Some of the world’s major fault lines will converge over two days and in the space of a few square miles, as Brexit, Catalonia’s fight for independence and efforts to shore up the euro area all reach critical junctures in Brussels.
European Union finance ministers sit down on Monday in the Belgian capital to discuss a new wave of reforms as the ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont appears in court facing extradition to Spain. A day later, Donald Trump’s embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives for talks with the EU and NATO. The most intense scrutiny, however, may be reserved for Theresa May.
When the British prime minister arrives in Brussels on Monday, she’ll be trying to get negotiations over the U.K.’s exit from the European Union back on track. Eighteen months after British voters caused one of the biggest shocks in Europe’s postwar political history, there’s still no guarantee she can secure a trade deal to smooth the country’s departure.
May is scheduled to have lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, with the two men wanting her to finalize assurances on the U.K.’s financial obligations, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and how she’ll maintain a border with Ireland without customs posts. If she can, the EU’s 27 other leaders will give their approval to advance the negotiations onto future trade talks at a summit later in the month.
Around the same time as May’s meeting, barely a stone’s throw across one of the city’s most traffic-clogged streets, Britain’s distance from the rest of the bloc will be laid bare. Finance ministers from every EU country apart from the U.K.—even the eight that, like Britain, don’t use the euro—will gather to discuss a set of overhauls to make the shared currency area more resilient.
If Brexit and the euro area weren’t enough for one day in Brussels, Puigdemont will have an extradition hearing. Spain issued an arrest warrant after he failed to show up at a court in Madrid in October where he faces potential charges of rebellion. Belgian judges will decide whether he should be sent home.
Twenty-four hours later, Brussels receives Tillerson as he struggles to maintain President Trump’s support amid reports that he might soon be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Tillerson’s task will be to face down criticism from the EU’s 28 foreign ministers about Trump’s approach to trans-Atlantic cooperation that’s been battered by the White House’s “America First” trade policy. He’ll then go to a meeting at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also based in Brussels, to talk about external threats to European security, from Russia and the Middle East.
The 48 hours in Brussels will provide a snapshot of tensions, ruptures and pressure-points in Europe.
“We know the people and leaders of Europe are having many conversations about their future,” Tillerson said in a speech in Washington DC on Tuesday. On Brexit, “we will not attempt to influence the negotiations, but we urge the EU and U.K. to move this process forward swiftly and without unnecessary acrimony.”