BRATISLAVA • German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned yesterday that the European Union (EU) faces a "critical situation" post-Brexit, as leaders met in the Slovak capital Bratislava without Britain to plot a course for the future.
The 27 leaders say they want to show they can respond to the challenges of mass migration, security, globalisation and a stuttering economy. But Dr Merkel said the bloc simply had to improve.
Her influence as leader of the EU's biggest economy has been undermined by her unpopular decision to open Germany's doors last year to nearly a million refugees.
"We are in a critical situation. We have to show with our actions that we can get better," Dr Merkel said as she arrived at the special summit. "I hope that Bratislava shows that we want to work together and we want to solve the problems which we have in Europe."
French President Francois Hollande was equally blunt about the task ahead. "We face either break-up, weakening - or we choose the opposite, together giving Europe a purpose," said Mr Hollande, who has made common cause with Berlin on boosting EU defence cooperation.
EU President Donald Tusk had warned earlier that leaders must "have a sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation".
The EU leaders have said they want to launch a "Bratislava Process" of reforms at this summit, to be further discussed in Malta early next year and then agreed on in Rome in March to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU.
But they will not hold formal talks in Bratislava on Brexit negotiations as they are still waiting for Britain to trigger the divorce process.
Boosting defence cooperation is a key issue for the leaders, who hope it will give them something to rally around after deadly terror attacks in France and Belgium.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker this week proposed an EU defence headquarters and a common defence force, ideas that Britain had previously nixed as they might overlap with Nato.
But cracks in the EU are evident. The migration crisis is the most divisive issue, with many eastern European leaders blaming Dr Merkel for opening the floodgates to refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is hosting the summit, said all wanted unity but a "very honest" exchange of views was needed to make that possible.