The recent Bratislava summit was supposed to be the beginning of a long and arduous process of the EU’s own reinvention in its post-Brexit reality. The process was to be kick-started in Bratislava and it was to demonstrate the unity of EU Member States. Instead, the meeting in Slovakia was broken off in a spirit that resembled everything but unity.
The Bratislava summit had a symbolic role to play in that its main purpose was to communicate the determination of the leaders to work together on ushering in a new vision of Europe. One that would bridge the widening gap between the citizens and their trust in the EU, one that would regain control over the migration crisis, one that would offer a sense of security.
In other words, and despite the so-called Bratislava declaration signed by all 27 EU leaders (the UK was not invited), the summit was never going to produce any meaningful and concrete outcomes. But if symbolism and unity are the two benchmarks by which we are to assess the meeting, then one has to admit that Bratislava was a failure. The European Union, visibly struggling to overcome the catalogue of internal and external crises, is abandoning the symbols of unity and replacing them with the new game in town: disintegration.
It is hard to deny that Brexit took the EU by surprise. The irrefutable trajectory of the ‘ever closer Union’ has been challenged and no amount of self-reassuring platitudes as expressed in the Bratislava declaration can hide the fact that the EU is losing one of its most prominent members.
The Bratislava summit did little, if anything to help Member States overcome their diverging visions on how big or small, protectionist or liberal, federalist or intergovernmental the EU will become in the coming years, especially once the UK leaves. What Member States think matters. It will be them, not the Commissioners in Berlaymont or MEPs in Strasbourg that will decide the faith of the EU. Yet, far from converging their visions, the EU’s Prime Ministers and heads of states seem to be drifting further away from one another.
The most divisive of all issues, also playing a dominant role in the Bratislava meeting, is the migrants’ crisis. Two EU leaders with two very distinct visions in particular, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, vented their frustrations. Renzi, who is currently in the political throes of his own making (by having decided to hold a constitutional referendum, a negative vote of which will lead to his dismissal), left Bratislava with a feeling of indignation. Dissatisfied with the lack of support for the southern states when it comes to managing the migration flows, he refused to stand shoulder to shoulder with Angela Merkel and Francois Holland in a press meeting by saying: “To define as a step forward today’s document on migrants would require a form of fantasy, a verbal high-wire act”.
Adding to that voice of dissent and echoing the exasperation of the rest of his Central European colleagues, Viktor Orban condemned the EU’s migration and refugee policy as “self-destructive and naïve”.
The rift between countries on the issue of migration is wide and shows no signs of closing. On top of that, the migration crisis is undermining the EU by both showcasing how fundamentally different the Member States are and by spilling over into other EU domains such as the EU funds – a move that erodes the incentives of EU membership for some of the states even further.
First of all, there is no denying that old and new European states do not see eye to eye on the issue of migration. The recalcitrant opposition to the EU’s half-baked non-solutions to the crisis has won the Visegrad countries few allies in the West. The level of animosity has made personal attacks side-line diplomacy. For instance, ahead of the Bratislava summit, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn recommended that Hungary be expelled from the EU for not upholding the Union’s fundamental values such as the lack of respect for refugees – this being demonstrated, among other things, by building a barbed wire fence around its border with Serbia and Croatia. Hungary, in words of Mr. Asselborn, “is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees”. Leaving aside the hysterical reaction and exaggeration, Luxembourg has in essence called for Hungary’s expulsion on the grounds of it fulfilling its obligations as prescribed by the Schengen agreement: namely to protect the Schengen’s external border.
Second of all, the contours of the disparities between countries when it comes to the migration crisis are drawn in such a conspicuous way that neither side, be it the old or new Member States, will move an inch. This is due to the fundamentally different perceptions of concepts such as identity and culture. Migration, in particular from Muslim countries, is understood as a threat to the very existence of the way of life in Central Europe and the countries wish to preserve it at all cost.
And at all cost it is! No threat of financial repercussions has so far made a significant dent into the Visegrad group’s stance on the issue of migration. In fact and in the wake of the Bratislava summit, the Council agreed – with the support of the Visegrad countries – a transfer of some of the EU funds currently used for poorer countries to budgets dealing with the management of the migration flows. This agreement has satisfied both sides of the argument: those who feel vindicated that countries not willing to cooperate in accepting migrants and refugees get punished and those who would rather pay the financial price than to lose power over their destiny.
Nevertheless, while it takes some pressure off the incessant conflicts between the “willing” and the “not-so-willing” countries, in the long-run, this move will lead to further disintegration. It is a double-edged sword. It has become plainly obvious that identity-politics plays an important role in Central Europe and by removing some of the financial incentives of the EU membership, the voice of dissent of the V4 will grow even louder. The less financially dependent on the richer Western Member States the Visegrad countries become, the more encouraged and honest they turn out to be.
To put it simply; the EU is in a state of crisis and the Member States, key in determining the future of the Union, are only now learning about each other’s differences. Differences that were previously invisible or blissfully tolerated. Faced with an existential crisis, the European Union has no choice but to become honest with itself. Ahead of the Bratislava summit, Donald Tusk called for the Member States to engage in a “sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation”. The EU is about to embark on a conversation that is long overdue. And while this conversation may be unpleasant for some, it will at last honest.
The Bratislava summit failed to communicate the message of unity. It failed to portray the EU as a united front which, despite its diversity, stands shoulder to shoulder ready to weather the storm. But while it failed to deliver on the symbol of unity, its significance should not be underestimated nevertheless. While its ambitions were to mark the beginning of the new dawn for the EU, the Bratislava summit might as well enter the history books as first of the many Council meetings leading eventually to further disintegration of the Union as we know it.