AFP – European Union leaders gather for a summit Thursday seeking further progress in tackling the economic crisis but marking time on the political front just six months before challenging EU polls.
As hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protestors turn out on the streets of ex-Soviet state Ukraine demanding their country team up with the 28-nation bloc, euro-scepticism by contrast is rampant on the EU’s western flank.
But with the two-day summit held 48 hours after Angela Merkel’s confirmation as German chancellor for a third time, hopes are high she can help spark the EU into action.
After months of uncertainty as Europe awaited the outcome of the German polls and formation of a coalition before taking key decisions, Europe’s top economy is likely to see its already powerful influence strengthened within the bloc.
Top of the to-do list are plans for a eurozone banking union, seen as a bulwark against future crises such as those that crippled Ireland, Cyprus and Spain.
Finance ministers from the 17 nations sharing the single currency met Monday in Berlin before holding talks on the issue Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels in an 11th-hour bid for a deal ahead of the summit.
An agreement is needed by year’s end to enable the adoption of legislation before elections in May that will see the replacement of the entire EU executive, the European Commission, as well as the European Parliament.
Also on the agenda of the summit is the strengthening of Europe’s economic and monetary union, a controversial issue that entails stronger supervisory powers by Brussels over the economic policies of the EU’s 28 member states.
Germany wants to see budgetary rigour and economic discipline enshrined in the EU rule-book while France has been demanding more solidarity between states.
EU leaders hope to have a deal on this in June 2014, after the elections, and “the political change in Germany is helping efforts to find a middle-ground”, an EU official said, referring to Merkel’s new centre-left coalition partners.
But Europe can no longer “be content with rubber-stamping complicated diplomatic compromises on technical issues … that cannot substitute for a long-term vision”, said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, who heads the Schuman foundation think-tank.
Like other Europe-watchers, Giuliani believes a revival of the once strong Franco-German axis is crucial to the revival of the bloc.
After a rocky ride with French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist who took office in June 2012, Merkel appears ready to set the Paris-Berlin relationship on a new road. Her first visit as new chancellor will be to Paris on Wednesday.
“We will try … to build a common project to propose to all European nations… its aim being to enable Europeans to once again love Europe,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Signing a partnership deal with Ukraine would have provided the perfect demonstration of the EU’s newfound pride in itself, but President Viktor Yanukovych appears deaf to calls to open the EU door, instead seeking economic and financial help from former master Russia.
Also on the summit agenda is how to boost joint defence strategies at a time when military spending is being cut in the interests of government belt-tightening.
Up to now, efforts to step up military cooperation between the 28 states have produced little practical result but the summit is expected to approve plans to join forces to develop new-generation drones and cooperate on cyber-defence.