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European leaders in Bratislava avoided all the difficult questions

Posted by hkarner - 19. September 2016

Date: 18-09-2016
Source: The Economist

Contentious issues about growth, migration and European defence have been postponed to later meetings

DRIVEN by crisis and recrimination, the European Union has lost its way in recent years. The European Union was in a “critical situation” after Britain’s unprecedented vote in June to leave the club, warned Angela Merkel, the normally sober German chancellor, when she arrived at a European summit in Bratislava on September 16th. By the end of the day the 27 EU leaders—all bar Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, who was not invited—had drawn up a “Bratislava road-map” to give direction to their floundering club. But the way ahead remains as murky as ever.

Divisive issues were left for another day; so were serious policy proposals. Mrs Merkel and Donald Tusk, who presided over yesterday’s meeting, had spent the preceding weeks trying to find common ground among governments for a reboot of the European project. But their soundings revealed more disunion than harmony, so expectations for Bratislava were played down. Mr Tusk’s limited aim was to diagnose common problems and to identify areas of potential co-operation. Most importantly, he sought to produce a show of unity in a club split by many quarrels, particularly over the management of asylum-seekers.

The mood in Bratislava Castle, venue for the talks, was mostly free of the rancour that has often characterised recent EU summits. Mrs Merkel and François Hollande, the French president, gave a rare joint press conference. Mr Tusk had warned the Polish and Hungarian governments to keep the “cultural counter-revolution” they recently threatened to bring to Europe at home. The broadside issued by Viktor Orban, Hungary’s combative prime minister, against ‚Brusselian‘ elites was not enough to ruin the mood.

But the six-page declaration issued by the leaders was anodyne. Its details, such as they were, focused on illegal migration and security. The leaders were able to agree that there could be no repeat of last year’s uncontrolled rush of migrants into Europe. Hence their support for a European border guard, more resources to strengthen Bulgaria’s frontier with Turkey, as well as renewed backing for a migrant deal with Turkey and as-yet unsigned “migration compacts” with African countries.

The leaders promised more talks on investment across the EU, youth unemployment and their languishing trade and single-market policies. Plans for more military co-operation, as sketched out in a joint Franco-German policy paper this week, will be discussed in detail at a December summit in Brussels.

The role of spoiler was left to Matteo Renzi. Italy’s prime minister said the declaration’s statements on migration were conjured by “word-jugglers” ignorant of reality. He lamented the lack of ideas to promote growth across the EU. He even took a jab at Germany’s yawning current-account surplus, which violates EU rules but goes largely unmentioned in Brussels.

Some of this was to be expected. Mr Renzi has maintained the grand Italian tradition of blaming euro-zone rules rather than domestic paralysis for his country’s disastrous economic performance. He will have been mindful of a coming row with the European Commission over his government’s failure to cut its budget deficit quickly enough. He has also, to other leaders’ irritation, developed a habit of raising hell at European summits when he faces trouble at home. Mr Renzi’s outbursts yesterday were no doubt designed in part to improve his prospects later this year of winning a referendum on constitutional reforms, to which he has tied his political fate.

But Mr Renzi’s dissent did serve two useful purposes. First, he exposed the fearful, almost timid mood that has taken hold in Europe. Mr Hollande, facing a difficult re-election bid next year, spoke endlessly yesterday of “protecting” citizens. The summit declaration spoke of tackling Europeans’ fears but had little to say about their aspirations. Mrs Merkel at least acknowledged the failure of Europe’s “promise of prosperity” to its citizens, but did not say how it might be met.

Second, Mr Renzi highlighted the difficulty of finding common ground on the toughest issues Europe faces. Around 150,000 migrants cross the Mediterranean for Italy each year; perhaps two-thirds are not entitled to international protection. Tougher border checks mean fewer are making their way to the richer countries of northern Europe. EU-wide relocation schemes are not working (they are not supposed to apply to economic migrants anyway) and Europe remains woefully bad at returning failed asylum-seekers home. Despite endless meetings, debates and votes, Europe’s leaders have found no durable answer to this problem. It was not unreasonable for Mr Renzi to draw attention to this fact.

Still, others found room for optimism. Speaking after the meeting Mr Tusk declared that Britain’s departure could ultimately leave the EU stronger than ever—quite a turnaround for someone who before the vote had warned that Brexit could bring about the collapse of Western civilisation. He also revealed that Mrs May had told him she was prepared to trigger Article 50, the formal process for Britain’s withdrawal, in January or February next year. That is far more than Mrs May herself has been prepared to say on timing thus far.

The leaders will return to most of the Bratislava road-map topics at their regular summits, this time with Mrs May in attendance; the next of these is in October. But the 27 will also continue their deliberations without Britain—first in Valletta, the capital of Malta, probably in February, and then in Rome at the end of March, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document.

It will be difficult for the Rome summit, in particular, to meet the heavy expectations that leaders have begun to place upon it. That is in part because it falls between the difficult Dutch and French elections, in which anti-EU parties will figure prominently, so reducing the scope for big leaps in European integration. If he holds on that long, Mr Renzi will be hoping that what Mrs Merkel now calls “the spirit of Bratislava” can somehow give life to the summit he will find himself hosting. On the evidence of this weekend, that looks like a long shot.

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