BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – European Union leaders gathered in a centuries-old castle in the middle of their fractious continent Friday, hoping to find a sense of common purpose again in the face of the planned departure of Britain and fundamental disagreements over everything from uncontrolled migration to the economy.
The 27 leaders, minus British Prime Minister Theresa May, hope their daylong talks in the Slovak capital will provide the broad outlines of a new “Bratislava roadmap” that should lead to a new-look EU by next spring following the shock British referendum result in June.
Slovak Prime Minister and summit co-host Robert Fico said that “we all want to show unity and we all want to show that this is a unique project and we need to continue.”
France and Germany have been the driving nations behind the EU since its inception over half a century ago and they are co-operating intensely to get the EU back on the rails ahead of a summit in the Italian capital next March, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding Treaty of Rome.
With divisions rife among the 27 nations even now that Britain is on the way out, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the task ahead was massive. “We are in a critical situation,” she said.
“I hope that Bratislava stands for the fact that we want to work together, and we want the problems that there are in Europe to be solved,”
She immediately threw the weight of the EU’s economic powerhouse behind the planned reset of the EU. “We have to show through actions that we can make it better.”
French President Francois Hollande said the “Bratislava roadmap” consists of three simple themes to help restore the confidence of citizens in the European project.
“Protection, which is to say security; the preparation of the future, which means being able to be a great power on the global scale in terms of the economy and creating employment; and lastly to give hope to youth.”
The weeks preceding the Bratislava summit have seen an endless array of regional meetings of government leaders, hoping to gather some critical mass to push through their views on how the EU should be run in the future, along either geographical or ideological lines, or a mix of both.
The refugee emergency has been specifically divisive. Countries in the east – Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and others – have openly opposed proposed solutions coming out of EU headquarters Brussels and even defied the wishes of their neighbours.
Economic woes weigh heavily too. Greece’s place in the euro single currency has been called into question, and created a major rift between pro-austerity countries led by Germany and countries with more social-minded governments.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, though, insisted such quarrels have always been there. As leader of a founding nation, he should know. “Differences are of all ages. When we started with six nations, they were there too. We have to make sure we can fix them.”