Where does the EU go from here? The upcoming Bratislava Summit

It is clear that after the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union, the EU could no longer dodge the question that’s been increasingly on everybody’s lips: What is to be done? The EU is facing its deepest crisis with doubts about its very purpose emerging through the cracks. The forces of disintegration are on the rise. What’s the turnaround strategy that will bring Europe forward and renew confidence in this unique project? What’s the post-Brexit European narrative?

Following the UK referendum, confusion and disarray reigned supreme. The Brexiteers had no plan in case of Brexit, but neither did the EU institutions. No concrete ideas on the way forward for the EU after such a result were presented. Mogherini’s Global Strategy came closest in charting some course. Instead, there was scaremongering, flip-flopping, and calls for Commission President Juncker’s resignation.

Only after the dust started to settle and shock gave way to sober analysis did action follow. Now European leaders will meet in Bratislava on 16 September to flesh out a plan for the future of Europe post-Brexit. In the meantime, an array of actors has come out with position papers, interviews and political lines in attempts to set the agenda. Some are new, some are old, and some is just old wine in new bottles. A confrontation is emerging on two fronts. First, on the governance of the European Union and second on which policy areas should be the ones where the EU drives forward, achieves results, regains relevance and wins back confidence from its citizens.

The former is an old debate regarding the balance of power between EU institutions and governance models. It’s about “more” or “less” Europe, pitting federalism against intergovernmentalism. The social-democratic camp came out early in this one. European Parliament President Martin Schulz and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel co-published a paper calling for more integration and a federal Europe with a bicameral European government. A rather unrealistic proposition given the current situation. Others used the opportunity to highlight the importance of a two-speed Europe where a core – such as for example the founding Member States or Eurozone – move forward with integration leaving others behind. And then there are the voices, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, calling for a re-nationalisation of European policy. Polish President Beata Szydło, for example, sees “the need to strengthen national control over EU decision making processes” and the Marshal of the Polish Sejm stated in a declaration that “the coexistence and cooperation in Europe should be based on sovereignty of nation states”.

German Finance Minister Schäuble also weighed in to this debate, declaring that if the European Commission can’t get things done the Member States will take matters into their own hands. Laying blame for lacking progress on the European Commission’s doorstep, however, is hypocritical. It’s the EU Member States in the European Council themselves that most often cannot come to an agreement and thereby halt progress! Schäuble is disingenuous when he refers to the Eurozone crisis or the Turkey deal as examples of intergovernmentalism where the Member States took charge, solving problems. It wasn’t the Member States; it was Germany. It was a domineering Berlin that forced its deals onto others. This is what led to divisions and bad blood amongst the Member States.

In such a crisis where the core of the European project is in doubt, the Member States should especially show solidarity and walk together in lockstep. But this is not happening. Instead, Member States are descending into bloc politics. After Brexit, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier invited only Foreign Ministers of EU founding members for consultation to Berlin, snubbing the rest. The Central and Eastern European bloc is coordinating its position for the Bratislava Summit with the Visegrad Group of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia planning to publish a joint contribution beforehand. And the southern axis is coming together too: Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has invited his counterparts from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta to a summit in Athens on 9 September. Meanwhile, the three largest voting members in the European Council – Germany, France and Italy – have met at Ventotene on 22 August to discuss Bratislava.

Of course coordination before this important Bratislava Summit is necessary. But the question to me is rather, which format is more likely to unite rather than divide, on the road towards Bratislava? A strategic centre of Member States is needed that is small enough for conducive debate but representative enough to cover all Member States. Teaming up with Presidents Renzi and Hollande, Chancellor Merkel has tried to form such a centre between Germany, France and Italy. But this constellation is woefully lacking Central and Eastern Europe, forcing Merkel on a whirlwind tour of meetings with Member States (14 Member States in one week). Forming a Quartet together with Poland, which holds the current Presidency of the Visegrad Group, would have ensured that this region is also represented. It could have brought EU Member States better together before Bratislava. To quote Lyndon B. Johnson: “It’s probably better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.

And Member States are coming together in bloc politics to push forward the policy issues important to them, which brings me to the second front I highlighted earlier. The South is rallying to achieve progress on economic growth, investment, fighting austerity while Central and Eastern Europe is focusing on the refugee issue, reinforcing borders and strengthening national sovereignty.

The Ventotene meeting on 22 August between Merkel, Renzi and Hollande showcased the splits and highlighted some of the issues that could come into play in Bratislava. Issues raised were external/internal security, youth, refugees and economic growth/investment. Little was reached on the last two while on youth it was agreed to expand the Erasmus student exchange programme also to apprenticeships. Only the issue of external/internal security had broad agreement. Generally, this much anticipated meeting was hyped up beyond proportion. After all the three weren’t going to announce some ambitious proposals ahead of the Bratislava Summit, as this would have simply strained ties with the other 24 Member States. As such, Ventotene was largely symbolic with the three laying flowers at the tomb of Altiero Spinelli, who wrote the Ventotene Manifesto calling for a federation of European states to prevent nationalism from sparking war. The meeting seemed to be very much geared towards domestic consumption, intended to bolster support for Renzi who will be facing his own referendum on constitutional reform this October.

In the context of Ventotene, it seems that the most likely progress at the Bratislava Summit will be a declaration to move forward in the area of security and defence. An agreement in this area seems clear as I highlighted in an earlier blog post. Mogherini’s Global Strategy laid groundwork for this, the French and German Foreign Ministers also called for more integration on security and defence, as did the Italian Foreign and Defence Ministers in an op-ed in Le Monde, and Central and Eastern European Member States would also be in favour with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka having recently declared that he hopes the Bratislava Summit will bring progress on a joint military. In addition, Russian military aggression in Ukraine has also made the Nordic countries more willing to co-operate on defence issues, with Sweden and Finland raising security through defence collaboration agreements with the United States.

Pushing the EU forward in the nexus external-internal security is important. It’s an area where the EU can and must deliver. It should show that the EU provides security to Member States and its citizens, an elementary requirement given that in the context of a world in flames ranging from Libya and Syria to Ukraine and homegrown terrorism, ever more people ask whether the Union can provide security.

But I fear that this won’t be enough. Discontent with the EU isn’t merely based on fears about ISIS or geopolitics. It’s also about globalisation, feelings of being left behind, economic insecurity and social inequality – it’s about pocketbook issues. Here the EU needs to provide answers, too, lest it find itself portrayed as the cause of such malaise. This means boosting investments, strengthening the social pillar of the EU, making progress on fighting tax evasion, and tackling youth unemployment. Especially the last is crucial. Youth still feels great affection for the EU as evidenced in the UK referendum, but the EU is at risk of losing its youth if they don’t see any future prospects or have a stake in the EU. An open letter signed by prominent societal actors and politicians rightly made this point recently in Die Welt calling for a strengthening of the European Youth Guarantee, a revision of Erasmus to an Erasmus for all, and developing a common school curriculum on European culture.

On the road towards Bratislava, progress is on the horizon. But more is needed. As it stands, it is doubtful, whether the EU Member States will be able to overcome their divisions. This will make the next half year especially tough with further challenges ahead: a possible renewed refugee influx as Syria’s bloodbath continues, winter is approaching and the Turkey refugee deal hangs in the balance, a presidential vote in Austria between a far-right politician and a Green, a referendum in Italy, a volatile Ukraine, and so on.

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