratify it before 31st December.
Also planned is the presentation of a European Commission proposal on the EU’s Asylum and Migration Policy, a topic which has been pending for years and which could be analysed in September.
That same month, on September 14th, MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) are expected to return to Strasbourg, France, to start their plenary session.
All the above depends on the evolution of Covid-19 – fresh outbreaks could put the intended timetable at risk, along with many other aspects of the region’s social and economic life.
Covid and opening up
After living through a critical period in March – when Europe was declared the epicentre of the pandemic – the EU seemed to have some respite in the following months, but in recent weeks a spike in the number of cases has been seen in several of the member states.
In nations such as Poland, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain it was necessary to reintroduce restrictive measures in an attempt to contain the upward trend of new cases detected and experts fear a considerable worsening of the current situation.
Although many people are confident that the EU has learnt lessons, it still remains to be seen whether it will be capable of tackling this new phase more effectively and, above all, with greater solidarity.
However, the EU leadership’s resolutions on health and border control are understood as recommendations and the course of events will depend on each of the 27 EU member states.
Approximately every two weeks, the bloc revises the list of countries whose citizens can travel to the EU. The list was reduced to 10 countries on 8th August (Australia, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay).
EU leaders are trying to regulate the most organised reopening possible and suggest the safest states, as defined by their parameters, but the application of those decisions is carried out according to the interests of the 27.
The same happens with health measures and with actions of other types that are decided in accordance with the internal workings of each member state and are out of Brussels’ hands.
For example, several nations announced the return of students to school in September, something which represents a huge challenge and which will require a great effort on the part of educational institutions.
Approved in July, the EU recovery plan to tackle the crisis caused by Covid-19 and the Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021-2027 were presented as historic achievements by EU leaders.
However, these elements of the community’s strategy must be ratified by the European Parliament which is opposed to the cuts made to essential sectors in the long-term budget and warns that the question of debt repayment is still not resolved.
Emblematic EU programmes for climate protection, digital transition, health, youth, culture, research and management of borders are at risk of suffering an imminent reduction in funding.
MEPs have shown their concern over the mechanisms for repayment of the debt and have reminded everyone that the recovery must not reduce investment capacity nor harm domestic taxpayers.
Moreover, they communicated their disagreement with relaxing the demands made on beneficiary nations of the new plan in relation to respect for the rule of law.
In a resolution passed with 465 votes in favour, 150 against and 67 abstentions, the European Parliament indicated that it does not accept the European Council’s political agreement and that it will not approve it until the necessary changes are made.
For this purpose it proposed holding negotiations with the community’s leadership which must finish before the end of October.
Since the 2016 referendum, when 52% of Britons voted in favour of Brexit, the United Kingdom and the EU have travelled a tortuous path which threatens to become even more complicated in the final stage.
Following long and convoluted conversations, the UK officially withdrew from the bloc on 31st January this year and a period of 11 months began in which to negotiate the terms of the future trading relationship between the two parties. The seventh round of exchanges on this subject took place between 18th and 21st August and concluded with pessimistic statements from representatives of both sides.
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, asserted that the EU’s insistence on reaching agreements on state aid and fisheries before discussing other areas made it “unnecessarily difficult” to make progress.
He pointed out that from the outset the UK had made it clear that it wanted to sign a free trade agreement similar to those already in place between the EU and other countries and seal practical agreements for cooperation in areas such as aviation, scientific programmes and law enforcement.
For his part, the EU’s representative, Michel Barnier, affirmed that he felt ‘disappointed and worried’ by the lack of progress in the conversations and accused the British government of wanting access to the European single market without accepting EU rules.
As things stand today, it is very unlikely that an agreement will be reached between the UK and the EU.
“Quite simply, I cannot understand why we are wasting such valuable time”, added Barnier. According to the agreed schedule, the eighth round of negotiations will begin in London on 7th September but, if the worst predictions come true and no agreement is reached before the end of 2020 and the so-called transition period is not extended, the two parties will have to trade under the rules and tariffs set by the World Trade Organisation. (PL)