EU leaders are in Slovakia for an informal summit, but it is is particularly significant because it’s the first to be held without the UK for several decades.
We’ll get the first clear indication of what European leaders understand Brexit to mean. Britain, which has not been invited, is no longer welcome to participate in discussions about the EU’s future. Nor is it to have control of how the EU will respond to Brexit.
The aim is to produce a “Bratislava roadmap” – a way out of the troubles currently being faced by the European project. This crisis has not been caused by Brexit alone – the slow and woeful response to the migration crisis, the economic malaise and the growing distance between citizens and Brussels have all contributed. But leaders must now work out how to prevent these problems from becoming an existential crisis. They must deal with growing nationalist movements across member states before the whole union falls apart.
The Bratislava summit is not about Brexit or divorce talks, though. It is about the need to reform the EU in order to strengthen it. By all accounts, the mood is sombre, which is to be expected, given the difficult task ahead.
During his annual State of the Union speech just days before the summit, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, warned “there is not enough union in this union”. That much is evident, given how little the leaders agree on the most pressing issues at hand. The question, however, is how to address the lack of unity. That is far from clear.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, hopes that the remaining 27 leaders will not let this crisis go to waste. This is probably the most positive outcome of Brexit for the EU, if not necessarily for Britain. Using the vote to leave as an opportunity to honestly re-examine how the union operates could help restore confidence in the EU to deliver a better Europe of more prosperity, more stability and a greater sense of security.
Show of strength
Besides these broader issues, the main task of this summit is to show solidarity. The leaders need to show they can work together to produce substantial reform. Even though the union has essentially been reforming since its inception as a result of its continuous expansion, it has failed to project this to the outside world. It has somehow gained a reputation for being incapable of change, despite its many successes. Actually communicating the EU’s achievements will be one of the many tasks to be agreed on in the Bratislava roadmap.
There is a growing rift, in particular, between the Visegrád group of countries – Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – and Western countries on migration. Hungary is about to hold a referendum on whether to accept EU quotas on the number of refugees each EU country should take in and while the other members of the group haven’t gone this far, they are similarly unenthusiastic about the idea. The second aim of the meeting is, therefore, to agree on increased border security (beginning with the external EU borders).
It’s an ambitious agenda but expectations for the Bratislava meeting should not be particularly high. Reforming the EU to a satisfactory degree will not be easy. It involves the paradoxical task of strengthening the EU institutions so they can better deliver on EU ambitions, while also responding to calls for more power to national institutions from some member states. Finding solidarity and showing unity under these pressures is a tall order which probably can’t be met in a summit lasting just a day.
Where does this leave the UK? While there will be a briefing on the most recent meeting between Donald Tusk and Theresa May, it is also known that there is very little to report. Britain does not appear to have a plan but the EU is clear on the issue of single market access. That can only be allowed if Britain also accepts the free movement of people.
The Bratislava summit is therefore likely to endorse the EU’s respect for Brexit, but expect a call for Article 50 to be triggered as soon as possible, so that the remaining members can move on from this crisis. This meeting might have been prompted by Brexit but EU leaders hope to stop talking about it as soon as possible.