EU leaders in Bratislava look beyond Brexit

After a summer spent processing the pain of Britain’s June referendum vote to leave their club, European Union leaders resolved at their summit last Friday in Bratislava to move beyond Brexit and chart a path towards a more citizen-friendly union.

The 27 leaders – meeting without Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, who was not invited – insisted they remained united at their summit, called to brainstorm ways to connect with ordinary people.

It was, they recognised, a daunting challenge. Brexit is just the latest of a series of crises to hit the EU in recent years, following the ongoing refugee influx, a sluggish European economy, and a collapse in voter trust for the EU establishment.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who came into the meeting saying the EU was in a “critical situation”, urged her fellow leaders to show they could improve on security, defence co-operation and the economy. “Bratislava was the starting point for deeper cooperation,” she said. “Bratislava showed a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.”

French President François Hollande admitted that EU leaders had to think hard about how they could work together. “The lesson of Bratislava is that Europe can move forward if it has clear priorities: security, prosperity and the future of young people,” he said. And Donald Tusk, who chaired the meeting, said that Britain’s departure could even make the EU stronger.

The talks focused on defence cooperation and border security, in particular migration. Gathered in Bratislava castle, the summit included a lunchtime cruise down the Danube river on a 70-metre luxury, German passenger boat. Their final statement listed a series of objectives, including, “In a challenging geopolitical environment, strengthen EU cooperation on security and defence,” and, “do everything necessary to support member states in ensuring security and fighting terrorism.”

The summit came two days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, where he offered a morose assessment of the situation, and offered few prescriptions to resolve it. He vowed that the EU was not in danger of splitting up despite Brexit and what he called “galloping populism”, and he called for a European military headquarters to handle its overseas missions, saying the time had come for the EU to take responsibility for its own defence and security.

But despite the show of unity, tensions simmered in Bratislava. The four leaders of the Visegrad group of eastern bloc countries – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – jointly demanded more leverage for smaller states, and exemptions from EU-imposed migration quotas. And Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi used the occasion to condemn the statement on migration, which he said was written by “word-jugglers” ignorant of reality.

Although the Bratislava brainstorm brought few new ideas, the leaders said they would to launch a roadmap on their next steps in Rome in March next year, on the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty. “Bratislava is the beginning of a process,” the summit statement said. Officials admitted that the EU is slowly getting to grips with the challenges ahead, and that they need to work on rebuilding the trust of their citizens.

Words Karen Massin, David Harley, Dennis Abbott & Leo Cendrowicz (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr kurt-b

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