Leaders of the 27 remaining members of the EU will start their council meeting in Brussels with Brexit at the fore. But other items are on the agenda, such as relations with China, the economy and climate protection.
The European Council meeting will get underway in Brussels on Thursday afternoon with the remaining 27 members of the bloc hearing Prime Minister Theresa May's reasons for asking for a delay in the UK's departure.
After a briefing from the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, the group will hear May's assessment of new Brexit developments.
When May has left the room, the group will discuss the next steps concerning the UK's departure — especially in terms of the length of the extension, which will be influenced by whether May succeeds in getting the British Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement next week.
No final decision is expected from the EU leaders before the UK Parliament votes again on the Brexit deal.
Relations with China
Over dinner the 28 current EU leaders, including May, are expected to discuss a more defensive strategy regarding China, potentially signaling an end to the unfettered access that Chinese businesses have enjoyed in the European Union, which Beijing has failed to reciprocate.
Jyrki Katainen, the European Commission's vice president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, described the EU's economy as "fully open," while "China is not, and it raises lots of questions."
Chinese President Xi Jinping starts a tour of France and Italy this week. He has forecast a "new era" in relations with Italy, expecting to sign an agreement in Rome for China's Belt and Road Initiative.
Economy and climate
The agenda for Friday focuses on the economy. "The European Council will discuss the economic situation in the presence of President Draghi," Council President Donald Tusk wrote in his invitation letter to the leaders, referring to Mario Draghi, who heads the European Central Bank. "We will then address the future of our economic base, climate change, disinformation and the protection of elections and adopt the conclusions."
There had been hopes from climate activists that the EU heads of state and government would consider raising the bloc's climate objectives for 2030.
Five years ago, the EU committed to cutting its global warming emissions by 40 percent before 2030, but last week, the European Parliament voted to raise the goal to a 55 percent cut by 2030.
Tens of thousands of children have skipped school to take part in organized rallies to protest climate inaction.
Last year the European Commission began a debate in which the case was made for the EU to aim for net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.
But the council appears likely only to reiterate its commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This has led Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe, to say: "This position shows that EU leaders are out of touch with climate science and with their citizens."
"They fail to recognize that our current targets would only be able to keep temperature rise to 3 degrees centigrade, which would threaten life on Earth as we know it," Trio said.
The European Council meeting is expected to wrap up by Friday lunchtime.
jm/rc (Reuters, AFP)