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The first EU summit of 2017 is underway in Malta. Topics on the table include the bloc's refugee policies and the new US president's apparent hostility toward the European Union.
Meeting in Malta, the European Union is under pressure following the electoral successes - and continued campaigns - of right-wing factions that advocate against providing refuge to displaced people. After sealing a refugee swap deal with Turkey that has been heavily criticized by rights groups, EU leaders are now focusing on ways to reduce transit from Africa via Libya and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2016, about 180,000 people used this route to Europe.
EU leaders have attempted to negotiate a solution with their counterparts in Tripoli to train and equip Libya's coast guard to intercept smuggler boats and the rubber dinghies that some displaced people have attempted to use to cross the Mediterranean. Previously, the European Union had guarded its own nautical borders and brought the survivors of capsized vessels to Italy for treatment and assistance.
The idea would be to build a transit camp to be administered by the UN's refugee agency, from which the European Union could process and select displaced people for resettlement in member states. That would require the European Union to change its concept of "safe third states" and be able to guarantee that no harm would come to refugees in its camps.
Libya's coast runs nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), and the country's unity government controls very little of it. The government has also been criticized for years for its inhumane treatment of people who have attempted to transit the country en route to Europe.
In his invitation to EU leaders, European Council President Donald Tusk wrote that new US boss Donald Trump had made proclamations that could be seen as threats to the bloc. Faced with an increasingly hostile superpower, the EU needed to demonstrate its strengths and unity, Tusk wrote.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loven and French President Francois Hollande have all criticized Trump's complete banning of people from several mostly Muslim countries for 90 days. As the United Kingdom prepares for Brexit, however, its EU solidarity appears to have waned. Last week, UK Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Washington, D.C., to build Britain's relationship with the Trump regime and work on a post-EU trade pact for her homeland. She refrained from comment on Trump's disdain for the European Union and only belatedly, almost deferentially criticized the new US president's travel ban. London has clearly left Brussels behind when it comes to foreign policy.
The UK's exit from the EU appears to be on track from Britain's side. As long as Parliament votes to approve the Brexit by the end of the month as planned, May plans to invoke Article 50 at the March 9-10 EU summit. Her government released its Brexit white paper on Thursday.
The EU will release its own Brexit strategy paper within three weeks, and heads of governments plan to discuss the next steps at a special meeting in early April. Then the talks start. The governments of all 27 remaining member states will need to approve the final terms for a projected 2019 Brexit - which leaves plenty of time for more summits.
The European Union's sanctions on Russia are set to expire this summer, and what happens next - including whether President Trump unilaterally lifts the US's own measures - remains unclear. EU nations such as Hungary, Italy and Austria have all sought to ease the sanctions in order to better allow them to do business with Russia. However, new fighting in eastern Ukraine appears to show that the game is not yet over for Russia and that its president, Vladimir Putin, clearly has little regard for agreements inked in Belarus to put an end to the civil war.
Much will depend here on how Trump himself handles Putin, whom he has praised over and over again, and on how threatened eastern Europeans feel by the new US-Russia axis. Whatever happens, the European Union's policies toward Russia will test the bloc's unity.
In Bratislava after June's Brexit referendum, EU leaders looked pragmatically at their bloc's future. Whether addressing youth unemployment, external borders or unified defense strategy, they decided, there would be no more grand measures - just small steps to keep the public's trust. At the end of March, the remaining 27 EU member states will celebrate 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the bloc's founding document. It might be time for some new visions.