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Incremental progress at EU summit

Barbara Wesel, Bratislava / jsSeptember 17, 2016

EU leaders have been looking for a way out of the crisis triggered by the Brexit vote. They've now agreed on a road map designed to move the EU forward, but the refugee question remains unanswered. Barbara Wesel reports.

Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orban (L), Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern (R) © Reuters/L. Foeger
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

Security, prosperity and the future of Europe's youth - the message from Bratislava can be summed up by these keywords.

Government leaders from the EU's 27 member states - minus the United Kingdom - met all day Friday at the castle above the city to discuss if and how Europe can be saved. Additional inspiration was provided by a steamboat trip along the Danube River, which helped brighten the summit's rather depressed mood. "It was the nicest part of the meeting," said European Council President Donald Tusk.

In the end, all agreed on a road map for how things are to progress from here. Differences appeared to have been set aside so that members could concentrate on the next major meetings between European leaders early next year in Malta and then in late March in Rome, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that she intends to present concrete results by then.

Franco-German motor

French President Francois Hollande (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/S. De Sakutin
Cooperation, compromise, solidarity and common values, as demonstrated by Hollande and Merkel (right)Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. De Sakutin

The only minor victory at this markedly sober summit was that Merkel and French President Francois Hollande held a joint press conference. The German chancellor has been doing all she could over the last few weeks to get the EU's famous Franco-German motor up and running again.

Prior to the summit, she spoke with leaders from all 27 member states, above all with those from Eastern Europe - but she met with Hollande four times in the last weeks alone. It seems that the future of the EU still relies on the cooperation of these two nations.

"We have to develop new perspectives for Europe," Hollande said, as Merkel spoke about jobs for the future, support for start-up companies and opportunities for young people. And then she conjured up the "spirit of Bratislava," saying it was all based on cooperation, compromise, solidarity and common values. Voters going to the polls in Germany and France next year, however, will be most interested in what this will all mean for their own lives.

The French president mentioned one of the immediate goals: "All were in agreement that the EU must show that it can protect its external borders," he said. Bulgaria will be the first country to receive help, namely 160 million euros ($179 million) and EU personnel to better protect the EU border with Turkey and Greece.

The focus of the French-German initiative, however, is on security within the EU, especially as it relates to the fight against terrorism, but also to defense issues. Paris and Berlin want to set up a headquarters for coordinated missions, while also saving money by committing to common purchasing and supporting their defense contractors. Hollande added that those who are interested in joining in on this special cooperation are more than welcome to do so.

Not entirely harmonious

Host Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, was conciliatory as the summit ended - Slovakia is also a member of the four-country Visegrad group, which has voiced total opposition to EU refugee policy over the last several months.

"It is important that we show the will of the 27 to continue with this unique project [Europe]," he said. "It isn't perfect, but we have security and stability."

But there were dissenting opinions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared the summit a failure because members had not been able to change "Brussels' refugee policy," as he put it. At home, he is currently running a campaign to stir up Hungarian sentiments ahead of an upcoming referendum against refugee quotas.

Orban also presented his European colleagues with a paper that contained Visegrad group proposals for "flexible solidarity." That would mean that a country would be obliged to do more for border security if it did not want to take in refugees. Merkel conceded that this might be a way to attain results.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a press conference Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/V. Simicek
Orban called the Bratislava summit a failureImage: Getty Images/AFP/V. Simicek

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was also dissatisfied with the summit. Although Merkel and Hollande recently traveled to Italy to lend their support in difficult times, Renzi did not want to appear alongside the two leaders for their final press conference.

Renzi wasn't interested in pretending that there was harmony if they weren't in agreement on all points. He feels Italy has been left alone in bearing the refugee burden, and he continues to fight against the austerity policies of the stability pact. "The EU must move faster, or it will have big problems," he summarized after the summit.

Brexit as side issue

The UK's eventual departure from the European Union was the ostensible reason for the summit, but in the end it was only addressed as an afterthought. Tusk reiterated the common approach: There will be no preliminary negotiations with the UK before actual negotiations begin. And he expects British Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty by the beginning of 2017.

"Our goal is that future relations will be as close as possible," he said, emphasizing, however, that there will be no cherry-picking. But the United Kingdom will remain a member of the EU until exit negotiations are completed, and Theresa May will once again be in attendance at the next routine summit in October.