Three days after a soon to be drunk Jean-Claude Juncker delivered the 2016 “State of the European Union” speech, Europe’s leaders met in Bratislava today, without the U.K. for the first time in 43 years aiming to build a shared vision for their post-Brexit bloc, in a meeting that was shrouded by far more pessimism that the faux-euphoria generated by an intoxicated Juncker earlier in the week. The trouble, as Bloomberg writes, is the vision may be – as Juncker would appreciate – more blurred than shared.
At the summit in Bratislava, some will be looking to deepen integration. Others, particularly those in the east, think the lesson of Brexit is to return power to the capitals. Germany sits in the middle. The looming Brexit talks, a divisive refugee crisis, the rise of populist parties, differences over how to speed growth and upcoming elections all undermine the ability of governments to unite.
And, facing a second humiliating defeat in Berlin on Sunday to a surging AfD anti-immigrant party, the stark reality of the situation is finally getting to Angela Merkel, who as quoted by BBC, said that the European Union is in a “critical situation.” Merkel said they needed to show they could improve on security, defense co-operation and the economy. But EU countries are deeply divided over how to bolster growth and respond to the influx of migrants. Meeting in Bratislava without the UK, the nations would not discuss the biggest issue at hand: Brexit, and how to exist in a Europe which will never be the same again without the UK.
So, unable to make any actual decisions, Europe’s leaders were forced to fallback to their usual impotent tactic: talk, talk and more talk.
“We need solutions for Europe and we are in a critical situation,” Merkel said as she arrived at the gathering. “You can’t solve all Europe’s problems in one summit. What we have to do is show in our deeds we can do things better in the realms of security and fighting terrorism, and in the field of defense.”
But while the refugee crisis is certainly on Merkel’s mind, the big issue in Bratislava will be Brexit. Even though Britain’s referendum result is not on the agenda, and British Prime Minister Theresa May is not attending the summit, there is little doubt that Brexit will overshadow the meeting. French President Francois Hollande said: “Either we move in the direction of disintegration, of dilution, or we work together to inject new momentum, we relaunch the European project.”
Sadly for Europe’s unelected eurocrats, it does not seem that the answer is the latter.
Meanwhile, Donald Tusk is hoping for a public show of unity among the 27 nations of the EU following Britain’s vote to leave in June. Tusk wants to restore EU stability and credibility with the bloc in the face of a migrant crisis and issues with the euro currency. But European leaders are divided, their voters sceptical. Central and Eastern Europe want powers back from Brussels. Northern nations view the south as a eurozone liability. Mediterranean countries balk at German austerity edicts. Luxebourg wants Hungary kicked out of Europe, and so on.
So, knowing even a modest push to do heavy lifting could result in a terminal injury, on Friday Europe’s so-called leaders will stick to subjects they agree on and those they feel are relevant to voters’ concerns: migration, security and globalisation.
The hard stuff, such as a future trade deal with Britain and how to save the single currency, will be left for another day.
Earlier, Donald Tusk, the European Council President, called on EU leaders to assure citizens they had learned lessons from Brexit and were able to “bring back stability and a sense of security”. He urged them to take a “sober and brutally honest” look at the bloc’s problems.
But the biggest ghost haunting Europe belongs to Merkel, whose open-door policy of accepting over a million refugees may be what destroys the European experiment that, ironically, has been Merkel’s crowning legacy.
Perhaps anticipating a sharp and uncontrolled collapse, Europe is quietly preparing an army, hopefully against enemies foreign, not domestic. France and Germany have outlined plans to deepen European military co-operation, which were reinforced in the State of the Union address by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday, in which he called for a European military headquarters.
The UK’s departure from the EU removes one of the biggest obstacles to stronger EU defense in tandem with Nato.
As for Europe’s underlying ideal of pacifism and prosperity through peace, it may be extinct very soon. The one-day Bratislava meeting is set to be the first in a number of confidence-building meetings where a “roadmap” should be set up to culminate in a summit in March in the Italian capital Rome, when the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding Treaty of Rome will be celebrated.
In short, Europe is desperately hanging on for dear life, with an European Army as a Plan Z backup option in case it all goes horribly wrong.