EU leaders seek elusive road map
By Noah Barkin and Jason Hovet | BRATISLAVA
EU leaders, meeting without their British counterpart on Friday, said they had come up with a "road map" of strategies for rebuilding public trust in the European Union after the shock of Britain's vote to leave.
However, among pledges of cooperation to come up with a plan by the 60th anniversary of the Union's founding treaty in March, arguments over how to handle an influx of refugees rumbled on.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying the British vote had plunged the rest of the bloc into a "critical" situation, said the 27 had agreed at a day-long summit Bratislava to use the next six months to develop a plan to reinvigorate the Union.
"We have agreed that Europe, in the critical situation it's in after the referendum in Britain but also due to other problems we have, that we must jointly agree on an agenda, that we must have a working plan," she said, referring to a summit in the Italian capital to mark 60 years of the Treaty of Rome.
Merkel said the EU needed more solidarity and cooperation, the values it was founded on by six countries in 1957.
That sounded like a barbed reference to continued frustration with especially ex-communist eastern states which have refused to take in asylum-seekers, many of the Muslims, even as Merkel let in a million people last year.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, her bete noir on the issue, said the summit had failed to change EU immigration policies that he called "self-destructive and naive". He planned a new push for change at meeting of Balkan states on Sept. 24.
Others were keener to highlight positives from the meeting.
French President Francois Hollande, sitting alongside her in a demonstration of how Britain's departure has thrown the focus back on to the two old enemies who drove the bloc's foundation after World War Two, said the summit had shown that the Union could move on after the British referendum result.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on Twitter: "We have a proposal of a road map for concrete steps for strengthening citizens confidence in the functioning of the EU."
European Union leaders pose for a family photo during the European Union summit- the first one since Britain voted to quit- in Bratislava, Slovakia, September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Years of economic crisis have pushed up unemployment across southern Europe, while a spate of attacks by Islamist militants and a record influx of refugees from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have unsettled voters, who are turning to populist, anti-EU parties.
The "informal" summit - so-called because any formal one still has to include Britain until it leaves the bloc - is aimed at restoring public faith in the European Union, which for decades was seen as a guarantor of peace and prosperity but is now, officials acknowledge, in an "existential crisis".
The aim in Bratislava was to agree a "road map" for reform of the EU that can be finalised over the next half year. More concrete proposals would be presented at a summit in March of next year that coincides with the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding Treaty of Rome.
But because of divisions on some of the biggest issues, leaders are expected to stick to areas of common ground.
Diplomats said a busy morning of talks in Bratislava's hilltop castle had remained civil and constructive in analyzing what was wrong. "There were no recriminations," said a spokesman for summit chair Donald Tusk. "It was in a good atmosphere."
Tusk, the European Council president, then briefed them over lunch during a cruise on the Danube on where things stand with Britain. As Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to open formal talks, there was not expected to be much discussion.
They will pledge closer defense cooperation and agree to bolster security along the EU's external borders, as well as discussing new initiatives to generate growth and jobs.
"All these countries have an interest in fighting terrorism, in a more secure Europe, in preventing uncontrolled migration, all have an interest in economic cooperation to create more jobs," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte before the talks.
In private however, officials admit that major reform may not be possible until elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany are out of the way by late 2017.
Even after that, it is unclear whether Germany and France - for decades the motor of closer European integration - can bridge differences over economic policy.
Europe's dominant leader in recent years, Merkel is now under mounting political pressure at home because of her welcoming stance towards refugees one year ago, a position which alienated many of her EU partners.
In a sign of her waning power, she has failed to convince eastern European countries Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and summit host Slovakia to accept refugee quotas.
Known collectively as the Visegrad Four, they will submit their own text of proposals at the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, underscoring the divide.
Mujtaba Rahman of political risk consultancy Eurasia said the summit may only end up advertising "the scarcity of common ground" among the EU-27 and the weakness of its most important leaders Merkel, Hollande and Italy's Matteo Renzi.
Renzi's fate could depend on the outcome of a referendum he has called on constitutional reform, expected by December.
The leaders are not expected to discuss in any detail their looming divorce negotiations with Britain, which are likely to hang over the bloc for years, sapping resources, attention and threatening further divisions.