In Bratislava, EU leaders try to bridge divisions
By Eszter Zalan
Cool heads will be needed in Bratislava on Friday (16 September) to find common ground among 27 European leaders in a union that EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker described as fragmented at a never before seen level.
A divided EU at 27 will gather for a day in the Slovak capital to establish a “diagnosis” of the bloc after the Brexit vote, and agree on a road map of common interest to be followed up at later summits in the next months.
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The so-called Bratislava process to be launched on Friday will include another informal meeting in Malta in February and will culminating in Rome in March, when the EU celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty.
“Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union,” Juncker said in his state of the union address on Wednesday.
After the union just survived a bruising eurocrisis, June’s Brexit vote exposed simmering frustrations among the electorate with globalisation, the ruling political elite, and an EU that seems unable to deliver.
With populist forces on the rise across Europe, leaders are pressed by time to give viable answers. Next year will see elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
EU Council chief Donald Tusk will have the task of focusing leaders on finding what unites them in a time that a senior EU official described as “dramatic moment in EU history”.
In a letter to leaders on Tuesday, Tusk wrote: “People in Europe want to know if the political elites are capable of restoring control over events and processes which overwhelm, disorientate, and sometimes terrify them. Today many people, not only in the UK, think that being part of the European Union stands in the way of stability and security.”
The 27 leaders will gather in the Bratislava castle. In their first discussion they will focus on agreeing on a common “diagnosis” on where the EU is at and why, and what should be improved. This could define the political agenda for months.
The intention is to have an honest debate. Tusk believes “we cannot simply shut down reality with optimistic messages", said one EU official.
During lunch, leaders will discuss communication and the working method, as the senior EU official put it. Brexit will not be on the table, but Tusk will brief leaders on his talks with UK prime minister Theresa May.
In the afternoon, leaders will focus on a statement, and how to proceed with what the “Bratislava process".
However, EU powers, the reoccurring core debate of whether there should be more or less integration to effectively tackle the multiple crises Europe is facing, will not be discussed.
Tusk notes in his letter that “giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe” by national leaders.
Leaders will concentrate on finding common ground on migration, a deeper defense cooperation, a common trade policy, growth, better intelligence and resource-sharing to fight terrorism, and strengthening the EU’s external border frontier.
But EU countries are deeply divided on policies, and Bratislava is meant to rebuild those bridges.
A commission internal graphic laying out member states' positions on 29 different policy areas, seen by this website, shows that only three EU policies – single market, fight against terrorism, and the digital agenda – are backed a majority of leaders.
While Tusk wants to avoid a blame game among the member states and the institutions, spats among eastern and western EU member states can flare up.
Some eastern member states hold a grudge against the commission for pushing through a mandatory relocation quota to distribute refugees among member states.
Earlier this week Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn called for the exclusion of Hungary from the EU for the way it is treating migrants. In return Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban called Asselborn a “communist”.
“The risk of failure is not excluded. The summit will fail if there is total discord,” said another EU official.
Leaders are expected to be pressed not to blame the EU for their countries’ vowes, when they take part in the decision-making.
Concrete decisions are not expected in Bratislava, except for personnel and equipment to help Bulgaria protect its border with Turkey.
And while officials attempt to play down expectations of a breakthrough, showing a united front in itself will be a challenge.