Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
Two things let you know when Brussels is hosting one of its frequent summits.
Overhead the security helicopters buzz continually across the city, often quite late into the evening depending on the world leader in attendance.
On the ground, the city’s traffic becomes even more gridlocked than normal as lanes are closed to ensure swift passage for the motorcades, the size of which is not always a reliable indicator of the occupant’s importance.
So anyone planning an early night, or hoping for a stress-free drive to work, was well advised to take some time off and head out of town as the European Union staged no fewer than seven summits in four days.
From Tuesday 16 October to Friday 19 October, the EU held: a Tripartite Social Summit; European Council summits discussing Brexit, the Eurozone plus a session on migration and security; the Asian-Europe Meeting; the EU-Republic of Korea Summit; and the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting. The latter, held over two days brought together the leaders of 54 European and Asian countries representing 55 per cent of global trade, 60 per cent of the world’s population and 65 per cent of global GDP.
While these summits were an impressive show of the EU’s internal and external diplomacy, many will ask what was achieved?
The flagship event was the set piece signing of free trade, investment, and partnership agreements with Singapore. When I was the rapporteur (lead MEP) guiding the EU-Singapore FTA through the European Parliament in 2013, I and MEPs across the political spectrum urged the Commission and Council to send it to us for ratification before the June 2014 European elections. In the event, the EU insisted on re-opening the agreement to change the rules on investment protection, even though the agreement had been signed off.
The Singaporeans were naturally annoyed, but felt they had no choice, and are of course relieved that it will be sent to us before the 2019 elections. However, this incident damaged the EU’s credibility in keeping its word on a signed off agreement. Maybe a warning to other future partners?
A trade accord was also signed with Vietnam. The great hope was to use the focus on these two agreements and the Asia-Europe Meeting to persuade China to ease restrictions on foreign investment, goods, and services. But talks failed to deliver a breakthrough, and a final communique omitted a call for an end to trade distortions after China insisted on changes.
Otherwise there was precious little to show for such intense diplomatic activity beyond warm words and general declarations. That was certainly true of two major challenges facing the EU: migration and Brexit. Despite both featuring on the EU Council agenda, no concrete action had been agreed when the red carpet was eventually rolled up on Friday evening.
On migration, at least the Council appears to be finally getting around to considering the policies put forward by Conservative MEPs and our colleagues in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group at the height of the crisis in 2015.
After the EU spent two years trying to force refugee quotas on often reluctant member states, EU leaders have now agreed that the way forward lies in improving the processing of arrivals to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants, speeding up returns, securing borders, and seeking enhanced arrangements with third countries to stem the flow of migrants.
Meanwhile, my colleagues in the ECR group continue to push for member states to be asked how they are willing to help, rather than telling them how many people they should accept. Some countries will take in genuine asylum seekers, others will choose to help refugees closer to their homes and some will provide money to help front line countries.
If these common sense policies had been adopted sooner, and not dismissed as anti–European or populist, then the system would now be in better shape and perhaps more lives could have been saved.
The failure to make progress on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was disappointing, but came as no real surprise. Before the summit there was no real sense that we were approaching the negotiating end game, and this was confirmed when leaders of the EU27 spent just 90 minutes discussing Brexit over dinner and had little interest in listening to Jean-Claude Juncker’s briefing on preparations for no deal. Rather than negotiating into the early hours of the morning and seeking to emerge with a compromise, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and two other Prime Ministers took themselves off for a post-dinner beer on the Grand Place.
Of course intense negotiations continue behind the scenes, and my discussions with diplomats have revealed more understanding that Theresa May’s position on the Irish backstop is not simply a negotiating stance or a bluff. It is a Prime Minister defending the constitutional sovereignty and geographical borders of a nation, and protecting a hard won peace.
These talks were always going to go the distance, and the pressure of having to reach a deal before the end of the year in order to give the British and European parliaments time to consider the agreement will focus minds. In seeking a legal text that satisfies both sides, the negotiators may look to their lawyers to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible, just as they did with the Danish opt outs in 1992 and Protocol 36 with the UK in 2014.
Most people I speak to in Brussels expect a deal to be agreed by the end of the year, or at the very latest in January. There are concerns any agreement may not be approved at Westminster or in the European Parliament, but for now the biggest fear is that we are running out of time.