December 15, 2016 / 12:09 AM / 8 months ago

EU leaders to hold 'minefield' summit

Flags are seen inside the European Council headquarters on the eve of a EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium December 14, 2016.Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leaders of the European Union meet in Brussels on Thursday for a summit fraught with disputes on how to handle the many crises they face, bar on possibly the biggest rift of all - how to handle Brexit.

After a day of talks on migrants, Turkey, Russia, defence in the era of Donald Trump and the euro zone economy in the age of austerity, leaders will see British Prime Minister Theresa May out and then agree over dinner how to get rid of her for good.

Diplomats and officials involved in preparing the quarterly European Council said a consensus on the procedures the 27 will adopt once May launches Britain's formal withdrawal by March had been among the least divisive issues on the table.

"We are walking on a minefield," a senior EU official said.

The 28 leaders will start with a review of where they stand on dealing with the crisis which blew up last year when over a million people, many war refugees from Syria, reached Europe, mostly via Turkey by boat to the Greek islands.

Satisfaction that the route is all but closed is shaded by unease at how this was achieved: tightening controls on borders within Europe, sealing Greece off from the Balkans and offering inducements to awkward neighbour Turkey to stop people leaving.

Leaders will reaffirm their commitment to keeping promises to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan despite anger at the way he has cracked down on critics after a coup attempt six months ago.

But the Austrian government, battling anti-immigrant opponents at home, blocked a broader statement on Turkey one day joining the EU because Vienna had insisted that the summit formally suspend Ankara's EU membership talks.

A flag is seen outside the European Council headquarters on the eve of a EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium December 14, 2016.Yves Herman

Brussels is working to curb migration from Africa to Italy by putting pressure on governments there via aid budgets and by preparing to step up the deportation of illegal immigrants.

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But Italy will complain that opposition from ex-communist eastern states to taking in Muslim refugees has left it with a swelling population of asylum seekers and little sign of fellow EU countries making good on a pledge to take in a share.

A flag is seen outside the European Council headquarters on the eve of a EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium December 14, 2016.Yves Herman

Anger at serving politicians helped bring down Matteo Renzi after a referendum this month and his successor, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, will attend his first summit, with Rome holding up the EU's latest budget in frustration at deadlocks in the EU.

He will be backed up by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in his complaints over the lack of "solidarity" on migrants - Tsipras could also raise Athens' grumbles about austerity being imposed by Germany and other lenders to its bailout.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking a fourth term in September, may have to explain again why her conservative-led coalition is resisting calls from Mediterraneans on the left, including Gentiloni and French President Francois Hollande, to loosen its purse-strings to help the euro zone economy.

Hollande, bowing out next year, may face questions about the chances he might be succeeded in May by Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader whose election in the country that created the EU would threaten its demise.

Many leaders find themselves the uncomfortable centre of attention as they fight for national interests against a background of rising nationalism; Prime Minister Mark Rutte will have to weather a barrage of criticism to secure a special EU statement that he hopes will let the Netherlands ratify the trade deal with Ukraine which sparked confrontation with Russia.

One moment of unity is likely to be a formal endorsement of a renewal of sanctions on Moscow for six months - though many say this may be the last such rollover, once Trump enters the White House and seeks better ties with Russia.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Janet Lawrence; @macdonaldrtr

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