PARIS, FRANCE - Four top European leaders hold talks Monday on the future of the European Union, at a time when it faces multiple crises that are sparking doubts about its very existence.
Hosted by French President Francois Hollande at the iconic Versailles palace outside Paris, the dinner meeting that brings together German, Italian and Spanish leaders comes amid heated discussion about how to move forward the deeply troubled European Union in the face of Brexit, rising nationalism and an EU-skeptic Trump administration in Washington.
Those issues will be hashed out during a broader EU summit March 25, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty that lay the now-crumbling foundations for the future bloc.
“The EU is in a very dangerous situation.It could collapse,” said analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute for International Relations, in Paris, echoing the concerns of a number of other experts and politicians.
Last week, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker offered a framework for the broader European discussions, laying out five possible paths for the 28-member bloc, soon to be 27, with the departure of Britain. They range from even tighter integration, to the idea of a “multi-speed” Europe, with groups of “willing” countries moving ahead in specific areas like defense.
Yet like many other issues, EU members cannot agree on the options, and the limited-attendance Versailles meeting may not have much impact. All four leaders are in a weakened position, starting with host Hollande, who has only weeks left in his presidency.
“It’s not a political meeting, it’s a sentimental and emotional meeting to say, ‘This European Union is very important and we must save it,” Defarges said. “Even if they agree on something practical, they don’t have the capacity to implement it.”
In Brussels, the two EU leaders also are in a fragile position.European Council President Donald Tusk’s bid for a second term this spring is opposed by his own Polish government, although many member states support it. Jean Claude Juncker, who heads the EU executive arm, says he will step down in 2019.
Speaking to the European Parliament last week, Juncker urged governments to “stop Brussels-bashing, stop EU-bashing.”
But doing so may prove challenging, and the bloc's problems may deepen depending on the outcome of key elections in several member states.
Populism a threat
In France and the Netherlands, far-right, anti-EU parties are leading in the polls. The results are particularly crucial when it comes to France, whose post-war coal and steel pact with Germany lay the foundations for the future bloc.
Far-right National Front head Marine Le Pen, favored to win the first round of French presidential elections in April, calls for renegotiating France’s relationship with the EU and holding a "Frexit" referendum if that fails.
In the Netherlands, far-right candidate Geert Wilders has pledged to leave the euro and the EU. Both populists favor closing their national borders and rejecting the kinds of global trade agreements the EU supports.
One of the top EU champions, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, also faces rising populism and a tough election year, although her key Social Democratic rival, Martin Schulz, is the former EU parliament head and also pro-Europe.
Within the bloc, there are also deep divisions over what kinds of reforms are needed. Several Eastern European and Balkan nations oppose creating a "multi-speed" Europe, fearing they will be left behind.
“We categorically declare ourselves against the creation of the so-called core of Europe and the rest, the periphery,” Bulgaria’s interim Deputy Prime Minister Denitsa Zlateva said last week.
The four leaders meeting in Versailles support the concept.
“There needs to be a multi-speed Europe,” agreed analyst Moreau Defarges, offering the example of the euro currency, embraced by some but not all EU members. “The problem is are these four countries able to create a European hard core? My feeling is no.”
Whatever reforms EU members do agreed on will inevitably take time.Juncker has set out a starting calendar of 2019, by which time Britain presumably will have quit the bloc. That is too slow, some say.
Europe “needs to go much more quickly and much more strongly,” Guillaume Klossa, founder of Europa Novaa think-tank told France’s Journal du Dimanche.
What kind of deal the EU strikes with Britain will also be key. A so-called ‘hard Brexit’ without any trade deal between the two sides, would be deeply damaging, many say.
“It would be a disaster,” Moreau Defarges said, “for the European Union and for Britain.