Nations bicker openly over migration policy in an east-west divide centred on several states which refuse to accept refugee quotas.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to attend the European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium on December 14, 2017.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to attend the European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium on December 14, 2017. (Reuters)

The last European Union summit kicked off in Brussels on Thursday with the ongoing Brexit talks the highlight of the first day.

A day after British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a defeat in parliament in London over her blueprint for quitting the EU, May told her peers over dinner in Brussels that she is on course to deliver Brexit.

"We've actually had 36 votes on the EU withdrawal bill and we've won 35 of those votes with an average majority of 22. So the bill is making good progress, we're on course to deliver Brexit, we're on course to deliver on the vote of the British people," May said. 

Offering her reassurance that they will formally endorse on Friday the launch of a second phase of negotiations – on a free trade pact and an initial transition period to that – leaders responded to May’s remarks by clapping and congratulating her.

She told them that her priority was agreeing a transition period after Britain leaves in March 2019 to offer businesses certainty. 

Bringing certainty to businesses

And she again urged the other 27 member states to speed up the talks to unravel more than 40 years of union and open discussion of trade relations, which she sees as crucial for a smooth exit.

“I believe this is in the best interests of the UK and the European Union,” she told the leaders over a dinner of roasted langoustine (Norway lobster) and a ballotin of capon (fattened rooster).

“A particular priority should be agreement on the implementation period so we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27,” she said.

TRT World's Simon Mcgregor-Wood reports.

May awaits EU decision on transition talks

She will not be present when they take the decision to start talks on a transition period and a future trade deal late on Friday morning. The chairman of EU leaders, Donald Tusk, will update May on Friday on the results of the leaders’ talks on Brexit in a phone call, officials said.

May, weakened after losing her Conservative Party’s majority in a June election, has so far carried her divided government and party with her as she negotiated the first phase of talks on how much Britain should pay to leave the EU, the border with Ireland and the status of EU citizens in Britain.

But the second – more decisive phase – of the negotiations will further test her authority by exposing the deep rifts among her top team of ministers, or cabinet, over what Britain should become after Brexit.

Acknowledging the tough talks ahead, Tusk warned EU leaders that only their unity displayed so far would deliver a good deal as discussions move to trade – an issue on which the member states have different interests.

“I have no doubt that the real test of our unity will be the second phase of Brexit talks,” Tusk told reporters.

Jerusalem stance 'unchanged'

The leaders also rejected US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, saying they stuck by their view that the city's status should be settled by negotiation.

Trump's administration invited widespread criticism earlier this month when it officially recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, effectively ignoring Palestinian claims on the city.

Tusk tweeted after the leaders of the bloc's 28 countries discussed the matter at a summit in Brussels.

East-west Europe clash over migrants

Migration was also a big issue at Brussels. The policy of sharing the burden of refugees headed for a new east-west clash.

Tusk irked some nations when he said in a pre-summit letter that a mandatory quota scheme for relocating refugees from frontline states was "ineffective" and "highly divisive.

Eastern European states including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have backed his approach, but Germany and others say the quotas are a necessary way of showing solidarity in the EU.

"We need solidarity on both the external and internal dimensions of migration, selective solidarity cannot work," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Merkel's 2015 decision to open the doors to one million asylum seekers was blamed by many European leaders for worsening the migration crisis.

Tusk, who is launching on Friday what he hopes will be a debate among leaders on how to reform the EU's asylum rules, admitted that disunity on migration was "very visible."

"These divisions are accompanied by emotions which make it hard to find even a common language and rational argument for this debate," the former Polish premier said.

The quotas triggered sharp east-west division when they were adopted at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 as a way to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, which had more than 1.5 million people land on their shores in the last three years.

The EU has since stalled on plans for a permanent mechanism for future crises. The leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia made clear Thursday their continuing opposition.

'Quotas do not work'

"We absolutely reject the idea of quotas, because we believe that quotas do not work," Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told reporters after meeting European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni on the subject.

The four eastern leaders – three of whose countries face legal action for refusing to take in any refugees under the quota system – promised $30 million (35 million euros) for the multi-billion Africa Trust Fund to help strengthen the EU's external borders as well as Libya's frontiers.

Gentiloni welcomed the support but maintained his stance, saying: "These differences for sure do not change with this decision."

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the "good will" in the financial contribution from the four eastern EU states but said "it resolves nothing."

Italy and Greece have seen sharp declines in migrant arrivals in the last months and year as a result of EU cooperation with Turkey and Libya, but fear a future crisis.

Tusk's comments also caused a row with the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, which first pushed the quota system.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk's remarks "unacceptable" and "anti-European."

EU officials said over 32,000 people had been relocated under the plan, or 90 percent of those eligible. The scheme was originally meant to relocate 160,000 refugees.

"We can expect a very lively and maybe controversial debate," one EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies