Brussels is still in the dog days of August, but with Brexit talks restarting next week the town is slowly beginning to stir from its summer slumber.
Looming trade negotiations with the Brits — which will really start motoring from September — could be just what the doctor ordered to heal rifts among EU leaders who spent July locked in bitter negotiations about how to pool their financial firepower to fight coronavirus.
As has often been the case since the referendum, Brexit will provide welcome respite for squabbling European governments which can display the unity that usually goes missing when they are confronted with their own housekeeping — be it over money, the rule of law or foreign policy.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, may well convene an EU27 leaders’ post-break powwow in Brussels next month after a planned EU-China summit in Leipzig on September 14 was shelved due to coronavirus.
A senior EU diplomat refused to confirm the president’s intentions for a summit to discuss Brexit or anything else. But come what may, relations with the UK will formally be back on leaders’ agenda by October (that’s the earliest leaders are due to meet for their next regular summit).
Next week’s Brexit talks take place in Brussels from Tuesday to Friday. A topic that was not due to be discussed — and which has remained absent during the trade talks — is how to handle asylum claims between the two sides after the end of the transition period.
An uptick in arrivals to the UK from France by sea in the past week has led the British government to redouble its demands for a deal with Paris and the rest of the bloc on taking back failed asylum seekers from British shores. Priti Patel, home secretary, made the calls earlier this year but they fell on deaf ears in Brussels.
Under the EU’s Dublin Convention, refugees claiming asylum can be returned to the member state where they first had their claims registered. The UK will exit the Dublin agreement when the transition period ends on December 31.
During the course of the future relationship talks, Brussels has been understandably reluctant to help out Boris Johnson on migrant returns without extracting concessions in key areas of strategic importance to the EU — such as fish. So could a refugees-for-fish trade-off now be on the cards?
France might have an interest in pushing the possibility. Clement Beaune, France’s newly appointed Europe minister, told the Financial Times earlier this month that his government would stand firm against British demands for a standalone deal on access to fishing waters under the trade talks.
Mr Beaune admitted that when it came to fish, the UK had “leverage” over the bloc: “We will never accept a separate negotiation on something where there is a tactical or strategic advantage for the UK,” the minister said.
On asylum returns, France and Brussels hold all the cards. Still, EU officials said they had no indication the UK would make an overture on fish next week, despite the recent clamour over rising channel crossings.
Perhaps even more significantly, the UK’s calls for a migration deal also ignore how contentious the issue of asylum returns is inside the EU — let alone with third countries.
The Dublin Convention has been in de facto suspension since Europe’s migrant crisis of 2015 put the system under existential strain. Brussels has promised a long-awaited revamp of the rules in the coming months, but few expect a consensus to emerge as governments remain deadlocked on the fundamental question of how to share the legal responsibility for refugee arrivals.
The EU’s internal divisions — often a source of glee among Brexiters — may well prove the biggest headache for the UK on migration.
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