On 16 September 2016, the heads of state or government of the 27 EU Member States will meet in Bratislava, under the aegis of the Slovak Presidency of the Council – to discuss the future of the Union without Britain. They will begin discussions on the conclusions of the informal summit of 28 June, notably the recognition that “Europeans expect us to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth, as well as hope for a better future.”
Over the summer period, the build up to the Bratislava meeting has increased in intensity with a mixture of bilateral discussions and meetings of groups of national leaders.
President Donald Tusk
European Council President Donald Tusk will hold talks with all 27 leaders and has been on the road since mid-August, consulting his colleagues on both the handling and substance of the summit. The President’s pre-Bratislava consultations have included meetings in Malta, Spain, Poland and Hungary as well as taking the opportunity to speak with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Denmark and Italy. Through these consultations, Tusk has identified what he deems the EU’s three main challenges: uncontrolled irregular migration, terrorism, and fears of globalisation. His ambition for Bratislava is that they can agree on the main priorities and formulate a plan of action for the coming months. Mr. Tusk has said:
Based on my consultations so far, I have no doubt that the three main challenges are uncontrolled irregular migration, terrorism, and the fears of globalisation […] My ambition is that in Bratislava we can agree on the main priorities and what we need to do about them in the next few months.
According to Mr. tusk, these priorities should be to secure external borders of the EU, to fight the threat of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere and to bring back control of globalisation – finding ways to safeguard the interests of the EU citizens while remaining open to the world.
On 7 September, the President visited Dublin to meet the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. After their discussion, he spoke of the issues to be addressed at Bratislava:
“The Bratislava summit is not about Brexit per se. It is about bringing back political control of our common future. People are turning against what they perceive as an irrational openness. […] There is a balance to be restored. I think the Union is one of the best tools we have to do it. Bratislava needs to show that the political elites in Europe are not detached from reality.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny’s views on the Bratislava meeting were set out in remarks at the British-Irish Association meeting two days later. Opening with the statement that he would be “the only leader from these islands at the table” Kenny went on to argue that Ireland’s vision for the future “must be based on the enduring principles of the European Union – of partnership, of peace and of prosperity.” The Taoiseach maintained that Ireland’s vision must be grounded in the needs and aspirations of EU citizens and that this included a focus on jobs and prosperity, decent society, safety and security and a better future for the generations to come. In terms of new challenges to be addressed, he singled out Brexit and “the historic challenge of migration” as examples, all the while underlining the wider context in which Brexit will be considered:
[…] no one should underestimate the commitment of the 27 EU member states to maintaining the European Union. The EU is the answer to so many historic questions for Europe.
On 8 September, President Tusk travelled to London to exchange views with British Prime Minister Theresa May. This meeting focused on the process and timetable of Brexit, with Donald Tusk tweeting: “Ball in UK court to start negotiations. In everybody’s interest to start asap.”
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Merkel – together with French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – began their preparations for Bratislava with a tripartite gathering on the island of Ventotene. At this gathering, they announced that the Union’s most urgent problems must be addressed by making progress on European defence, dealing with the refugee and migration crisis and stimulating economic growth and employment.
Following this meeting, the Chancellor began a programme of visits and conversations, travelling to Estonia and the Czech Republic before visiting Warsaw for bilateral talks and a potentially crucial meeting with the leaders of the Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary). Mrs. Merkel then hosted Berlin gatherings of heads of government from the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, and subsequently from Slovenia, Austria, Bulgaria and Croatia.
The leaders of the four Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) issued a joint statement at a meeting in Warsaw on 21 July, recognising the UK decision as creating a new situation for the EU and highlighted the need for action to narrow the existing gap between the European institutions and the expectations of the people. The statement urged member states to refrain from concluding that Brexit is dividing the EU in small clubs, fearing a fragmentation of the EU “whose strength lies above all in its scale and coherence”. The leaders suggested a refocus on proposals with tangible benefits for citizens while avoiding “wasting energy on proposal [sic] that divide Member States”. The need for balance was stressed – common EU action without entering into the temptation of over-regulation.
Two key Visegrad leaders, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, went beyond the terms of the balanced joint statement, arguing for a “cultural counter-revolution” in Europe aiming at changing the EU’s structures and decision-making process.
In Athens, on 9 September, the leaders of five EU member states – Greece, France, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta – met at the invitation of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who justified his exclusive invitation with the claim that these countries “were hardest hit by the economic crisis […] and are now on the front line of the migrant inflows. We need a common approach, common positions.”
The meeting discussed the need to give new impetus to growth, to addressing problems of social and regional inequality and to promoting peace and stability in the region, seeking effective management of the refugee crisis. These issues, the leaders claimed, must be seen as not only problems of the countries meeting in Athens but as problems for Europe as a whole:
We will cooperate and coordinate better in order to make the Mediterranean agenda a component part of the European agenda.
Bratislava and Beyond
Donald Tusk has stated that the Bratislava meeting must result in a common diagnosis of the European Union following the UK referendum result. Although acknowledging an inability to solve all the EU’s problems overnight, Tusk underlined the need to establish common objectives which would allow the EU to rebuild a sense of political unity in the coming months. This political unity, he claims, is far more important now than in the “sunny days” of European integration, “the world around Europe bringing more threats than opportunities”.