Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS
On 16 September, EU officials will meet in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, for an informal ‘summit’. While a seismic change in the way the EU functions is not on the cards, European leaders will be discussing some of the issues currently challenging the bloc.
First on the agenda is likely to be Brexit, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already resolutely stated that the UK’s exit from the EU will not dominate the discussions. Still, the UK’s conspicuous absence from the talks will give European leaders a chance to regroup and discuss how to avoid Brexit enthusiasm spreading to other member states. The difficulty is that EU leaders are split on how to stop ‘contagion’. While some favour increased cooperation, others are growing sceptical and want to introduce more flexibility into European institutions.
From Brexit, the discussion will turn to migration. Anti-migrant rhetoric across the bloc is increasingly prevalent, despite the refusals by Jean-Claude Juncker and the eternally entertaining MEP Guy Verhofstadt to take it seriously. Clearly, irregular migration is making citizens worried. Greeks and Italians are concerned that the massive influx of refugees over the last two years is too much for the national infrastructure to cope with, and want more solidarity; meanwhile in Central and Eastern Europe, governments are angrily decrying the European Union’s attempts to distribute the burden. Crime scandals involving refugees and the recent discovery that three Islamic State members entered Germany as refugees are fuelling fears about stretched resources and security. Again, the idea that 27 leaders might be able to come up with a blueprint for future cooperation is simply wishful thinking. However, the informal setting should allow the politicians to discuss the matter calmly and without too much media scrutiny.
Related to migration is the issue of visa-free access. The Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and the host Slovakia), have declared their support for Ukrainian citizens finally receiving visa-free access, which was delayed in June. Along with Kosovo and Georgia, Ukraine was disappointed to be denied visa-free travel to the EU, but benefits from close ties to its Western neighbours. Kiev will be able to count on Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s firebrand prime minister, to bring up the issue. On this point at least, most attendees will agree: it is likely that Ukraine will achieve visa-free travel in October 2016.
Finally, the representatives will talk security. Paris and Berlin want to put forward their proposal for collective defence, which German foreign minister Ursula von der Leyen described as a ‘Schengen for defence’. With the troublesome UK out of the picture, one of the loudest opponents of a closer defence union has been removed. The Visegrad countries are also in favour of stronger defence and will present a unified front. On this point, then, the meeting in Slovakia may prove fruitful.
In March, the same leaders will meet again in Rome to commemorate the signing of the historic treaty that brought the European Union into existence. They hope that the Bratislava meeting on Friday will bring them some clarity about how to keep the bloc alive.