BRATISLAVA (AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Friday (Sept 16) that the EU faces a “critical situation”, as European leaders sought to plot the bloc’s post-Brexit future at a summit without Britain.
The 27 leaders – minus British Prime Minister Theresa May – gathered at Bratislava’s towering castle overlooking the River Danube, determined to respond to the challenges of mass migration, security, globalisation and a stuttering economy.
The aim was to thrash out a “roadmap” of reforms during talks in the Slovak capital’s towering hilltop castle, and a boat trip down the Danube.
Merkel said the bloc simply had to improve but 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,” Merkel said as she arrived at the special summit.
French President Francois Hollande, the other half of the EU’s “power couple” with Merkel, was equally blunt.
“We face either break-up, weakening – or we choose the opposite, together giving Europe a purpose,” said Hollande, who has made common cause with Berlin on boosting EU defence cooperation.
EU President Donald Tusk had warned on the eve of the summit that leaders must “have a sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation.”
The leaders want to launch a “Bratislava Process” of reforms at this summit, to be further discussed in Malta early next year and then agreed in Rome in March 2017 to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU.
An EU official said the initial discussions had been “honest, without recriminations” while Tusk had submitted his “roadmap” in the afternoon session.
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker had, meanwhile, submitted his version on Thursday but there were no major differences and it “mirrored” what was being discussed, the official said.
Greeted by soldiers in bright blue uniforms and ceremonial plumes, the leaders held a first round of talks in the castle then lunched on a river cruise on a German-flagged boat down the Danube to informally discuss Brexit.
The 27 leaders have insisted there will be no formal Brexit talks until Britain triggers the two-year divorce process and says what it wants.
Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat quipped in a tweet: “Bratislava summit was so far a straightforward discussion of options for EU to move ahead. We are all on the same boat, literally.”
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.
Juncker earlier this week proposed an EU defence headquarters and a common defence force, both ideas that Britain had previously nixed because they might overlap with Nato.
But cracks in the union are evident everywhere.
The migration crisis is the most divisive issue, with many Eastern European leaders blaming Merkel for opening the continent’s doors to refugees from conflict in 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.
Yet Fico himself has been a divisive figure on the migrant issue, refusing to allow in a “single Muslim” and taking the EU’s compulsory refugee-sharing policy to court.
The Visegrad Four, which groups Slovakia with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, largely holds the same view.
In a statement, the group said it was committed to reform of an EU in which closer integration allowed for strong national parliaments and free movement of people – while member states should be able to decide their own policy on refugees.
Tensions had bubbled up earlier this week when Luxembourg’s foreign minister called for Hungary to be suspended from the EU for treating refugees from war-torn Syria and other countries like “animals”.
Meanwhile thrice-bailed out Greece last week gathered mostly centre and centre-left southern EU leaders in Athens to urge their northern counterparts to share more of the migrant burden and ease up on austerity.
The EU, a bloc of 500 million people, has been under siege since the 2008 global financial crash.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the migrant crisis and deadly Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant attacks in France and Belgium have eroded confidence that the EU can protect its citizens.