The EU summit on June 28-29 in Amsterdam promises to run hot, as leaders of the member states clash over a number of topics. This at a time when public confidence in the European Union's ability to solve problems is diminishing fast.
The main issues playing out before the whirring cameras will be the future of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees; the outcome of Great Britain’s referendum on EU membership; the political response to the Dutch referendum on the Association Treaty with Ukraine (to which the Dutch said No); and the success or failure of a far-reaching, EU-wide deal on tax reform and tax avoidance in the wake of the high-profile Panama Papers scandal.
So to say that the Dutch temporary chairmanship and European Council President Donald Tusk will have their hands full is an understatement.
The days before a summit generally see a lot of jostling among countries, with governments strategically leaking positions and opinions.
It is no different this time. The Czech government has made a series of "impossible" last-minute demands that could scupper a hard-fought deal on tax dodgers to which the other 27 EU nations finally seem to agree, after years of tough deliberations and compromises.
Turkey or turkey
Another hot topic is the deal between the EU countries and Turkey on refugees. The EU summit agenda touches on the subject lightly, stating that the leaders will "take stock of the situation,” which is a diplomatic way of stating that there is concern without publicly saying that it is concerning.
Capitals have been sending mixed signals. One day the Turkish government will signal its anger, demonstrating a willingness to sink the deal unless Ankara gets what it wants. Then someone in the Brussels apparatus will voice concern, signalling to Ankara that scuppering the deal means Turkey won't get what it covets: visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told his public that visa liberalization is a done deal. His credibility is now on the line, and the EU countries know it.
While that process goes on, another connected problem is the staunch unwillingness by some countries to accept any deal that could see millions of Turks freely traveling to and through the European Union. Some are concerned that repressed Turkish Kurds will use the liberalization to flee to Europe and request asylum. There is also considerable resistance to the idea of Turkey’s eventual EU accession being taken up again, as Turkey demands.
With elections coming up in 2017, Germany, the Netherlands, and France would especially like the refugee deal with Turkey to be kept alive amid increasing popular resentment against asylum seekers. New images of refugees entering the EU en masse through Turkey and seeking asylum in their countries are sure to doom the governing parties’ electoral hopes.
Depending on the outcome of the British referendum on leaving the European Union, the seat ordinarily reserved for the British Prime Minister will either be filled or remain empty. Although the official mantra is that the EU leadership has no plan on hand for Brexit, as an extra means to up the pressure on Remain-leaning British voters, summit attendees will discuss and formalize which unofficial scenario will be implemented to deal with the aftermath.
Several EU members have been pushing hard to punish Great Britain in case of Brexit. This is also to send a clear warning to other countries where popular parties and movements are mulling the idea of organizing their own referendum on leaving the EU family. In this scenario, London is expected to pay a high price -- it may see the way blocked to a favourable trade treaty with the European Union, such as those enjoyed by non-members Switzerland and Norway.
An empty chair where the British used to sit is also certain to have repercussions for the usual distribution of power and associated plays at the summit table. Countries like the Netherlands like to use Britain's position at the table as a counterweight to the Paris-Berlin axis. If London is aloof, these countries will have to recalibrate and latch on to a new ally.
Ukraine knocks on the door
Another politically painful dossier is the recent referendum in the Netherlands on the EU's association treaty with Ukraine.
In April, a majority of those who turned up voted against it, even though the 27 other EU nations had already agreed to it. So far the Dutch government has refrained from simply pulling out of the treaty, instead trying find ways to renegotiate or re-interpret the treaty.
The Netherlands doesn't have much to offer its 27 individual counterparts in exchange for their support for any new compromise. A total opt-out of the association treaty, however, doesn't seem to be a credible solution.
A year ago the Dutch chairmanship seemed easy -- six months to be spent tying up loose ends and ceremoniously officiating several compromises that have been worked on by the members states in the preceding years, such as tax reform. The reality has changed fast. On June 28 and 29, the Dutch and EU Council President Donald Tusk will have their work cut out for them.