EU leaders meet without Britain in Bratislava today (16 September) to chart their post-Brexit future, focusing on defence cooperation and border security in a bid to heal deep divisions in particular over migration.
The 27 leaders hold a special summit in Bratislava castle overlooking the Danube in the Slovak capital, to launch a roadmap meant to be agreed in Rome in March next year on the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty.
With Europe still reeling from the worst migrant crisis since World War II, deadly terror attacks and fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown, the leaders are hoping to show they can learn lessons from Britain’s seismic vote to leave.
But they remain split about the answers.
European Council President Donald Tusk said on the summit eve that the leaders must “have a sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation.”
He said he will present a roadmap he hopes will be a first step to show EU citizens that “we have learned the lessons from Brexit” and can restore stability.
In a sign of the tensions over migration, Luxembourg’s foreign minister this week called for Hungary to be suspended from the bloc for treating refugees like “animals”.
Yet European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday that the EU was “not at risk”, as he proposed a host of economic and security measures.
His proposal for a European military headquarters underscores how defence cooperation has become something for the 27 leaders to rally around when they can’t agree on anything else.
Stepping into the fray, France and Germany, the EU’s power couple, have prepared plans for a “more active” defence policy to restore confidence shaken by terror attacks, the migrant crisis and globalisation.
Meeting in Paris on the eve of the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande called for a “roadmap” to protect Europe’s borders and remain a “continent of hope”.
Brexit has emboldened many in Europe to move ahead with such plans, now that they no longer have to worry about Britain’s long-term opposition to any European Union army which would undermine NATO’s role.
The EU leaders will not formally discuss Brexit negotiations, with the rest of Europe impatiently waiting for frozen-out British Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger the two-year divorce process and set out its demands for a future relationship.
Cracks in union
A senior EU official said former Polish premier Tusk – who has toured European capitals in recent weeks hearing the views of European leaders – wanted the Bratislava summit to “restore trust in the EU by showing that we got the (Brexit) message.”
“We cannot avoid having (this) discussion in Bratislava even if it will not always be nice –though I hope it will be polite” the official said on condition of anonymity because of EU briefing rules.
Tusk is clear however that handing more power to Brussels “is not the desired recipe” as it fuelled support for Brexit.
The EU, a bloc of 500 million people, has been under siege since the 2008 global financial crash threw millions out of work and austerity policies undercut its claim that it alone guaranteed a better economic future.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the migrant crisis and deadly Islamic State attacks in the heart of Europe in France and Belgium in turn have eroded confidence that the EU can protect its citizens.
Cracks in the union are evident everywhere.
Thrice-bailed out Greece last week gathered mostly centre and centre-left southern EU leaders in Athens to urge their northern counterparts to share more of the migrant burden and ease up on austerity.
In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia meanwhile oppose taking in more migrants and believe nation states are the future of the EU, not a centralised superstate.
Whether these countries will overtly push for such an agenda in Bratislava remains to be seen however, as many other EU countries want to show unity in the face of Brexit.
Brexit will not dominate
Britain meanwhile is left out in the cold, with the Times newspaper saying said it was being treated as a “pariah state” and should have a say on issues which still affect it while it remains in the bloc.
“Brexit will not dominate proceedings,” said the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a British think tank. “The show must go on, and many are keen to demonstrate progress on security and growth initiatives, in particular, while avoiding over promising through grandiose declarations,” the ECFR said in a briefing note ahead of the summit.
“Expect modest rhetoric and an emphasis on Bratislava as the beginning of a process of reflection, rather than a defining moment,” it said.