The final EU summit was earmarked by discussions and angry dialogue on subjects that began with the threat of a Greek euro exit and ended with the recent Paris bombings and attacks. The biggest issue being debated now is the EU’s historic refugee crisis as well as Britain facing a possible "Brexit".
There were some leaders who made pronouncements of unity on key issues but this was undermined by division between Merkel - the powerful leader of Europe's biggest economy and the author of policies that essentially opened up Europe to the mass of migrants - and Renzi over both migrants and a controversial gas pipeline to Russia.
"The friendship and respect that I have for the German chancellor don't stop me from asking questions," an energized and somewhat combative Renzi told reporters at the end of the two-day meeting.
Renzi was joined by a small group of states who severely criticized the German Nordstream pipeline project with Russia. They level accusations at Berlin saying it had “securing its own energy supplies while pressuring other countries into backing economic sanctions against Moscow”, primarily over the political crisis in Ukraine.
In the end, the full EU body finally agreed to “extend the Russian sanctions by six months,” sources told the French news agency, AFP. This decision was reached in spite of a hard push by Italy earlier in the week to delay the rollover. Several European newspapers had published reports that said Rome was “frustrated with what it saw as a hypocritical stance”.
"It was an emotional discussion," said EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who has remained tough on Russia since he took office approximately a year ago.
Merkel, for her part, however sought to play down the divisions with the Italian Minister Renzi, saying: "It is not the first time in my experience that we've had differences."
The row over the energy resources clearly overshadowed the statement issued by EU leaders on Friday where they vowed an "uncompromising" fight against terrorism in response to last month's Paris attacks by the Islamic State group ISIS, which killed 130 people.
"The Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 have only strengthened our resolve to continue our uncompromising fight against terrorism and to make full use of all the tools at our disposal," it said.
The EU body noted several ant-terrorist measures have been stuck in a legislative pipeline, including a plan to track airline passenger names in close coordination with the United States,
One source, an aide to Spanish leaders said these measures should be “pushed through immediately instead of focusing on internal bickering over the Russia pipeline supplies.”
Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed there had been "good progress" towards an EU reform deal that he hopes to seal by February when the next summit convenes.
One of his most popular proposals is a controversial four-year waiting limit before EU migrants to Britain can claim welfare payments. Many in the EU blame easy cash and benefit payments for attracting “economic migrants” who are not fleeing terror or political persecution as much as they are simply seeking the greater general prosperity in Europe over impoverished homelands. On Thursday he urged his counterparts to work with him to eliminate this incentive in the hopes it will partially reduce the flow of asylum seekers that threaten to overwhelm European resources.
On Friday, Cameron also gave his strongest hint yet that the referendum he has promised on a possible "Brexit" from the EU could be held in 2016. He had previously only vowed that it would be sometime before the end of 2017. Cameron is under immense pressure domestically to stop the flow of poor, uneducated mostly Muslim immigrants into the British Isles. Without providing some evidence he is addressing the problem it is expected that more conservative, anti-immigration parties will continue their rise as a reflection of what ordinary Brits see as an “invasion.”
"I believe that 2016 will be the year we achieve something really vital, fundamentally changing the UK's relationship with the EU and finally addressing the concerns of the British people about our membership," Cameron told reporters at a press conference held at the summit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron holds a press conference, as part of an extraordinary council a …
The British position is shared by many of the nations in the EU who say they have borne the brunt of the problems with migrants as they are on the front lines. Hungary, Greece and Italy are three nations where, despite Merkel’s assurances Germany would “absorb millions” and “welcome asylum seekers,” most of the migrants are still languishing in Greece, Italy and Balkan states.
Concerns over their future and the future of the EU stole the limelight from fresh efforts to tackle the migration crisis directly, which has seen nearly a million people flood to Europe's shores, many of them supposedly fleeing the war in Syria.
Tusk said on Thursday that EU leaders have agreed to set June 2016 as a target date to implement a plan for a new border and coastguard force that could intervene in member countries. This proposal is also mired in deep controversy since it would enable the EU to deploy the force even without the consent of affected member nations. “Shoring up the EU external frontier as the expense of national sovereignty is not a viable option, said Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban in a recent news article.
Tusk said that while national boundaries should be “respected it was equally important to get a consensus to protect the EU Schengen area where open border travel and movement has been widely practiced. While this cherished European passport-free zone has worked well in the past when it was chiefly limited to intra-European movement it has been seriously threatened by the huge movements of migrants and asylum seekers across the continent.
Merkel's decision this summer to open Germany's doors to Syrian refugees, prompted several overstretched transit countries to suspend the Schengen rules and reintroduce border checks.
And while political support for the open border and pro-immigrant factions remain strong, the people of Europe continue to vote increasingly for conservative parties with leaders that promise to curtail migration and protect traditional values and culture.
Though Western media continues to refer to these growing political winds as motivate by “far-right” doctrines, most polls support the notion that those voting for more conservative anti-immigration leaders are just everyday people who want to retain their European culture, security and prosperity against what they see as “non-assimilating migrants who seek benefits and special accommodation.
The issues surrounding the migrant crisis has led to fears of what lies ahead for the EU bloc. Though it was formed in the ashes of World War II in a bid to unite the continent, the conditions that created the impetus for the EU no longer exist and outside forces, like asylum seeking and Middle East based terrorism have superseded the original reasons for its existence.
"I am under no illusions," said European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker when asked about his hopes for a smoother 2016.