Storm clouds loom over EU’s Slovakia summit

What picture of Europe will emerge from the EU meeting in Bratislava? Filip Singer / EPA
What picture of Europe will emerge from the EU meeting in Bratislava? Filip Singer / EPA

Next Friday’s meeting of European Union heads of state in Bratislava will seek to rediscover a collective sense of purpose in the face of growing popular disenchantment with European integration. Alienation stoked by economic disparities, compounded by fears over migration and terrorism, are feeding support for political parties pursuing nationalist agendas. Britain’s referendum vote in June to leave the EU signalled the union’s existential threat.

The EU’s leaders have acknowledged that the union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. European Council president Donald Tusk has warned that member states’ citizens are looking to the EU to be “a guarantor of stability, security and protection” and to address the “feeling of people that globalisation only benefits the elites”. Such views acknowledge that the union’s vision of open economies and freedom of movement has turned sour.

Seemingly intractable economic stagnation in parts of Europe – illustrated by youth-unemployment rates touching 70 per cent in some of Italy’s southern regions – is fuelling a political insurgency that is challenging and in some cases displacing traditional political establishments. Germany’s ruling CDU-SPD coalition recently suffered a setback when the far right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party secured up to a quarter of votes cast in regional elections. Elsewhere in Central Europe, ruling parties in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are promoting themselves as defenders of national identities against enforced euro-federalism and multiculturalism.

A series of terrorist incidents have raised tensions among populations fearful that ISIL is inspiring freelance extremists to launch mass casualty attacks. In response to this threat, internal security and border controls will be at the head the agenda in Bratislava. Better cooperation between national intelligence agencies and police forces in Europe will be discussed, along with plans by the European Commission to introduce a more stringent visa regime for non-EU nationals entering the Schengen zone.

Beyond that, the main topics of discussion will be measures to reboot economic growth in Europe’s poorer regions. The leaders meeting in Bratislava are aware that they need to balance proof that they are listening with realism about the immensity of the challenges faced. With important national elections in Germany and France set for 2017, they know that the established centrist parties will have to offer a sufficiently convincing vision to head off the growing appeal of the populists.

Although Brexit is not on the agenda, the issue will loom over the talks. Prime minister Theresa May has not been invited, though the UK remains a member of the EU for now. The main issues of contention will be between those who would punish Britain and those who seek as much common ground as possible to conciliate Europe’s second-largest economy and most capable military power. The potential for discord was evident in the immediate aftermath of the June referendum, when calls by the European Commission for "more Europe" were immediately shot down by member-state governments aware that anti-EU sentiment in the UK stemmed from the same factors stoking resentment on the continent.

As Mrs May’s government fumbles its way towards giving real substance to the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”, some observers hope that the Bratislava talks may start a process leading to a watering down of the free movement of labour, one of the EU’s “four freedoms”, in response to British concerns over migration. The thinking is that new restrictions will facilitate a more mutually-beneficial agreement if and when London formally triggers the process of leaving the EU.

These fragile hopes that the EU will compromise its core principles will very much depend on the attitude of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of Europe’s strongest economy. She backs moves to promote a better Europe that is more responsive to its citizens’ concerns than the more integrated Europe advocated by Brussels.

However, her government, supported by newer member states in Central and Eastern Europe, has so far dismissed limits on free movement.

Germany and its eastern neighbours remain diametrically opposed on the issue of accepting refugees from war zones in the Middle East. Although Mrs Merkel has not yet confirmed that she wishes to continue in power after 2017, a recent stout defence in the Bundestag of her decision to accept Syrian migrants suggests that she still believes she can persuade Germany and Europe to remain open to new arrivals rather than retreat into introspection and xenophobia.

Whether or not such disagreements can be resolved will be crucial to the EU’s efforts to reinvent itself as an exemplar of interstate cooperation. After years of political and economic expansion flavoured by post-Cold War triumphalism, the quest for “ever closer union” has now run out of momentum.

In the recent past, initiatives such as the single currency and the admission of new member states could be presented as triumphant milestones passed on a journey to a utopia. The newer challenges of assimilating the recent influx of immigrants, creating jobs and managing Brexit will in contrast be fraught processes that will take years if not decades to resolve.

Stephen Blackwell is an inter­national politics and security ­analyst

Published: September 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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