The European Union is in a critical situation, Angela Merkel has said, as she arrived in Bratislava for a special summit – without the UK – that hopes to set a new course for a project battered by Brexit.
“We have to show with our actions that we can get better,” the German chancellor said. The bloc had to improve “in the domain of security, internal and external security, the fight against terrorism, the cooperation in the field of defence”, as well as defence and jobs, she added.
Donald Tusk, the European council president who chairs EU leaders’ summits, hopes to cool tempers in Slovakia after Luxembourg’s foreign minister called for Hungary to be thrown out of the EU for allegedly treating asylum seekers “worse than wild animals”. Hungary counterattacked with stinging criticism of the grand duchy’s record in helping big corporations avoid tax.
On the eve of the summit, Tusk called on EU leaders to take a “brutally honest” look at the bloc’s problems, declaring: “We must not let this crisis go to waste.”
“We haven’t come to Bratislava to comfort each other or even worse to deny the real challenges we face in this particular moment in the history of our community after the vote in the UK,” he said.
“We can’t start our discussion … with this kind of blissful conviction that nothing is wrong, that everything was and is OK,” he added. “We have to assure … our citizens that we have learned the lesson from Brexit and we are able to bring back stability and a sense of security and effective protection.”
The Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, who is hosting the summit, said the leaders “all want to show unity” but warned that it would not be easy.
“After Brexit and the risks connected with Brexit, it is absolutely necessary to me to be very honest,” he said.
Tusk hopes to focus on areas that the 27 leaders can agree on: border security, counter-terrorism and moves to “bring back control of globalisation”. Officials are playing down expectations of results from the meeting at Bratislava castle, in the capital of Slovakia, one of the four Visegrád countries along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, promised that the Visegrád group would present a plan to tackle the EU’s problems, which he said would “be an important moment in the life of these four countries”.
In a radio interview released on Friday morning, Orbán also said he expected migration pressure to increase in the Balkans again, once the weather worsens and sea routes to Italy become more difficult.
Officials close to Tusk hope for small but symbolic breakthroughs, most notably an agreement to send an extra 200 border guards and 50 vehicles to the EU’s external frontier in Bulgaria by next month.
Agreeing on stronger border defences may prove easier than sharing the cost of protecting refugees, which is likely to continue to strain unity. Visegrád group members are fiercely opposed to the EU executive’s attempts to fine them for not accepting refugees in their countries. Hungary has flatly refused to take in refugees under an EU quota scheme, while many other countries are falling short.
Orbán has called a referendum for 2 October on the EU relocation plan, under which the country would accept 1,294 asylum seekers.
Before the vote, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, appeared to offer an olive branch to his opponents. In his annual state of the union address, he said solidarity “must come from the heart” and could not be forced. One EU source said it was too early to say what this meant for the policy, describing it as “a semi step back by the commission that might be a useful way out”. Another EU official said the dispute was “a cancer we have to cure”.
In the citadel that towers over the Danube, Tusk will brief leaders on his recentmeeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May, although officials say there is little to report. The EU refuses to negotiate with the UK until the government triggers article 50, a position that is likely to be reaffirmed at the summit. EU leaders are also likely to repeat the mantra that Britain must accept freedom of movement in order to gain access to the single market.
In a recent letter to EU leaders, Tusk said it would be “a fatal error” to assume that the UK vote was a specifically British issue, describing it as “a desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily” about security, cultural heritage and way of life.
This view is found across EU institutions. “Brexit is a symptom of broader issues,” one EU diplomat said. “It is not as such the decisive factor, it is a wakeup call.”
Many Brussels insiders see little chance of repairing the bloc while France and Germany are preoccupied with elections in 2017.