The Bratislava EU summit held on September 16 delivered few concrete commitments on the way to bridge the deep rifts dividing the member states and threatening the very existence of the bloc. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union's current situation was very serious. The summit took no decisions on how to tackle the burning issues of EU structural reforms, the anemic state of the economy, migration, a common European defense policy etc.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, frankly acknowledged the divisions. «There are different views, different ideas», he said.
Actually, the only thing national leaders agreed on was a six-month timetable to come up with solutions for the multiple crises plaguing the union. Perhaps, it will lead to some practical results when they meet in late March to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU founding Treaty of Rome in the Italian capital.
In a joint declaration the EU leaders said they were committed to offering the people «a vision of an attractive EU they can trust and support». But comments by some leaders put into doubt the credibility of the European alliance. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban openly challenged the Germany’s migrants’ policy. He criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for refusing to agree to a ceiling on the number of migrants entering Europe, calling her welcoming stance towards refugees «self-destructive and naive».
According to him, Hungary should be praised instead of criticized for erecting a razor-wire barrier at its southern borders. He voiced his dissent only hours after he and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło had been asked by Donald Tusk, the European Council President, to stop attacking Brussels for the sake of preserving the bloc’s integrity.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi openly stated his disagreement with German and French policies. He took aim at the EU's fiscal rules. According to Renzi, he was not happy with the conclusions of the summit, which failed to make significant progress in solving the EU's migrant crisis. Actually, all talk of unity evaporated when the Italian leader refused to join a press conference with his German and French counterparts in protest against their stance on fundamental problems faced by the EU.
Europe is also divided on the economy. Last week Greece gathered southern EU leaders in Athens to urge their northern counterparts to share more of the migrant burden and ease up on austerity.
It is not clear whether any of the ideas for tighter military coordination will come to fruition. The proposals to bolster the bloc’s military capacities were put forward this month by France and Germany. They include creating a joint military headquarters, expanding European Union forces and increasing joint cooperation on military procurement.
There was no unity on the issue at the summit. France sees itself as the dominant force in a unified structure. French President François Hollande suggested that one of the few ways left for Europe to be a power of global standing was to enhance its military under the guidance of his nation. Angela Merkel named a common defense framework as one of the top future EU concerns.
Federica Mogherini, the EU's chief diplomat, told EU foreign ministers this month that plans have moved from general discussions to having «first operational results» by spring, describing them as the «real stuff.» European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said this week that the bloc must do more in the defense field, starting with creation of an EU military headquarters and working toward a common military force.
But Ireland is concerned about retaining its traditional neutrality. The Baltic nations oppose the idea. Prime Minister Taavi Roivas of Estonia publicly reminded Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany that any European defense initiatives should be done only “in cooperation” with NATO. Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaite, said there would be no consideration of a European army. The plans will be discussed in the coming months. Some steps could be agreed to at a summit meeting in December.
Ukraine was not included into the agenda. The German and French foreign ministers made their first visit to Ukraine's war-torn east on September 15.In their statements, Steinmeier and Ayrault reminded Kiev of the necessity of providing Donbass with a special status and granting amnesty to the militants, followed by local elections. At that the political process of the settlement should go in parallel with the withdrawal of the armed forces, and not after. It means the stance taken by EU foreign chiefs runs counter to the vision expounded by the Ukrainian government. Actually, Europe seems to be tired of Kiev.
During the recent G20 summit in China, Germany and France discussed the situation in Ukraine with Russia on bilateral basis without Ukraine.
The Bratislava summit ended up in a failed attempt put up a united front. Effectively acknowledging the deep divisions inside the EU, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that it would have been “inappropriate” to issue written conclusions after the summit.
The coming months are likely to see further turbulence. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could be severely damaged in a forthcoming referendum if voters reject his proposed constitutional reforms and turn to support the Five Star Movement. In France the deeply unpopular Hollande is widely expected to lose power in a presidential election next spring with the far-right National Front knocking on the door of the Élysée Palace.
Speculation is rife in Germany about whether Chancellor Merkel will decide to run for a fourth term at next year's parliamentary election amid a fall in her popularity. The country could have a different governing coalition at the federal level because of the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany. Far-right anti-EU parties are leading in polls in the Netherlands and Austria. Anti-establishment parties are making electoral outcomes unpredictable, including the European Parliament elections in 2019.
Concerns are rife that the bloc may break apart as political leaders are unable to deliver common responses to the problems. The Bratislava event was nothing but yet another chatting parlor. There is a great chance the inability to take tough decisions at a decisive moment may become the beginning of the end for the United Europe project.