EU leaders are gathering today (16 May) in Sofia for the highlight of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU – the Western Balkans Summit. But recent developments hijacked the program.
US President Donald Trump has effectively hijacked the agenda of the meeting in Bulgaria, amid the worst rift in transatlantic relations since the 2003 Iraq war.
According to the initial plan, EU leaders were expected to discuss over dinner today (16 May) the EU digital agenda. The Commission presented yesterday a set of concrete actions that European leaders can take to protect citizens’ privacy and make the EU’s Digital Single Market a reality before the end of 2018.
However, it is unlikely that the digital agenda would be a major topic. Council President Donald Tusk sent yesterday a letter to EU leaders, telling them that they will also reflect on recent global developments, in particular following President Trump’s announcements on Iran and trade as well as the latest, dramatic events in Gaza.
Tusk, who will chair the meeting, will ask UK Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to present their assessment of the situation following the US withdrawal.
EU unity will be sought on issues such as the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Reportedly the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania having recently blocked an EU statement slamming the US decision. Also, the same countries sent their ambassadors to inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, breaking ranks with the rest of the EU.
Trade measures will also be discussed. On Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on European and Chinese steel and aluminium, Tusk urged the leaders to keep a unified front.
“I will propose we stick to our guns,” Tusk said. On this issue, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will debrief leaders on the state of play.
Today’s dinner will be followed by a summit on Thursday where EU leaders will meet their counterparts from the Western Balkan countries Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. It will be chaired by Tusk and Juncker.
The topic of the summit will be “Connectivity”, in terms of transport, energy and digital infrastructure, education, and other aspects. The topic reflects an effort to accommodate countries reluctant to discuss further EU enlargement, such as France or Germany.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy confirmed he would not attend the meeting because of the presence of Kosovo.
Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, is not recognised by five EU member states: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania. The main reason is that these countries fear separatism in their own territory and disapprove of the way Kosovo seceded from Serbia.
In Spain, the sensitivities are even more pronounced in the context of the fresh push for independence in Catalonia.
Rajoy arrived in Sofia on Tuesday, in an effort to reassure his Bulgarian hosts that his absence from the Western Balkans summit is not an offence to the country organising the gathering.
Bulgarian truckers are organising a protest, by aligning TIR trucks in the slow lane of the boulevard leading from the airport to the city centre.
In recent days, the Bulgarian government voiced strong opposition to the so-called “Mobility Package” for which the old EU countries France, Germany, Austria and Italy are pushing.
There have been protests before on the occasion of the Bulgarian Presidency, but this is the first one which aims to impress the foreign high guests, and French President Emmanuel Macron in particular.