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East-West split still in play at EU summit

June 23, 2017

Angela Merkel talked up a spirit of optimism at the latest EU summit despite Brexit. But divisions remain over the distribution of refugees and the rise in the number of low-wage workers arriving in western EU states.

EU-Gipfel in Brüssel | Angela Merkel & Emmanuel Macron
Image: Reuters/G. Fuentes

European Union leaders praised progress made on Friday, the second day of their summit. The future of their bloc remained in sharp focus as they discussed economic growth, trade and migration.

After the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the summit had sent a new message of optimism, and that her cooperation with her newest partner in France, the novice President Emmanuel Macron, had helped lead the way.

"When France and Germany speak with one voice, Europe can move forward," Macron told a joint news conference.

"There can be no pertinent solution if it is not a pertinent solution for France and Germany."

But despite the two leaders optimism about pledges to strengthen cooperation on defense, security and boosting jobs, the summit still revealed a noticeable East-West split on several issues. 

Migrant-sharing still problematic

There appeared to be little change in the unwillingness of some eastern EU states to accept asylum seekers and refugees under common burden-sharing schemes.

Brüssel Viktor Orban PK
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been outspoken about EU migrant-sharing throughout the blocImage: picture-alliance/abaca/D. Aydemir

Despite the European Commission last week launching procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for their refusal to accept migrants, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban insisted a different approach was needed.

"There is another group of countries, this is that Hungary belongs to, that doesn't see this as a solidarity or technical question, but a question of identity," he said. 

"It's impossible that someone else should decide the identities of our countries rather than ourselves." 

Another row centered on what is regarded as unfair competition by the movement of workers from poorer eastern European states to the likes of France and Germany where they can temporarily work at lower rates than the respective national minimum wages.

Macron, in power for little more than a month, has vowed to protect French workers' jobs. EU leaders agreed to set up an expert-level group to try to narrow differences over rules for so-called "posted workers."

EU's 'blind eye'

Friday talks did provide a venue for further discussion on how nations could ensure that fewer displaced people undertake dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe.

EU leaders appeared set to boost their support for Libya's government which has become the latest transit country for those escaping war and poverty. 

On Friday, the leaders committed to stepping up their backing for Libya's coast guard, after almost 1,900 people died trying to make the perilous journey so far in 2017.

The human rights group Amnesty International has charged that, with the European Union's support, Libya's coast guard plucks people from the sea and returns them to a country where they face detention and possibly torture or rape.

Theresa May
May's initial proposal was by all accounts merely seen as a starting point for future negotiationsImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Reactions to May's offer

Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker described Britain's proposals to protect EU nationals in the UK after Brexit a "first step but .... not sufficient." EU President Donald Tusk told a news conference that his "first impression is the UK offer is below our expectations and this risks worsening the situation of our citizens in the UK."

In her first offer on the issue so far, UK Prime Minister Theresa May had outlined her plans to grant the right to permanent residency to an estimated 3 million European citizens already living in Britain after Brexit.

The EU leaders had refused to debate the issue at the summit, saying it remained a matter for the designated Brexit negotiators.

mkg,ss, mm/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)