What does Bratislava summit mean for the future of the EU?

What would be your take from Bratislava summit, any positive signs for the EU or not very much? Read few comments.

Bratislava Castle where 27 leaders of the EU’s Member States gathered. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Bratislava Castle where 27 leaders of the EU’s Member States gathered. Credit: Andrej Matisak


Anna VisviziAssociate Professor, DEREE – The American College of Greece

The Bratislava Summit and the resulting ‘Bratislava Roadmap’ inscribe themselves in a broader, albeit largely implicit, process of the EU reconstituting itself. That is, once again, the EU member states and the key EU institutions seek to understand what the EU is and what European integration is for. Undoubtedly, Brexit has been a trigger, similarly as the prospect of eastern enlargement (2004/2007) some years earlier.

The objective of the Bratislava summit was to establish a platform where the EU member states could agree on common points of reference, so that eventually a new coherent narrative of integration could be devised. That the old post-war narratives lost their appeal has been pointed out by many (Dempsey, 2016; Mazzucelli et al., 2016)2. And yet, the ‘Bratislava Roadmap’ resembles a wish-list; a very typical for the EU mix of grand objectives followed by weak commitments. Most importantly, what has not been written in the document reveals more than what has been spelled out. This is what explains the reaction of Italy’s PM, M.Renzi who allegedly said: “To define as a step forward today’s document on migrants would require a form of fantasy, a verbal high-wire act.”

Sadly, the obvious lack of willingness to address the challenge of migration together, rather than washing off the hands and hence – it is the painful truth – leaving the burden of dealing with the challenge to Italy and Greece, is just one of the Roadmaps’ weaknesses. Let me single out two more of them.

One: The Roadmap sets the goal to “Do everything necessary to support Member States in ensuing internal security and fighting terrorism”. It is worrying that the ‘Roadmap’ does not make a distinction between “safety” and “security”. The use of either terms presupposes the application of different less/more invasive, respectively, policy means and instruments at national- and EU-levels. From a different angle, the reference to terrorism, implicitly in connection to migration, feeds in the populist argument on terrorism-migration nexus. The problem here is that in the absence of the old integrative narrative of cold war and communist threat, a dangerous precedence is built whereby terrorism and migration, essentially conflated, gradually turn into quite important components of the emerging new narrative of European integration. Is that what the leaders who met in Bratislava really wanted…?!

Two: There is a direct correlation between people’s growing dissatisfaction and questioning of the EU’s relevance, rising populism and their worsening living standards, well-being and professional development prospects. In this view, the need to deepen the internal market and to improve competitiveness of the EU economies should have been the centre piece of the ‘Roadmap’. Instead, once again, emphasis was placed on youth, essentially tacitly approving their frequently passively permissive stance to developments in the EU. Again no consideration was given to boosting labour mobility; to be sure, not via Erasmus, but by improving inter-operability of pension and healthcare systems across the EU. This would be one of the ways of mitigating possible future asymmetric shocks in the euro area. This would have revived people’s interest in the single market and the need to work together.

The single most important point of the Bratislava Roadmap is “start implementing the joint declaration with NATO immediately”. Amidst the debate on ‘EU army’ and faced with the urgent need to build a new integrative narrative of European integration, a firm commitment to Transatlantic partnership may prove the single most important factor that will save the EU from falling into irrelevance.

Cristina Blanco Sío-LópezEUI Ambassador/Research Associate at the Institute of Contemporary History (IHC), New University of Lisbon

The Bratislava Summit seems to consolidate a worrying penchant for tangential approaches and screen elusions on behalf of the current EU and member states’ so-called leaders, instead of focusing on frontline root causes of priority challenges.

However, elusions of frontal measures are bound to amplify the effects of a multilevel EU crisis.

I should specify that I talk about ‘current EU and member states’ leaders because they constitute only one of the myriads of possible versions of the European Union as a structure theoretically able to implement ethical, human rights based policy-making imperatives as the main political guideline.

The problem is that this current EU leadership version very much focuses on downplaying an enormous institutional and democratic potential in developing sustainable and fair socioeconomic models and a positive impact in global governance.

Politics is not a business model, but a long-term socially representative and sustainability-based responsibility.

Very much on the contrary, the current EU and member states’ leadership seems to concentrate on particular interests, neglecting the common good as a priority in democratic representativity.

Also, a self-declared willingness to focus ‘on citizens’ expectations’ does not correspond with the EU leadership not contesting member states’ erosions of civil liberties all across the Union. Moreover, the emphasis on being ‘attractive’ to citizens would not even be necessary when there is a working quality of democracy.

The fact that the EU’s current version’ raison d’être is questioned does not imply a need to take political actions to increase ‘institutional attractiveness’, but just a need to fully understand the root reasons for such questioning and to acknowledge that it can be possible to learn from society’s constructive criticism. In fact, what it is socially being put into question is not that much the original ‘European idea’, but the vectors defended by very particular current actors with decision-making power at  the EU level and in the EU member states.

The presented ‘Bratislava roadmap’ indicates the aim to tackle the EU “migration, terrorism, and economic and social insecurity challenges” but there is a constant elusion of the root causes of such challenges, which causes a political decision ‘rhetorical entrapment’. This is well represented, for instance, by the fact that migration policy is exclusively contemplated through a security lens and preeminently managed by organised crime in the absence of a solid migration policy institutional framework at the EU level.

From a socioeconomic perspective, the fact that member states implement austerity measures which are even harsher than EU requirements only contributes to consolidate an ever increasing social inequality gap.

Indeed, no leading concept of social justice or dignity is instilled in the articulation of the EU and member states’ labour markets to tackle socioeconomic crisis root cases.

The current EU and member states political and socioeconomic vectors underplay the key EU foundational value of solidarity within EU societies by means of: accentuating social inequality; re-opening a seemingly superseded EU North-South instrumental cleavage; establishing multiple forms of ‘second class citizenship’ within EU frontiers, but also in relation to EU’s foreign relations and migration, etc. Together with the key value of solidarity, the foundational value of socioeconomic cohesion is being degraded, as well as the intrinsic value of peace and the quality of democracy. They are, indeed, being substituted by the disruptions of an enhanced security vs. liberty imbalance, depriving the vision of progressive integration of a social dimension and of an ‘inclusive globalisation’ strategy.

The fact that solidarity, cohesion and dialogued democracy were the main ingredients of an ongoing European integration vision — guided by a compromise with ethical imperatives —  should entail that they are being applied to every single EU policy area. The opposite constitutes an unequivocal and risky ‘fear of freedom’.

From the perspective security concerns overshadowing EU fundamental freedoms and rights, it could be useful to turn back to the foundational and intrinsic value of peace. Peace is more that a presence of security and an absence of conflict. Peace entails a proactive stance of consensus building and dialogued cooperation, as well as a promotion of ethic and civic values and a community building component which could be re-instilled in domestic member states politics and in EU foreign relations. Indeed, no security concern must come at the price of degrading the active defence of human rights. Plus, an overshadowing emphasis on security is not a substitute of the quality of democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms and rights.

Because of these reasons, the Bratislava Summit looks — aesthetically and rhetorically — like the right theatre, while it presents, however, an insufficient play.

Regarding the crucial game changer of Brexit, it is outrageous that it is not being seen as an immediate mass deprivation of rights for millions of UK citizens and residents. Nobody seems to care about how the lives of those persons will change beyond political frameworks. Politics impacts persons but, in this case, persons’ priorities seem to be out of every possible policy-making equation. The EU could develop an exemplary focus in this respect by placing British citizens and residents’ rights as the priority when negotiating with the British government.

Overall, ‘dignity’ and ‘sustainability’ as policy-making priorities are missing from this picture too, even if they comprise vital future-oriented guidelines such as environmental sustainability as the basis for the common good and dignity in job relations and structures as opposed to: rising labour precariousness, the absence of career development opportunities for young and well prepared professionals and normalised exploitation.

In short, the concept of quality in EU policy-making needs to re-appropriate the priorities of: the quality of democratic governance; the quality of employment and the full development of a ‘social Europe’; the ethically guided quality of EU foreign relations based on good global governance for peaceful conflict resolution beyond conflict escalation in the EU neighbourhood (instead of boasting 70 years of peace while war and human rights violations explode in the neighbourghood: Ukraine and the ex-Yugoslavia) and the quality of life and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms within any guiding concept of migration and mobility policies.

The Bratislava summit also presented a reinforced return to intergovernmental approaches. Nonetheless, global governance challenges and opportunities in cooperation with all world regions require the practice of consensus-making supranationalism. Challenges such as organised crime and envinronmental damage surpass national frontiers. Therefore, supranationalims should be a prerequisite to overcome incomplete and uncoordinated answers. Again, there seems to currently be a very irresponsible ‘fear to freedom’ in this realm.

Furthermore, speeches which include a “the world is watching us” instance should imply an active engagement in comparative regional integration. Very much on the contrary, while the so-called European social model constitutes a studied paradigm in other worlds regions, the current EU and member states’ leadership is undermining the basis of the European Welfare State in favour of short-term corporate profits, making it unsustainable for future generations.

Furthermore, what the Bratislava Summit projected was a defensive view of the EU future deprived of its formerly compelling sense of ‘vision’.

The future should not just be ‘a Europe that protects’, but also a Europe which offers the possibility of unfolding the high multi-skill, multilingual and intercultural potential of thousands of young professionals who are just fleeing in search of fulfilling opportunities, as it is the case in Southern Europe. That is why finding a sustainable way of guaranteeing socioeconomic equality and cohesion will have to be a priority in any forthcoming EU design.

This priority would also entail not to just create core innovation centres and serving downgraded peripheries in the South and East of Europe, but diversifying innovation cores all across the continent actually following European integration cohesion and convergence principles.

Against this backdrop, we are right to wonder: can the future bring more than an ongoing screen of tangential policy-making substitutes?

In conclusion, hopeful directions need to intertwine a frontal approach focusing on root-causes of current problems with the conscious retaking of self-defining European integration principles (solidarity, cohesion, peace, dialogue, sustainability and the quality of democracy). Actually applying these principles to all inner and outer dimensions of EU policy-making in global governance will equally constitute the main anchor of EU’s democratic legitimacy.


Russell FosterDepartment of European & International Studies, King’s College London

In 1804, the Imperial Diet (parliament) of the Holy Roman Empire met at Frankfurt for an emergency session on the Reichskrise – the Imperial Crisis – as the Empire quickly disintegrated. Smaller member-states such as Hungary and Bavaria resented the powers of larger members such as Prussia and Austria, while larger member resented the smaller members’ demands for increasing sovereignty and control of their own affairs outside of central influence from Vienna. The 2016 Bratislava Summit is a retelling of the 1804 Reichstag – a realisation that the differences between member-states increasingly outweigh their similarities. I fear that like the 1804 Reichstag, the 2016 Summit is a sign of imminent disintegration.

This was demonstrated by Jean-Claude Juncker’s opening statement that the EU now faces an existential crisis. It does, and it was inevitable. The European Union has spent the last ten years lurching from one disaster to another. In 2005 the French and Dutch populations rejected a European Constitution, fearing that the EU was growing too centralised and too powerful at the expense of popular sentiment. Since 2007, the Eurozone crisis (which was a structural weakness and the failure of the Eurozone was only a matter of time) created immense resentment of the EU among populations who have to endure austerity measures handed down by central bureaucrats who are not elected, and therefore are not answerable to the public. Since 2011 the EU has had a chaotic and poorly-organised response to the migration crisis, mirrored by the EU’s lack of meaningful response to Russian adventurism in South Ossetia and Ukraine. All of these have fuelled popular resentment to the EU, which now threatens to end the Union. Brexit is merely one symptom of a severe structural crisis which is now symbolised by the Bratislava Summit.

At Bratislava, we have seen urgent, passionate calls for the Union to remember its founding principles and impassioned calls for unity. Yet we also see the fundamental weakness at the heart of the EU – the gulf between elite intentions and popular interpretations. The EU has lost the public’s faith, and no amount of passionate calls for unity can hide the fact that the EU’s leaders still fail to acknowledge the fundamental problem – that the public no longer have faith in the Union.

Before the 2000s, the European project was a distant, elite organisation concerned with issues that did not directly affect ordinary people – trade agreements, currency transfers, commercial quotas. This required that the EU be managed by technical experts who knew what they were doing without having to cater to public demands, and it worked very well. But since the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and since the introduction of the common currency in 2001, the European Union has grown from a distant organisation into a pseudo-government which directly affects the lives of 500 million people. But while the EU’s powers have increased, its public accountability has not. EU elites have good visions and good intentions, but they are blind to the harsh, depressing reality that while the bureaucrats and politicians of Brussels support the European idea, the public on the streets of Nitra, Nice, and Nottingham are hostile to an idea which they associate with austerity, mismanagement, and elitism.

The Bratislava Summit has been dominated by good intentions and appeals to an altruistic vision. Just like the Reichstag in 1804. But like the Reichstag, the Summit shows that the leaders are still deaf to the voices of Europeans who feel betrayed, abandoned, and ignored.

If the European Union is to survive, it needs immediate reform and significant, symbolic statements that the leaders are actually listening to the people. For better or for worse, the EU is now a pseudo-state and its Commissioners are required to listen to people who are unhappy with their leaders. Bratislava was a defining moment and an opportunity to listen. To listen to the French, the Hungarians, the Greeks – who are increasingly looking to the British example of saying “sorry, this isn’t working for us”. Bratislava was an opportunity – a lost opportunity. The EU’s leaders repeat their good intentions and their moral urgency to remain united. But they are not listening to their own people. I fear that Bratislava 2016 is a repeat of Frankfurt 1804 – what Lenin called “the last gasp of a moribund system”. If the EU has any hope of survival into the early 2020s, its leaders must sit up and listen to those 500 million people who lack any meaningful political representation. Otherwise Bratislava, like Vienna in 1806, may witness the death of an empire which we will deeply regret.

Jost-Henrik Morgenstern-Pomorski, Lecturer, European Studies, Department of Politics, Maastricht University

The results of the Bratislava declaration and the so-called road map have already been met with comments highlighting the disappointing nature of the agreed steps. But in the end this is due to inflated expectations more than anything else. The EU is a collection of very diverse countries with governments that have very different objectives and priorities. The EU isn’t going to be able to answer with a big bargain solution that somehow miraculously cures all its problems. The only thing it can do is what it has done in Bratislava: agree on broad strokes, agree on a ‘road map’, prioritise policies already in the process, and push the political fight about the details to a later date and to another forum to settle disagreements. It’s the tried and tested method of EU decision-making, in this case pushing up against the fact that the problems are not necessarily solved this way and that this style of taking decisions isn’t reassuring to parts of the electorates in the member states.

The real structural challenge facing the EU isn’t necessarily mass immigration (the success and failure of which will largely be determined in the member states through national, regional and local policies), but rather the fact that the EU has no means to deal with members who are undermining its nature as a club of democratic, rule-of-law regimes. An EU with even two or three members run in a managed democracy will mean integration at the level of 27 will stop and reverse. The idea that one can untangle the EU system into policies one finds agreeable and others that are not is bound to lead at best to a two-level, core Europe type of system. Calls for flexible solidarity by one group in one area will be met with calls to undo solidarity in another; witness the immediate link of reduction in regional funds to refusal to take refugees. The Bratislava summit hasn’t addressed this in order to show unity of purpose, but it will resurface very soon after. In short, the EU does what it can, but whether it will succeed depends a lot on what happens in domestic political systems.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

I’d say that Bratislava highlights the continuing difficulty the EU faces in finding strong leadership to guide it through the current set of crises. The summit was supposed to set out an agenda for the future, but found that without strong action on the current situation, it was very hard to know where they might find themselves in the coming years.

Māris Andžāns, Researcher, Latvian Institute of International Affairs

In my view, expectations for decisions or at least directions determined at the Bratislava summit were much higher than the deliverables. However, given the traditional slow decision making processes and reforms of the EU on many occasions in the past, maybe it was a bit naïve to expect more that was delivered at this particular time.

The Bratislava Declaration is decent as it acknowledges the main challenges the EU faces, however it lacks clarity in regards on how concrete issues will be tackled and how the EU will look like after the Brexit.


One Response

  1. […] take on the EU-27’s Bratislava roadmap on Matysak’s blog: the real danger lies not in the refugee situation and is entirely ignored by […]

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