While the German and French leaders celebrated the close ties between their countries during this week's EU summit, divisions between western and eastern European leaders grew. Christoph Hasselbach reports from Brussels.
The summit was intended to spread a bit of optimism. The professionals, it was announced, would now take care of Brexit negotiations, and the British government even promised to protect EU citizens' rights in the United Kingdom after withdrawal. Although that proposal is now being criticized as inadequate and vague, it is still being touted as a sign of progress. After that, the remaining 27 member states sought to create momentum for new projects.
The joint press conference held by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron was then appropriately symbolic. Merkel described the mood of the two-day summit, which ended on Friday, as "optimistic and dynamic." Such words are more easily uttered in the knowledge that economies in almost all member states, even those which were heretofore weak, are starting to grow again. The eurozone has just completed its best quarter in almost six years, which, however, isn't saying much considering the crisis that has been plaguing the continent for the last several years.
Yet Estonia, which will take over the European Council's rotating presidency in July, has said that more must still be done. Estonia is considered a role model for EU digitization. In Brussels, Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas urged: "Data is the next steel and coal. So we need to be ready for a next 60 years of digitization in Europe. Europe has to become the world leader in digital." In the case of German Chancellor Merkel, Ratas is preaching to the converted. She was full of praise, "because Estonia is an example of how digitization is already being lived out."
The EU also wants to take the lead in maintaining free trade around the world, which member states see threatened by the protectionist tendencies of US President Donald Trump. But, as French President Macron said, the EU is not "naive" either. Openness also necessitates fairness. European governments find it unfair that some countries seemingly flood the European market with dumping prices, or that companies from third states buy European firms while at the same time blocking European takeovers in theirs. The main culprit in both instances is China.
Refugee distribution? Hopeless
But the generally positive mood that has come on the heels of the Brexit depression did not brighten every topic of discussion - such as that of immigration. Macron, who is seen by many as Europe's new hope, began the conference by angering eastern European countries that have refused to accept refugees from the bloc's main countries of arrival, Italy and Greece. Macron complained that members were not in a "supermarket" and that the EU was not about "handing out money without regard for European values."
Although he did not name names, those he was referring to, such as Hungary, felt attacked. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban snapped back that Macron's comments were a "kick." He labeled Macron a "newbie" whose start in office was "not very encouraging." Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, on the other hand, stood by Macron: "I cannot always make demands and then shirk my responsibilities."
In an effort to smooth over differences, Macron also met separately with heads of government from the so-called Visegrad Group: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Nothing, however, came of the meeting. After the summit, Merkel said that all members were "very, very much in agreement" on the issue of fighting the root causes of migration and the control of Europe's exterior borders. She resignedly added: "Unfortunately, we made no progress on the question of distribution," noting that very little time had been allotted for discussing the issue, "since it was clear that we would not be able to make any progress."
In his joint press conference with Merkel, Macron added: "The current refugee crisis is not a temporary, but rather a long-term challenge, which can be resolved only through long-term stabilization in Africa and the Middle East and through ambitious European development policies."
Competition from Eastern Europe
Macron's discussion with the Visegrad Group was delicate for another reason as well. The French president fears that the entire European project is in jeopardy because workers in wealthy western European countries feel threatened by eastern European competition. Macron recently even cited the issue in explaining the Brexit: "How could Brexit happen? Because workers from eastern European countries were taking British jobs." Macron is therefore calling for changes to the so-called "Posting of Workers Directive." He envisions that workers sent to fill western European jobs should be paid according to local wage scales. The proposal was greeted by high-wage countries such as Germany and Austria. But eastern Europeans are vehemently refusing to cede their competitive advantage.
The summit made clear that Emmanuel Macron's election has given a jolt of energy to the French-German duo that will perhaps be able to drive new European projects. But at the same time, it also highlighted the threat that the divide between new EU member states from the east and old ones from the west could grow ever deeper.