The much anticipated Bratislava Summit took place on 16 September 2016. This informal meeting of the 27 Heads of State and Government was convened to kick start a process of identifying what direction and shape the European Union will take without the United Kingdom. The Summit also presented EU Leaders with the opportunity to present a broad display of European unity to the world, at a time when the EU has been criticised for its fragmented response to sensitive issues such as the refugee crisis. The main outcome of the meeting was the agreement of the EU27 on the Bratislava Roadmap, a set of policy objectives and tentative timelines designed to guide the Union over the coming months.
The Bratislava Summit is unique in terms of European Council negotiations, both in format and in content. Not only does it mark the first meeting without the presence of the UK in 43 years, it also marks the first serious exchange of views on the future of the European project in recent years.
In preparation for the Summit, European Council President Tusk consulted with individual Member States to discuss their concerns and perspectives on current issues in an effort to identify areas of commonality. His findings were published in a letter to Leaders on 13 September and pinpointed internal security, external defence and economic and social issues as priorities. In contrast to European Commission President Juncker’s State of the Union Address, President Tusk’s letter, calls for a “healthy balance” between the priorities of Member States and EU institutions. He also underlines that the EU institutions should support the priorities agreed among Member States and not impose their own.
Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap
The Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap sets out the objectives for the months ahead. These goals are loosely defined under three broad themes:
(i) migration and external borders;
(ii) external security and defence and
(iii) economic and social development.
On inspection, this list comprises a rather routine list of policy proposals, with all but one having appeared in a similar form in previous Council Conclusions. This reflects the preference of several leaders for an incremental approach, including German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who openly stated that now is not a time for grand visions.
Migration and external borders:
According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, migration and terrorism are very clearly in the forefront of citizens’ concerns at EU level. The Roadmap pledges to “never to allow return to uncontrolled flows of last year and further bring down number of irregular migrants”. It also commits to strengthening the EU’s external borders and to fully implement the EU-Turkey Agreement. It is interesting to note that there is only a small reference to shouldering solidarity and no reference to the resettlement scheme.
Members of the Visegrád Group have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to mandatory migration relocation and the Bratislava Roadmap appears to be designed to appease the concerns of central and eastern European Member States in this regard. Frontline Member States, particularly Italy, appeared frustrated with the lack of progress made regarding the EU’s management of the crisis, among other areas. Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, declined to join German and French Leaders in a joint press conference, stating that he did not share their conclusions.
External Security and Defence:
EU Leaders agreed to strengthen EU cooperation on external security and defence. They aim to adopt a security and defence implementation plan at the December European Council, which will focus on areas for joint cooperation within the scope of the Lisbon Treaty. There is no explicit mention of a Defence Union or Defence Fund.
Deepened cooperation and coordination in the area of defence at EU level has been long sought by France, and more recently the German government. The UK had previously blocked calls for a European defence strategy and their decision to leave the Union has given impetus for progress in this area. While current proposals are in the areas of defence research and innovation and not in permanent structured cooperation, further developments in defence may prove difficult for Ireland. Ireland has traditionally been opposed to further military cooperation and, though a protocol in the Lisbon Treaty ensures that it would not be obliged to participate in any common defence policy, it could find itself isolated on this issue as its counterparts gravitate towards a shared position[i].
Economic and Social Development:
According to reports, relatively little time was donated to the discussion of economic and social issues. Objectives in this area are also arguably the least developed. Leaders aspired to create “a promising future for all” and provide opportunities for youth. Concrete measures include deciding on whether to extend the European Fund for Strategic Investment at the December European Council and to review the current Single Market strategies next spring.
It is interesting to note that there are no references to either the CETA or TTIP trade agreements. Instead, the Roadmap suggests that the October European Council will address “how to ensure a robust trade policy”. France and the German Socialists have been particularly critical of ongoing TTIP negotiations and have hardened their opposition in a number of areas. Reports also indicate that there is little desire at this time among Member States for the next stage of the European Monetary Union.
Divisions and Alliances
The EU is at a critical juncture and the Bratislava Summit provided a platform for Leaders to show a united front. However, the Summit also highlighted the emergence of new alliances and divisions among Member States. The EU has traditionally been loosely divided on a regional basis, with the Northern group led by Germany and the Southern group led by France. The UK has long been perceived as a counter balance to these axes. Other groupings such as the Weimar Triangle between Germany, France and Poland have all but disappeared, as their domestic priorities and political leadership have shifted[ii].
The UK’s decision to leave the EU has accelerated the trend for Member States to seek like-minded partners as they try to position themselves in a Union of 27 members. These new subgroups are largely defined by their positions on major upcoming challenges and crises, particularly with regard to their stance on the refugee crisis and economic governance.
The most visible of these new alliances has been the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia), which has repeatedly condemned the EU’s handling of the migration crisis and has called for the strengthening of the role of national parliaments. The group met informally ahead of the Summit to agree common positions[iii].
On 9 September 2016, Greece hosted the inaugural gathering of the “EUMed” states (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, France). In their Joint Declaration, they called for EU policies focused on promoting growth and employment. This document is thought to reflect existing tensions between North-South over economic issues, and, more specifically, tensions between Germany and Southern Member States. Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has been particularly vocal in this regard, recently stating that the Union needs to make joint decisions for fear of turning into a “German Union”[iv]. The pro-growth agenda sought by the EUMed is likely to deepen public deficits, which are currently unauthorised in the Stability and Growth Pact. The EUMed have also used their collective voice to highlight the need for shouldering responsibility regarding the refugee crisis.
Ireland’s role in Europe
All this begs the question as to what Ireland’s role in a EU27 will be? On several issues of domestic importance, such as tax regulation and security and defence, the UK has supported Ireland’s position at the European Council negotiating table. Without this strategic partner, Ireland could find itself more exposed. While on economic and financial issues, Ireland might align itself closer to the “Northern” states (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany), there are obvious differences in opinion regarding security and defence. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine crisis traditionally neutral/non-aligned Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland have also become much more militarised and have significantly increased their defence budgets.
Conclusion and Next Steps
The Bratislava Summit was intended to mark a decisive step in determining the future of the EU. It was also an opportunity to show the international community and EU citizens a united front in the wake of Brexit and growing euroscepticism in several Member States. The outcome of the Summit, however, was a set of broad policy objectives with few concrete measures. Attempts to choreograph a show of unity were not successful, as the Summit proved to expose rifts between Member States on a number of key issues.
The EU27 will meet again in this format on 3 February 2017 in Valletta and on 27 March in Rome, where further discussions on the future of the EU and on the objectives set out in the Bratislava Roadmap will take place. In the build-up to these meetings, efforts will be made by the European Council to formalise a common approach and a united voice, however it is likely that current divisions on critical issues will remain, as various subgroups and alliances become more formalised.
[i] EU military proposal poses challenge for Ireland. September 2016. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/eu-military-proposal-poses-challenge-for-ireland-1.2787614
[ii] EUMed Rebellion: EU Falling Apart Never to Be <<United Europe>> We Once Knew. September 2016. Available at: http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/09/15/eumed-rebellion-eu-falling-apart-never-united-europe-we-once-knew.html
[iii] Welcome to EUgoslavia. September 2016. Available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/welcome-to-eugoslavia-balkans-regional-blocs-diplomacy-policy-eurozone-allies/
[iv] EUMed Rebellion: EU Falling Apart Never to Be <<United Europe>> We Once Knew. September 2016. Available at: http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/09/15/eumed-rebellion-eu-falling-apart-never-united-europe-we-once-knew.html