EU 27 agree 'roadmap', but Italy spoils party
By Eszter Zalan
The aim of Friday's (16 September) Bratislava summit was to reconnect EU leaders with European citizens, and to convince voters that the EU works for them, not against them.
But the event did little to warm local people’s hearts.
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Almost the entire Slovak capital was shut down. People were told to work from home. Helicopters hovered all day long over the gem-like capital, and Bratislavians faced roadblocks and other disruptions, while the 27 leaders had lunch on a cruise ship on the Danube.
“It’s crazy, even when we had the Bush-Putin meeting in 2005 here, it wasn’t so bad,” said one local, referring to the former US and current Russian leaders.
The Bratislava gathering was designed for leaders to have a “brutally honest” discussion on the EU’s future, as EU Council chief Donald Tusk put it.
The splendid isolation of the leaders from journalists and public, in Bratislava Castle, might have helped. EU officials after the meeting said the mood among the leaders was surprisingly congenial.
“I don’t think this summit will have an impact on how voters see Europe today, but it is important that we revive the relationship between Europe and citizens," French president Francois Hollande said after the meeting.
"Because when Europe is challenged, it's democracy and our values that can be damaged,” he said during a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
After a day of “group-therapy” triggered by the UK’s decision to leave the bloc, the 27 remaining EU leaders accepted the so-called Bratislava Declaration and roadmap, setting out objectives, and tentative timelines.
"Although one country has decided to leave, the EU remains indispensable for the rest of us,” reads the text, adding: “We are determined to make a success of the EU with 27 member states.”
"The EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing,” it says.
Leaders pledged never to return to "uncontrolled flows" of migrants of last year, but the term “chaos” used often by Tusk was scrapped, as it was deemed too grim by some.
To reach that goal, member states want to ensure full control of external borders and by the end of the year to have the European Border and Coast Guard fully operational.
In December, leaders are to decide new plans on security and defence cooperation, and see how deeply they can proceed on military cooperation within the existing EU treaties.
At the end of the year, the 27 also plan to seal a deal on the doubling of the investment fund, proposed by EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. In October, they will assess the bloc's trade policy to provide more protection for European consumers and businesses.
Leaders also decided to send help to Bulgaria to protect its border, and set up an entry-exit system that checks the identity of people before they travel to the EU.
Renzi off course
They pledged the “loyal” co-operation and communication of member states and institutions. It means that leaders are expected to stick to the line of unity, and not to keep blaming the EU for their problems - a message especially directed toward Hungary and Poland.
Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban still had some critical words on the EU's migration policy, which he plans to challenge with a referendum in October. Orban told journalists after the meeting that the summit was unsuccessful in the sense that Brussels’s “naive and self-defeating” policy could not be changed.
However, it was Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi who refused to stick to the script.
"I can't give a joint press conference with Merkel and Hollande. I don't follow a script to make people believe we all agree,” he told journalists after the summit, according to ANSA news agency.
Renzi said the progress on the migration crisis or rolling back the policy of austerity was not sufficient. “We want to see facts,” he said, adding that the Bratislava summit was a waste of time.
EU officials seemed surprised by Renzi’s belligerent comments, and suggested they were geared towards the Italian electorate, which will vote later this year on a number of crucial reforms on which the Italian PM has bet his political survival.
V4 tones down
The group of the Visegrad Four, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia did put out a joint statement during the summit, but it was far from the “revolutionary” proposals promised earlier by Polish and Hungarian leaders.
While the text goes on to say that national parliaments should have more say in decision-making, it does not spell out how the assemblies should get more control over EU policies.
It also suggested “flexible solidarity” within migration policy, an idea that has been floated for some time, which would allow mainly these reluctant eastern European countries not to take in refugees, but contribute otherwise, with manpower or equipment, to the EU’s asylum reforms.
Germany accepts now that mandatory refugee quotas do not work, and the flexible solidarity idea is something it can live with. Merkel called it a “positive proposal” after the meeting, while adding that "it will be interesting to discuss what exactly they mean by this."
Tusk said he will brief British prime minister Theresa May on what happened in Bratislava.
He said that May told him that the UK should be ready to trigger Article 50, the exit procedure, in January or February next year.