The Bratislava summit, which ended on Friday (16 September), was supposed to focus on security and border control as well as other consensual issues following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
EU leaders met in the Slovak capital for the first informal meeting at 27, without the UK, with the aim of discussing the way ahead following the Brexit referendum, focusing on migration and security issues.
But at the final press conference, European Council President Donald Tusk, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Slovak Premier Robert Fico, who hosted the meeting, issued stern messages to the UK.
No formal discussion regarding Brexit was expected, because the UK has not triggered Article 50 yet, opening the process of divorce negotiations, expected to last two years.
Sources from the talks said that indeed, the refugee crisis, the prospects for a defence union and the state of the Union in general, had been the main topics of the Bratislava gathering.
The concluding document of the informal summit, the Bratislava Declaration and roadmap, highlights some shared goals, including stemming the uncontrolled flow of refugees to the EU, ensuring full control of the bloc’s external borders, and assisting Bulgaria, a front-line state.
As Commission President Jean-Cluade Juncker announced, Sofia will soon receive the €160 million it has requested to secure its borders.
EU leaders decided that the December summit will determine a concrete implementation plan on security and defence, and on how to make better use of the options in the treaties to make headway. These will be based on Commission proposals that expected in December.
Nothing in the Bratislava Declaration concerns the UK. However, at the final presser, journalists’ questions inspired Juncker, Tusk, and Fico to elaborate on the EU’s post-referendum relations with the UK.
Tusk said the EU treaties were clear: they require that the Union protects its interests, not those of the UK. “I mean the interests of the 27 countries, not the leaving country. It’s not against the UK, but it’s an important guideline,” he said.
The Council President said that when he recently met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, she told him that it was “almost impossible” for her country to trigger Article 50 this year. This may happen “maybe” in January or February, he said, adding that the Union had “no choice” but to wait for London to prepare for the divorce negotiations.
Conversely, he added, the EU was well prepared for the negotiations and could start them “even tomorrow”.
The first goal of the EU in such negotiations would be to achieve a relationship as close as possible with the UK, but equally important would be the goal of protecting the interests of the 27, he said.
Fico also addressed the issue, saying that unlike the UK, the EU knew what it wanted.
“It is not possible that these negotiations damage our interest. I can add further objectives. One is that the negotiations must lead to a result where it is clear that it is worth being a member of the EU. There are more advantages than disadvantages being a member state. And we can achieve that,” he said.
Lastly, Fico said the EU would reject “cherry-picking” by the UK. “You can’t just pick the best items and have just what suits you,” he said. He further stressed that all fundamental freedoms must be respected, rejecting hints that some flexibility could be introduced for the freedom of movement of workers, versus the free movement of persons.
Juncker then took to the floor, saying he doesn’t see any possibility of compromising on this issue. He added that he had appointed the former Commission Vice-President Michel Barnier as chief Brexit negotiator on behalf of the executive while pointing out that Barnier was in charge of the EU’s internal market.
Fico took the floor again and said there were 70,000 Slovaks in the UK, who together with many more Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians had contributed to the wealth of Britain, and that the EU wouldn’t allow the creation of “second-rate citizens”.
Asked what was different with an EU at 27, Tusk said that “nothing has changed”. He explained that the Bratislava summit was an informal one, because legally the UK is still a member and the 27 cannot decide anything without it. But, after the triggering of Article 50, he said that regular summits at 27 would be held.
“The only thing we can do is to respect their will. I hope that we will be active and maybe even stronger than before the British referendum,” Tusk said.