Bratislava Blues: What next for the bickering EU?

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks to journalists as he arrives for the European Union summit, September 15, 2016 Image copyright AFP
Image caption "Turbulent times marked by crisis and conflict" is how EC President Tusk describes the situation

It's essentially a high-level public relations exercise that risks falling humiliatingly flat.

In the heat of the EU upset following Britain's June vote to leave, it probably seemed very sensible to get the other 27 EU countries round a table - after a cooling-off period - to discuss the "what next".

It could visibly demonstrate that, despite Brexit, the EU project was very much alive and kicking.

But the day of that planned meeting has now dawned, and unity of purpose couldn't be a more distant prospect.

At EU summits, leaders traditionally pose for what's known as the "family photo".

But, as is the reality behind most family snaps, these 27 kids are variously bickering, sulking and winding each other up, while Jean Claude Juncker, the helicopter mum, and Donald Tusk, the more laissez-faire dad, fall out over parenting techniques.

Yet these are difficult times in the EU with its Brexit, migrant and monetary woes.

'Turbulent times'

"An existential crisis" said European Commission President Juncker this week.

"Turbulent times marked by crisis and conflict," said European Council President Tusk, the host of today's summit.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Bratislava Castle plays host to the EU leaders

That the meeting takes place in Bratislava is an irony that cannot be ignored.

Slovakia was loudly accused of betraying the very notion of EU solidarity after it objected to (and took legal action against) the EU migrant quota scheme to "share the burden" of last year's migrant crisis more equally amongst European partners.

Slovakia is also a member of the Visegrad group made up of four central and eastern European countries. That group has been vocal in its constant criticism of EU policies, and demands powers be taken away from Brussels and given back to national parliaments.

The Visegrads have announced they'll unveil a reform plan for Europe at this Bratislava summit - though their critics mutter that they are as divided amongst themselves as they are disconnected from Brussels.

East, south, west

But EU squabbles aren't solely East-West focused, as we saw at the recent meeting in Athens of the so-called Club Med group of southern Europe.

The Mediterranean seethes with resentment at perceived injustices in Eurozone regulations and at German austerity edicts.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel's crown as Queen of Europe has slumped.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Angela Merkel remains a powerful figure, but has lost some of her poliical clout

Her role in last year's migrant crisis - when she declared all Syrians welcome and asylum seekers poured into Germany and across the continent - damaged her standing at home and the rest of Europe.

She no longer has the same power to chivvy or bully other EU countries to follow her lead.

So while Mr Juncker now desperately calls for better defence projects and job-creating schemes in an attempt to demonstrate the bloc's value to the European public, Donald Tusk has woken up and smelled the pungent coffee notes wafting across the continent.

He's seen the increasing influence of nationalist-minded Eurosceptic parties that challenge elites - bankers, traditional politicians and yes, Brussels bureaucrats - all of whom are perceived to be self-serving at the expense of growing sections of society.

He knows now is not the time for grand pan-European announcements.

Today's meeting on the future of the EU must be "brutally honest", he said.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jean-Claude Juncker believes further integration - and military cooperation - is the future

In fact, the 27 EU leaders will probably row behind closed doors and then produce platitudes for the public: pledges on migration and security that Europeans won't believe and their governments will struggle to honour.

Because it's not just the EU that's fighting for survival.

The leaders of many of its member states are running scared from the populists. They fear for their political lives - and EU projects and visions are not vote winners.

So will this Bratislava meeting be the "turning point" Donald Tusk billed it to be, nudging the EU on a path back to stability and credibility?


It's far more likely, in true Brussels style, that the can will be kicked further down the road and the EU will muddle on.

For now.

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