Leaders of "EU 27" Call for Unity, Confidence at Bratislava Summit

22 September 2016

An informal meeting of the EU’s 27 national leaders was held on Friday, 16 September in Bratislava, Slovakia, representing a crucial summit to map out the future of the bloc in the wake of the UK vote to leave.

The leaders had met informally once before on 29 June, immediately after the Brexit vote, to discuss the implications of the outcome and initiate the debate about what to prioritise ahead. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 June 2016)

Back in June, leaders recognised that the “outcome of the UK referendum created a new situation for the EU” and acknowledged the emergence of a popular sentiment across Europe characterised by “dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.”

Months later, the Bratislava summit was scheduled as an attempt to begin the process of “relaunch[ing] the European project,” as French President François Hollande described it. Notably, this informal gathering did not include the UK, though the country’s prime minister was briefed beforehand.

Questions of cohesion

At stake for the EU now, analysts and officials say, is the need to restore a sense of unity and stability in a climate of rising Euro-sceptic attitudes and growing support for populist political parties, for which upcoming elections in France and Germany in 2017 will serve as decisive indicators.

Going into last week’s meeting, leaders had already made clear following discussions with European Council President Donald Tusk that they wished to discuss concerns over security, migration, and the bloc’s economic future, as the EU continues to battle vestiges of the crippling financial crisis – including high unemployment, inequality, and public debt.

Tusk, who chaired last Friday’s meeting, expressed afterward his “hope that the Bratislava Summit will lead to the renewing of trust and confidence in the European Union.”

Along with focusing on the bloc as a whole, another challenge is balancing the individual needs of member states of varying economic weights and interests.

“Europe is a cord of many strands – it only works when we are all pulling in the same direction: EU institutions, national governments, and national Parliaments alike,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the European Union speech before the European Parliament on 14 September.

Indeed, how to balance national and regional priorities has been a long-standing issue for the bloc, including with the EU’s relationship with London.

Prior to the UK referendum, former Prime Minister David Cameron was already taking steps to revise his country’s relationship with Brussels, negotiating a series of reforms with fellow EU leaders aimed at assuaging the British public and dodging the “Brexit” blow. While that deal was abandoned following the 23 June referendum in the UK, the questions raised in the process over the optimal level of European integration continue to persist. (See Bridges Weekly, 25 February 2016).

Roadmap endorsed

During their meeting in the Slovak capital, leaders strived to define areas for cooperation across the EU in a bid for unity and confidence-building, resulting in the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap.

“In the aftermath of the wars and deep divisions on our continent, the EU secured peace, democracy, and enabled our countries to prosper,” said the declaration, adding that their success in that regard is the dream of many other countries. “The EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges that we are facing.”

While the declaration highlights the various ways where the EU remains “indispensable” for its remaining members, the associated roadmap then proposes a set of concrete measures for action. Concerning security, the document called for increasing information exchanges between the security services of member states, as well as more stringent checks on those crossing the EU’s external borders and the establishment of a Travel Information and Authorisation System.

Pledges have been issued to avoid returning to the chaotic and uncontrolled influx of migrants seen in 2015. Several member states have already committed to send support to Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, with Juncker promising the delivery of 200 extra border guards and 50 additional vehicles on site by October.

Finally, the meeting explored options for economic and social development, in order to “create a promising economic future for all, safeguard our way of life, and provide better opportunities for youth.”

This includes strengthening the single market and increasing investments, along with discussing at an upcoming Council meeting in October on “how to ensure a robust trade policy that reaps the benefits of open markets while taking into account concerns of citizens.”

In his State of the European Union address, Juncker proposed doubling both the timespan and financial capacity of the European Fund for Strategic Investments, with the aim of providing upwards of €500 billion of investments by 2020. In addition, an Investment Plan for Africa and the Neighbourhood was launched as a complement to development aid and possibly address one of the causes of economic migration.

What’s next?

Following the meeting in Bratislava, regular European Council meetings, which will include UK Prime Minister Theresa May, are planned for October and December this year in order to check in on progress and move forward with the initiatives begun at last week’s meeting.

The leaders of the “EU 27” will reconvene informally in Valletta, Malta, in January 2017 and finally in March 2017, on the occasion of 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, to conclude the process of reflection started at the summit in Bratislava.

ICTSD reporting; “EU Bratislava summit: European Union ready to start Brexit negotiations immediately,” ABC NEWS, 15 September 2016; “Paris and Berlin push for tighter defence co-operation,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 12 September 2016.

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