When the EU Heads of Government meet in Bratislava today, it will be without Theresa May.
But unlike the EU Heads of State June meeting, when the 27 set out the basic framework of the future negotiation on Brexit, the UK is not on the agenda for today’s convening of leaders in Bratislava.
This meeting is about the challenges facing the 27 without the UK.
One effect of the British referendum result has been to create the fear of contagion. Many of the aspects of the Brexit referendum which were not about the EU (disillusionment with elites, loss of confidence in the banking sector, the general sense of the political system no longer delivering, anxiety in a world which has again become dangerous) are common to many other European countries.
Presidential elections in Austria, referendums in Hungary and Italy this autumn and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year all add to the uncertainty. Marine Le Pen could be the next French President. Wilders, the anti-immigration, Eurosceptic candidate in the Netherlands, could head the largest party after the Dutch elections. And is the star of Europe’s undisputed leader, Angela Merkel waning?
The EU has specific problems: the pressure of mass migration on frontiers and the lack of an agreed approach to the future of the Eurozone, being the most prominent.
The relationship between France and Germany provides only token, and largely contrived, leadership.
The European Commission is deeply unpopular and its President not regarded. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has most of the right ideas but has to contend with Brussels infighting.
So far, the response to Brexit has been largely one of everyone for him or herself among the EU leaders. Tusk is trying to get them to focus on a European response to public anxieties about migration, terrorism and globalisation.
In regards to migration, Greece remains the weakest link. So Tusk is looking for money to support Bulgaria in protecting its borders. He wants agreement on everyone, including EU nationals, being checked against the relevant databases at the EU’s external borders.
He will aim for an end of year deadline for the implementation of other border measures already agreed.
He will also propose that the EU needs to address the possible unintended consequences of free movement of people. This is not code for limiting freedom of movement but for addressing concerns (French in particular) on the rights of posted workers.
Something will also be said about European defence at today’s meeting. But Tusk, as a Polish politician who knows the reality of the Russian threat, is not about to ditch NATO. European security cooperation will be primarily about combatting terrorism, protecting borders and about peacekeeping. NATO and the EU are committed to doing more together.
If this does not look much like a great reform plan that is because the political market in the EU, fractured and fractious, will not bear it.
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