The 15 December EU summit, coming at the end of a bruising year in world politics, showed the EU beginning to regain its footing. Important and interlinked issues were on the table - Ukraine in particular, Russia, Turkey, Cyprus and Brexit - and while the summit did not take radical new decisions, the common approach in each case was further confirmed or clarified. EU leaders failed, however, to deliver more than words on the awful crisis in Syria.

Numbers

Before we get into the substance, some statistics. 28 heads of state and government attended yesterday's EU summit (three women and twenty-five men). Their average age is 54 years and 6 months, the youngest being Estonia's new prime minister, Jüri Ratas, who is 38, and the oldest President Anastasiades of Cyprus, who is 70. On average, they have held their current office for precisely three years, the longest serving being Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who came to power in November 2005, and the most recent being Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni who started the new job last Monday. The rate of turnover is striking, with six changes this year - Gentiloni (Italy), Ratas (Estonia), Plenković (Croatia), Kučinskis (Latvia), May (Britain), and Kern (Austria). Prime Minister Borissov of Bulgaria has resigned and attended in caretaker mode, and the Germans, French, Dutch and Czechs all face elections next year. The EU system is capable of surviving the musical chairs of most national elections; but Germany, increasingly, is the one that matters.

Russia

The decision to renew for the EU's sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine was treated almost as a technical issue and agreed without opposition. The sanctions will therefore stay in effect for another six months. It may be less straightforward to renew them again in mid-2017; the incoming Trump administration is likely to take a more accommodating line with Russia, and this may well corrode international solidarity on Ukraine. It is also significant that there was no serious move to increase sanctions on account of the events in Syria. EU sanctions on Russia have possibly gone as far as they can. 

Ukraine

On Ukraine, EU heads of state and government were relieved to be able to help Dutch Prime Minister Rutte off the hook of a Dutch referendum result. (There was apparently some discussion around the summit table of the problems of direct popular votes in general.) The EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine was rejected by Dutch voters in April, in a non-binding referendum. The Dutch parliament has the legal power to over-rule a referendum result. The government, however, facing elections next year, needed to show some gains from the rest of the EU before asking it to do so. They got clarification that the agreement does not make Ukraine a member state, does not oblige the EU to give Ukraine further military or financial support, does not affect the mobility of citizens, and that Ukraine remains committed to strengthening the rule of law and fighting corruption. None of these issues, of course, were actually covered by the EU-Ukraine agreement in the first place, but it is sufficient cover for Rutte to ask his parliament to ratify the deal despite the referendum result. He may wait until after the election is over.

Even with the caveats that the Dutch extracted from their fellow governments, the Association Agreement remains very important as a tangible commitment by the EU to Ukraine's economic independence and development, preventing the country from slipping under direct Russian control, and all EU governments, including the Dutch, remain strongly committed to it.

Turkey, Cyprus, Migration

The EU-Turkey relationship is constrained by two dynamics: concern about the domestic policies pursued by Ankara, yet also the EU's dependence on Turkey for controlling the flow of migrants from the Middle East. The Austrian government, with some rather quiet support from others, mounted an effort to suspend Turkey's slow-moving EU accession talks. This, however, would need a clear majority of member states in favour, and for the moment the Austrian position is an outlier. The EU agreed to schedule a joint summit with Turkey in the next few months to discuss outstanding issues including the EU-Turkey Customs Union.

On a related topic, and slightly more cheerfully, the Cyprus problem is as close to a solution now as it has ever been; President Anastasiades gave the summit a relatively upbeat briefing, duly noted in the conclusions. There is still some way to go, however. 

The other side of the migration problem is the Western Mediterranean, where EU efforts to tackle the problem at source, through new development and security agreements with Nigeria, Mali and other West African states, have quietly been bearing fruit - this rather unnoticved success has kept migration out of the headlines in recent months.

Syria

On the other hand, the EU appears reduced to verbose impotence with regard to the ongoing terrible conflict in Syria. In fairness, humanitarian aid has made a big difference to those fleeing the conflict, and improved effectiveness there is part of the story behind the decrease in the flow of migrants in the last year. But as EU leaders worked out their common position, Aleppo continued to burn, and there is no appetite to take further military action or impose economic sanctions as the conflict grinds towards what appears likely to be a bloody conclusion.

Brexit

The enduring image of the summit was a short video of British Prime Minster Theresa May looking around for someone to talk to. In fact, what had been planned as an entire dinner discussing the UK's departure, in her absence, became a twenty minute discussion in which the EU confirmed its fundamental principles of waiting until Article 50 has been triggered before negotiation starts and insisting that the Single Market depends on respecting all four freedoms, Michel Barnier was formally appointed as the EU's chief negotiator, and the European Parliament, which had complained about being left outside the negotiation chamber, was bought off with some procedural concessions. There is dismay among the EU27, particularly in Ireland, at the apparent disarray in London. But it is for the British to set the agenda, and to show that they can do so realistically.

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Nicholas Whyte

Nicholas Whyte, senior director and head of services to government in APCO’s Brussels office, has more than two decades of experience in international affairs, advocacy and research. Read More