Unity and cohesion were conspicuously absent at the Bratislava castle where the EU 28 minus 1 met to discuss the post-Brexit world. Nobody is harbouring any illusions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted that the EU is in an ‘existential crisis.’ Brexit is only the latest symptom of the fear and discontent that have spread across the continent, fuelled by the migrant crisis, Islamophobia, Eurozone woes and terrorist attacks. Friday’s meeting was organised by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, that provides strategic direction to the EU, in order to ‘diagnose’ the situation and to forge a united path forward. This is not going to be an easy task given that the bloc is split into factions, mainly around issues of economics and migration.
‘The Bratislava Declaration’ offers a road map for the next six months, on migration, border security, counter-terrorism, defence and economic and social development, providing political backing to measures announced by Mr. Juncker in his State of the Union address in Brussels. Europe is much like a stack of Jenga blocks at present. Each move needs precision and care in order to preserve the integrity of an increasingly tenuous union. The declaration identifies various areas for action. Some of these are likely to find wide acceptance, such as funding for strategic investments across the region, establishing a common capital market across the EU and acquiring advanced traveller information to secure borders. Other areas, such as migration, are more contentious. Hungarians will participate in a national referendum in October to decide whether they will accept the recommended share. The EU must find a creative, humane and effective solution to receive and resettle refugees. Another contentious proposal is the European army.
Mr. Juncker had proposed that member-states move towards pooling and centralising their defence and diplomatic resources. While there may be advantages with regard to defence procurement and operational efficiency and capabilities, it is exactly this kind of a ‘more Europe’ response to a problem that has left EU member-states and citizens disenchanted and fearful of what they see as Brussels’s overreach. Brussels will do well to heed the lessons of Brexit. This can be done in at least two ways. First, by focussing on the big picture and on areas where it has a comparative advantage while letting national governments take the lead in others. Second, by encouraging members to engage more rigorously with their citizens on EU issues — explaining policies and their outcomes, collecting feedback, and inviting ideas. These steps will go a long way towards, to use Mr. Tusk’s phrase, not letting this crisis go to waste.