“The European Union is facing an existential crisis”, conveyed Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker last Wednesday in Strasbourg. Having his hands tied to the message of taking back control to national capitals mouthed by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, Juncker couldn’t help but admit that “solidarity must come from the heart”: it could not be imposed, it could not be forced.
Shortly after making this move towards legitimising the political grounds for subjugating the solidarity package to this brand new principle of flexibility, the President of the Commission travelled to the Slovak capital for an informal meeting with the leaders of the 27 ‘remaining’ Member States. Both in the debate on the State of the Union and in the Bratislava Summit, it became clear that it was the Council who wrote the script. And it turned out that this script reflected the message that national governments wanted to be delivered, which was no other than their own will to stay and “make a success of the EU at 27”, as they stamped in the Bratislava Declaration.
However, this message was only the outcome of their agreement on the need to send a positive signal, despite palpable fragmentation. A fragmentation that the EU ‘troika’ intended to leave aside by focusing only in the (few) policy areas on which the majority of Member States could agree. On the economic side, the strengthen of the single market; and on the security side, further defense integration and the placement of fighting terror and tackling illegal migration on top of the agenda. Soon, the core of the EU would formally accept a Sinatra doctrine by letting Eastern countries do it their way in migration management. The other side of the transaction would be an expression of loyalty to the European project from the East.
So, quid pro quo: flexible solidarity was set to come in exchange of forced unity. And by easing solidarity and forcing unity, Brussels hoped to change the narrative in Friday’s gathering. The Bratislava Summit, held at the Danube’s riverside castle – where the Union Jack wasn’t raised – marked the first post-referendum meeting of the ‘Remaining 27’; and the Bratislava Declaration, the first post-referendum roadmap for the EU at 27.
“At a critical time for our European project”, starts the text written by a non-passionate European Council, “the Bratislava Summit of 27 Member States has been devoted to diagnose together the present state of the European Union and discuss our common future”. Following this opening statement, the document enumerates the “general principles” in which the national governments had agreed upon, being one of them the harsh line of “the need to be clear about what the EU can do, and what is for the Member States to do, to make sure we can deliver on our promises”. To fit into this principle, European Parliament’s President Martin Schulz could only bewail: “The EU will be as strong as it Member States allow it to be”.
The roadmap is designed to restore public confidence in the EU. As the Declaration states, “Bratislava is only the beginning of the process”. A process initiated during the meeting of the (at that time still) 28 leaders that would grant the United Kingdom a new settlement within the EU at the cost of amending existing legislation in the fields of free movement and access to social benefits and shaped by the speech delivered by President Juncker last week.
(Honestly) shaping the future
The lack of formality provided the perfect ground for having a truly honest discussion on how the EU’s future should look like. Internally, the message – especially directed towards Poland and Hungary – was not to keep blaming Europe for every single problem. And both Commission and Parliament Presidents had been appointed to carry out the task of delivering it. First, during his plenary speech in Strasbourg, Juncker lent a friendly hand to Poland. Then, in Bratislava, Schulz didn’t hesitate to take Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to a separate room, where he gave an answer to the recent incendiary wording of the Hungarian Prime Minister (“Nihilists represent a minority in society, but the Brussels elite is full of them”). In the end, Schulz described it as a “fruitful meeting” because he felt that Orbán’s will to come to calm conclusions “was there”. There, at least, “taking into account the situation”.
Externally, Bratislava signified the national governments’ blessing to the initiatives brought forward by the President of the Commission in his State of the Union speech. ‘Yes’ to fostering security and strengthening external borders, ‘yes’ to strategic investment by doubling the Juncker Plan, ‘yes’ to a 5G network and a solid wifi environment in urban areas and ‘yes’ to Berlaymont’s most revolutionary proposal in the social area: the European Solidarity Corps, which will ideally become a truly European youth volunteering network with over 100,000 participants by 2020. These proposals were backed almost without effort precisely because their implementation appeared to be neither complicated nor controversial. All of them were in the agenda.
Those that were not in the agenda were precisely Matteo Renzi’s two main concerns: economic stagnation and an unsolved migration crisis that continues to overflow Italy and Greece’s humanitarian facilities. For these two, a more ambitious common response was needed. And for this need, there was no consensus.
Overcoming the populist rhetoric
Long before Bratislava, Germany and France started fueling their anti-populism campaigning engines ahead of the elections they will face next year and which will be marked by a nationalistic retreat to counter the far-right anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric in both countries. But it’s not only the Franco-German axis that has an appointment with the polls. Firstly, its Number Two Nightmare, Hungary (Number One Nightmare is Britain), will host a referendum on refugee quotas in early October. Then, before the end of 2016, Romania will go through legislative elections, Austria will see a repetition of its last vote-casting and there is even a chance that Spain will host what could be its third round of elections in less than a year. As well, shortly before the spring of 2017, the Dutch far-right party will try to win a notable number of seats in the next general election.
In this respect, Merkel-Hollande’s overarching goal was that of showing unity among the 27 leaders. However, the bloc’s deep divisions couldn’t be hidden. Although the main characters started sticking to the script, not all of them were willing to accept an idyllic end. When the gates of the Bratislava castle opened to let out the summit participants, Italy’s Renzi took the lead on this role, stating that “by not changing its immigration and economic policies, Europe is risking a lot” – although he recognised that the summit was “a step forward” (but a “very little” one). “I’m not satisfied with the conclusions”, he said, declining the invitation to join Hollande and Merkel – for whom the meeting had been a success – in the post-summit big players’ press conference.
This Slovak Presidency’s high-level public relations exercise – promoted by Brussels itself in an attempt of ‘de-Brusselizing’ the EU – looked for a way of countering the effects that external dangers are posing, but not for a way to confront their root causes. Hence, this informal gathering could have created the opposite feeling of which it intended to show: less confidence and less faith – not necessarily in the EU project, but in the current project managers.
By being inwardly focused and keeping much of an eye on domestic politics, European leaders struggled to overcome a historic crisis that kick-started not with the Brexit vote, but with à la carte concessions agreed upon by the Council back in February on a desperate move to keep Britain in. However, and though none of the 27 got its way in Bratislava, almost all could claim victory. The founding states, for successfully imposing optimism and bringing (at least apparent) unity into force. And the East, for officially having solidarity requirements eased.
Now, the Bratislava Declaration sets the roadmap for the next 12 months. Changing the Treaties is unlikely, so the desired deeper military cooperation shall be achieved within the scope that these provide. But Britain’s response to it has come rapidly and has taken the form of a veto on “any common military force” in the EU as long as the UK is still a Member State, as stated by British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. Taking the existing variety of adverse factors into account, meddling through seems to be the only possible acting procedure for the EU within the next year. For the time being, this roadmap might be no more than a birthday, but from January 2017 onwards it could be transposed into ‘real’ action. First, in the next informal summit that will be held in Valleta. And second, in the one taking place in the Italian capital on the occasion of the Treaty of Rome’s 60th anniversary.
Bratislava’s 1965 déjà vu
Just like 2016, 1965 was also a stormy year for Europe. Just like in 2016, in 1965 emotions were running high and tensions over the framework within which the European project should develop were palpable. At that time, only six states formed the communitarian bloc, but the absence of the most powerful one – De Gaulle’s France and its ‘empty chair crisis’ – threatened its continuity by aiming to block the transition to majority decision-making. But back then, also upcoming elections in both Germany and France dominated political action; an action that, as today, was conflict-resolution inspired. Ultimately, as Dutch historian Luuk van Middelaar has reviewed in his article Spanning the River (2008), common ground in what can be considered as “Europe’s first constitutional crisis” was reached in Luxembourg on 29 January 1966. In that occasion, the latent tension between the two visions on the nature of a community of European states – supranationalism / federalism and (liberal) intergovernmentalism– lead not to a blockade, but to the genesis of Europe’s political order and of the practice of vetoing, reflected in the ‘Luxembourg Compromise’.
An upcoming anniversary of the Treaty of Rome could also become the birth date of the 21st century ‘Luxembourg compromise’.