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EU leaders gather in Brussels to discuss Ukraine, China and migration

The agenda for the two-day meeting of the European Council is set to cover Ukraine, Russia, China, the Balkans and migration management.
The agenda for the two-day meeting of the European Council is set to cover Ukraine, Russia, China, the Balkans and migration management. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Leaders from the 27 member states are gathering today in Brussels for a summit with a busy agenda on the table.

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The two-day meeting of the European Council lacks a clear thematic focus and will instead touch upon a variety of topics, including military support for Ukraine, confiscation of frozen Russian assets, economic threats posed by China and the latest flare-up of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

Migration will also feature prominently in the debate, particularly in the context of cooperation with neighbouring countries to curb the arrival of new asylum seekers. 

Looming over the discussions will be the short-lived insurgency launched over the weekend by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary troops of the Wagner Group, an extraordinary moment of defiance against Vladimir Putin's iron-fist rule that European governments are still trying to comprehend.

"Russia's war in Ukraine is continuing relentlessly. Our unwavering unity stands in contrast to the disunity in Russia showcased by this weekend's events," Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, wrote in his invitation to leaders.

The summit will kick off on Thursday afternoon and be preceded by a lunch with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

The talks around Ukraine are expected to be multi-faceted and complex.

EU leaders will discuss a new €50-billion proposal to provide Kyiv with long-term financial support, a €500-million package of military aid that remains blocked by Hungary, progress made in the accession process, and the possibility of providing long-term security guarantees for Ukraine, although this last point will not be properly fleshed out until the NATO summit in mid-July.

The yet-to-be-resolved question of how to use the frozen assets of the Russian Central Bank to pay for the war-torn nation's reconstruction is also expected to emerge during the long debate.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats say there is political will around the table to move forward with the project of managing the assets and re-directing the profits towards Ukraine, but there are still too many legal pitfalls along the way.

Making matters trickier, the European Central Bank has raised concerns about the potentially damaging effects the untested move could have on financial stability and the euro's role as a global reserve currency.

"This is extremely complicated, it has never been done before," said a senior diplomat. "We all feel personally that we want to do it, but it has to be feasible."

On China, the discussion is set to be structured around the economic security strategy recently presented by the European Commission, the first of its kind.

The strategy, which does not mention China by name but is evidently inspired by the fraught relations between the bloc and the Asian superpower, recommends greater oversight over cutting-edge technology exports that could "enhance the military capacities of some countries of concern."

While not as hawkish as the landmark speech delivered by Ursula von der Leyen in late March, the document builds upon her idea of "de-risking" as the go-to approach to deal with Beijing, a concept later endorsed by the Group of Seven.

"Europeans want to cooperate and engage with China, but from now on they will do so with a clear vision that is no longer naïve," said another diplomat. "(We're) no longer under the illusion that China is, in fact, going to become a market economy, that China has fair cooperation and competition practices."

Regarding migration, leaders will zoom in on the so-called "external dimension," coded language for deepening cooperation with non-EU countries in order to prevent migrants from reaching the bloc's shores.

Earlier this month, the European Commission green-lighted a €100-million package for Tunisia to improve border management, which will be followed by a memorandum of understanding next week.

But what reinforcing the "external dimension" exactly means is still up in the air.

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A small group of countries, believed to include, among others, Austria and Denmark, is pushing to explore "innovative solutions" to decrease the number of arrivals, a term that other member states interpret as measures that would in practice be incompatible, or borderline incompatible, with international law.

The summit takes place two weeks after a boat carrying between 400 to 750 migrants capsized near Pylos, in southern Greece, in what is considered one of the worst shipwrecks in recent Mediterranean history.

This piece has been updated.

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