From Bratislava to Rome: Little more than a show of unity
By Eszter Zalan
With the ceremonial signing of the Rome Declaration on Saturday (25 March), the so-called Bratislava process designed to rethink the EU after the shocking Brexit vote last year has come to an end.
The result is a fragile display of unity, with simmering tensions and deep divisions on policies among the member states.
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Last September, the EU-27 held their first soul-searching meeting in Bratislava in an effort to reconnect with citizens and make the bloc more responsive to their needs and concerns.
Migration, strengthening the EU’s external borders, deeper defence cooperation, and the need to reinforce the European economy after the bruising eurocrisis and subsequent austerity measures emerged as key points of agreement.
The common objectives were designed to allow the bloc to “rebuild a sense of political community”, European Council president Donald Tusk said at the time.
There was of course a very tangible and pressing political need to show unity after Brexit - that is not to be underestimated. The message was that however unprecedented it was for a member state to leave the union, it would not shake the bloc.
Therefore, the sheer show of unity is a result not to be downplayed politically.
But there seems to be little more, for now, that leaders could wholeheartedly agree on.
Already in Bratislava, the then Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, embattled at home and needing to put up a fight, refused to hold a press conference together with French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel. He said that the meeting was a waste of time.
Renzi’s outburst might have been aimed more at Italian voters rather than at the EU itself. Just like the last-minute objections from Poland and Greece to the Rome Declaration last week were more for internal consumption, it shows that leaders cannot be counted on for not using the EU as punchbag, whenever it suits them politically.
And that puts unity at risk.
The multi-speed card
By the next brainstorming session on the future of Europe in Malta in February, the discussion moved towards another contentious issue that opened a rift among member states.
The Benelux countries - Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - presented a paper that effectively called for a multi-speed Europe where "different paths of integration and enhanced cooperation could provide for effective responses to challenges that affect member states in different ways”.
It was later also backed by other founding EU members, Germany, Italy and France.
The UK’s departure represents an opportunity for the euro area members that want to move closer together.
In recent years, there has been talk of an eurozone budget, recently also advocated by French presidential nominee Emmanuel Macron, and an independent body, not the Commission, to police budget rules.
This makes non-eurozone members nervous about losing influence, losing funds and eventually losing the ability to join the elite currency club.
Eurozone countries might start to argue that it is time for the others to join the currency, since - with the exception of Denmark, as well as the UK - all EU countries are obliged to do so.
The idea of a multi-speed EU created a tough political discussion in Malta, according to a source, where each side tried to understand what would it mean in practice: more enhanced cooperation within the existing treaty framework? Or does a new mechanism need to be established?
The European Commission’s white paper published on 1 March, also mentioned the possibility of a multi-speed Europe as a plausible scenario for the EU’s future. For the first time in the bloc’s history, it was presented as the rule, not the exception.
By the March summit, it had become clear that even the supporters of a multi-speed Europe do not want a change to the treaties - a process that could last for years and is not guaranteed to succeed.
That diminished the main concerns of those against a multi-speed Europe, particularly from the former Eastern bloc.
The next ten years
At least for now, no more summits are planned about the future of Europe.
The commission’s white paper will be discussed and digested by the member states for the December European Council.
Besides that, the Rome Declaration looks into a 10 year timeline for EU countries.
It identifies security, economic growth, job creation, protection of social rights, and a more assertive Europe on the global scene, as the main tasks for the next decade, but it steers clear of any details that might pick apart this skin-deep unity.
"In the ten years to come we want a Union that is safe and secure, prosperous, competitive, sustainable and socially responsible, and with the will and capacity of playing a key role in the world and of shaping globalisation,” the declaration sets out.
Last September EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that “never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our union".
The Brexit process can incidentally buy time for European unity. Despite the pledges by EU leaders not to punish the UK for its exit vote, the divorce has to hurt in order to dissuade other EU countries to seek to loosen their relationship, leading to the dismantling of the union.
2017 is not 2016
However, with the Dutch elections out of the way and having not produced a breakthrough for the far-right Geert Wilders, EU leaders have become optimistic that 2017 might not be as bad as 2016. This could lead to a weakened appetite for reform and common policies.
In fact, the mood has now changed, and the possible election of Macron in France in May, and the outcome of the German elections, where it’s either going to be Merkel or former European Parliament president Martin Schulz heading the country, the rise of populism is not perceived as such a threat anymore.
Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat has corrected himself at the Rome press conference, saying “what was rising populism”, in the past tense, instead of current rising populism. Despite this year's elections results, the root causes of populism will not disappear only because the French president is not called Marine Le Pen.
Leaders will need to pay attention to that, and Tusk’s call of going back to the basics of democracy, freedom and rule of law, could be a good start - if it is really meant and then put into practice.