European Council President Donald Tusk (R) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend a joint press conference after the European spring summit in Brussels, Belgium on march 10, 2017. The leaders reportedly discussed how the EU should function in the future and how to maintain unity amid severe political and migration pressures during the two-day summit. (Xinhua/Gong Bing)
BRUSSELS, March 10 (Xinhua) -- A two-day summit of European Union (EU) leaders and heads of state here concluded on Friday, but the fierce debate on the direction of Europe is likely to continue for a longer time.
TUSK'S JOB ROW
Polish fury over the re-election of European Council President Donald Tusk overshadowed the two-day EU summit.
Tusk was given the green light to continue in the post until 2019 despite fierce opposition by the Polish government, which had put forward its own candidate.
Afterwards, French President Francois Hollande said: "I don't see how one country could oppose this solution when all the others are in favor."
But Poland's government argued that Tusk supported the domestic opposition in Poland and has failed to protect the country's interests in the EU.
Speaking on Friday, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo refused to accept the summit's conclusion to reappoint Tusk, saying "Poland doesn't agree with this. And I definitely won't accept any document from this summit."
Instead of the traditional conclusions by the European Council, there were merely conclusions "by the President of the European Council." As such, the summit ended without the customary accord on a final document.
DEBATE ON EU FUTURE
After Thursday's decision to reappoint Tusk, prime ministers and presidents of 27 EU members states reassembled for a second day after British Prime Minister Theresa May had left.
EU leaders were meeting for the first time in the Europa building, a new 321-million-euro (341 U.S. dollars) summit venue in Brussels decorated so as to symbolize the "united patchwork" of Europe.
However, when the bloc approached the subject of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which paved the way of European integration, the debate on which path the post-Brexit EU should follow became increasingly fierce.
Some EU member states, such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy are calling for a multi-speed Europe, wherein some members could deepen their integration faster than others. However, the bloc's eastern members, who fear they will be excluded from deeper integration in the future, are against the idea.
The divergence was also seen between the EU institutions. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said a multi-speed EU scenario was not going to create an "iron curtain" in Europe.
"(For) some of our colleagues, this (multi-speed Europe) is seen as introducing a new dividing line, a new kind of iron curtain between the east and west. That's not the intention," Juncker said at a press conference with Tusk on Friday.
However, Tusk, who chaired the debate on Friday, urged EU member states to strive towards maintaining political unity after Brexit.
"When discussing the various scenarios for Europe, our main objective should be to strengthen mutual trust and unity among 27," Tusk said at the press conference.
Talking about the "multi-speed" version of future, Tusk said he understood the reasons for the debate.
"However, considering the interests of the community of 27 countries in the context of the upcoming Brexit negotiations as well as the long-term strategic interests of the EU, I will be urging everyone to strive towards maintaining political unity among the 27."
"It is clear from the debate that the unity of the 27 will be our most precious asset," he stressed.
As no document on the future of Europe emerged from the meeting of 27 EU leaders on Friday, the debate on the issue is likely to continue. The picture may only become a little clearer later this month when EU's leaders minus Britain are due to make a declaration on Europe's future at the Rome summit, in which they are expected to set out a post-Brexit road map.
BREXIT CHALLENGE AHEAD
The summit was the last attended by Theresa May before she triggers Article 50 at the end of this month, the start of a two-year process that will see the UK leave the EU, and Brexit cast a long shadow over proceedings.
Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the British government has so far refused to offer any formal reassurance to the 3.1 million EU citizens living in the UK, insisting it could harm its effort to secure the rights of the 1.2 million British nationals estimated to be living in other EU countries.
On the margins of the summit, the chief Brexit negotiator at the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, said British citizens should be allowed to keep the benefits of EU membership.
Speaking on Friday, Verhofstadt said allowing individuals to keep rights, such as freedom to travel and vote in European elections should be a priority.
The former Belgian prime minister said Brexit had been a "tragedy" and a "disaster" for people in the UK and EU.
Meanwhile, Juncker hinted at the possibility of readmitting Britain as EU member, saying he hoped Britain would one day rejoin the union.
"I do not like Brexit, because I would like to be in the same boat as the British. The day will come when the British will re-enter the boat, I hope," he said.
ECONOMY AND OTHER ISSUES
During the summit, the leaders noted that for the first time in almost a decade, all 28 EU economies were expected to grow over the next two years. They agreed that this "good outlook" needed to be sustained by continued structural reform efforts and "determined action."
"Trade remains one of the most powerful engines for growth, supporting millions of jobs and contributing to prosperity," a conclusion document released by Tusk read, adding that the bloc would remain strongly committed to a robust trade policy and an open and rules-based multilateral trading system with a central role for the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The leaders welcomed the positive vote in the European Parliament on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), saying it was "a clear signal at a time when protectionist tendencies are re-appearing."
The leaders agreed that the bloc should continue to engage actively with its international trade partners. The single-market bloc said it would resolutely advance on all ongoing negotiations for free trade agreements, including with sub-regional trade bloc Mercosur, Mexico and Japan.
"Trade relations with China should be strengthened on the basis of a shared understanding of reciprocal and mutual benefits," the document stressed.
At the same time, the leaders stressed in the conclusion that the EU had to equip itself with modernized, WTO-compatible tools to tackle unfair trade practices and market distortions.
"We will not hesitate to defend ourselves against unfair trading practices, wherever necessary. We want to set the global standard for free and fair trade," Tusk said.
In addition, EU priority measures for growth, migration, and the situation in Western Balkans were among the topics debated by EU leaders at the two-day summit.