EU leaders to define new priorities in Bratislava
By Eszter Zalan
EU officials are toning down expectations ahead of an informal summit of EU leaders in Bratislava on 16 September, where the 27 remaining leaders are expected to show unity and a way ahead for the bloc after the UK's decision to leave.
“Our expectation [for Bratislava] is not much. Leaders will try to show unity also as 27 that we have future, we can do things, we are not paralysed, we are moving ahead together,” one official said.
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“That in itself would be quite an achievement,” the official quipped.
The leaders are going to spend a full day in the Bratislava castle to “brainstorm”, as one EU official put it, but not many concrete solutions can be expected already in September, as the soul-searching exercise will continue for months.
After weeks of shuttle diplomacy led by German chancellor Angela Merkel and EU council president Donald Tusk to listen to various national leaders, finding that new momentum is proving to be difficult, although some key issues seem to have emerged.
“Protection” seems to be the common denominator among the 27, as well as a determination to show citizens that "this is not business as usual", that the EU is going to respond better to their concerns.
“People in Slovakia, Poland, Belgium, all over Europe expect that the EU after Bratislava will be a guarantee of stability, security and protection. Protection in the widest meaning including social and economic protection,” Tusk said last Friday.
One issue where leaders will try to find common ground is beefing up internal security to fight terrorism, and external security with strengthened border protection.
Another topic will be economic security, a definition whose actual meaning the leaders will have to decide on. “It tackles how the EU should project itself in time of globalisation,” one EU official, with knowledge of the summit preparations, said.
“That’s a new concept which has been floated by Tusk. How far we can go with our trade policy and energy security. Perhaps the debate in Bratislava will also shape this concept, what leaders mean by that,” the official added.
The official said he does not expect contagious trade issues like negotiations on the US-EU deal (TTIP), or the agreement with Canada (CETA) to come up specifically.
But the clarification of the EU vision is not going to be easy: leaders will try to define the level of their common ambition from security and defence cooperation to tackling the negative effects of globalisation.
France, for instance, would like to see increased European cooperation in defence, an "autonomous" EU defence that is separate from Nato and the US, and a beefed up EU investment fund to boost growth and create jobs in Europe, a diplomat told this website.
According to the first EU official, some countries are seeking more protectionist trade policies, while others emphasise the need for better competitiveness.
“There is this philosophical and political clash on the issue, how we are going to face globalisation pressures,” the official added.
The official also thought that strengthening and streamlining of the economic and monetary union, a previous ambition of mainly the eurozone countries, has now been put aside.
There is a likely consensus around the table on extending the Juncker fund - named after the EU Commission president - to boost growth, something Juncker is expected to include in his state of the union address next week in the European Parliament.
Migration will be tackled under security and increased border controls. Other possibly controversial issues, like reform of the EU’s asylum policy, the so-called Dublin law, is not expected to be on the menu.
European citizens looking for clear-cut answers on what to expect from the EU might be let down.
Officials say the informal meeting, to which over 1,200 journalists have been accredited, but who will be kept away from the meeting, should end with a statement from Tusk, not an official conclusion of the 27.
According to one EU official, the statement could end up as a “Christmas tree”, on which leaders attempt to hang all kinds of issues dear to them, resulting in lacking a clear focus. For instance, France is keen on youth unemployment, while Germany would like a reference to the digital single market.
Tusk however would want to avoid drafting at the summit and focus on the discussion. Leaders’ EU advisors will meet on the 12 September to hammer out a text.
“Bratislava is the start of the process, which should culminate in Rome in March,” said an EU official, adding that the leaders would set up a “roadmap” in Bratislava on what to achieve in the coming months, prior the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty, with a possible summit in Malta in February.
Leaders will not discuss EU competencies, although officials admit some rebalancing might be needed among institutions and member states, something the countries of the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) have been calling for.
Brexit on the margins
Also not on the table: Brexit. “It is a big question mark if Brexit will be discussed at all. If so, it will be a low profile discussion with leaders comparing notes on a their bilateral meetings with the new UK prime minister Theresa May,” said an EU official.
“It is not possible to go into details at this point, since there is no clear idea from British side what they would like to see as outcome of negotiations,” the source said.
“Bratislava should not be about Brexit, but about the 27,” he added.
Commission officials say leaders will be looking at the EU executive to bring concrete ideas, some of which will feature in president Juncker’s state of the union address next week in Strasbourg.
Juncker will meet with EU ambassadors this Friday to listen to their suggestions on the speech.