On the eve of a key European Union summit in Bratislava, French and German leaders are calling for unity and a clear roadmap for a post-Brexit EU that is struggling with migration, insecurity and growing public disenchantment with Brussels.
“We need to be lucid about Europe’s situation,” said President Francois Hollande, outlining EU priorities of security, jobs, economic growth and shared values and warning the block risks a crisis “of its very existence and foundation.”
The call for closing ranks was echoed Thursday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference in Paris, who said EU leaders must show “we are determined to react together to the weaknesses, to the tasks we face."
The two European heavyweights met hours before talks Friday in Slovakia, which currently hosts the rotating EU presidency. Absent on the invitation list is Britain, whose June vote to exit the EU has triggered deep soul searching about the union's relevance and future.
Whether the discussions that begin with a dinner on Thursday will achieve any concrete results is unclear. Some of the most critical issues, such as migration and how to handle the British departure, are tricky and divisive and are likely to get short shrift in a broader search for unity, experts say.
“It’s not a usual summit, and it can’t be one dealing with business-as-usual or focus too much on Brexit,” says analyst Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, of the Brussels-based European Policy Center. “It needs to propose something else for the EU and its future.”
EU Nations React to Brexit
The discussions come amid growing public skepticism about Brussels, which many ordinary Europeans see as meddling and out of touch with their daily concerns. June's Brexit referendum, some critics say, has only heightened those sentiments.
“If the European Union does not undertake and effective relaunch within the next few months, it will move towards irreversible decline,” warned former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta in an opinion published by the Chatham House think tank.
Describing the bloc as moving toward the Bratislava summit “in the dark and with our headlights off,” he added, "the reaction must be rapid and courageous."
Whether Bratislava will deliver on those expectations is uncertain, given the rifts among member states, particularly over how to handle the migrant crisis. Earlier this week, Luxembourg’s foreign minister suggested Hungary should be suspended or even expelled from the block for hard-line immigration policies that undermined EU values.
“You have some governments, particularly in Central European countries like Hungary, who are really trying to take advantage of Brexit to say the EU really needs to get out of our business, or we’ll go the same way as the British,” says Ian Bond, foreign policy director of the London-based Center for European Reform. “And I think that’s quite dangerous.”
Defense and security cooperation is expected to top Friday’s summit agenda, including proposals to establish a joint military headquarters, presumably in Brussels. While calls for closer EU defense cooperation are not new, Britain has long been a skeptic.
With London heading for the exit, the remaining defense heavyweights France and Germany have taken up the banner once again, amid shared worries about terror at home and instability in places like Africa and the Middle East. The two released a proposal this week calling for more joint spending and sharing of military equipment in areas like satellite surveillance and transportation.
EU Pushes for Closer Cooperation on Defense
On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker endorsed the push, saying closer defense cooperation could save member states billions of dollars. In a key speech outlining the block's priorities, he also described an EU force that “should be in complement to NATO.”
“One advantage of the British leaving the EU is they won’t be able to block sensible changes in that area,” said analyst Bond, describing cooperation in areas like military procurement to avoid duplication, but dismissing suggestions of an eventual EU army.
“This is more about national forces working together more effectively, less duplication, more sensible distribution of resources,” he added.
But some eastern European countries are reportedly underwhelmed at prospects for closer defense, with skeptics wary about undermining NATO.
“France and Germany know they will meet this kind of resistance,” analyst Rittelmeyer said. “That’s why the proposal mentions working with only some member states going forward, a coalition of the willing."
Besides closer defense cooperation, EU leaders are also expected to discuss proposals Friday for strengthening EU external borders and boosting jobs, investments and the digital economy.
Yet the summit’s main thrust, some analysts say, is to send a message of unity and relevance to disaffected citizens at a time when anti-EU parties are surging in the polls ahead of key elections next year.
That includes in Germany, where Merkel recently took a beating in home state elections, amid disgruntlement over her immigration policies. In France, Hollande faces dismal reelection prospects next April, with the far right, anti-EU National Front party widely expected to win the first round of voting.
Yet mainstream European leaders are also part of the EU's problem, analyst Bond says.
“The temptation to say ‘I have done everything right and the EU has done everything wrong’ seems to be almost irresistible among national politicians,” he says. “They have to stop using the EU as the place to blame when they have to make difficult and painful decisions.”