After Brexit Vote, EU Leaders Struggle to Paper Over Divisions

EU leaders are likely to focus on the few issues where they can agree at upcoming Bratislava Summit

By Valentina Pop and Drew Hinshaw

A European Union flag in front of Elizabeth Tower in Westminster, London. The Brexit vote in June has raised fundamental questions of the EU’s future. Photo: Zuma Press

STRASBOURG—When European leaders gather in Slovakia, this Friday, to reflect on the future of the European Union after the U.K. leaves it, they are expected to stick to modest proposals in an effort to paper over deep divisions on the way ahead.

The U.K.’s June referendum, in which 52% of voters chose to quit the bloc, raised fundamental questions over the future of the EU, which has never before seen a member leave.

But instead of addressing those deep questions—over whether more political integration or a looser union is the answer—leaders are likely to focus on the few issues where they can agree: more cooperation in the fight against terrorism, border security, and a more generous investment policy.

“Never before have I seen such little common ground between our member states. So few areas where they agree to work together,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran of EU politics.

In the his annual State of the Union address delivered here to the European Parliament, Mr. Juncker painted a gloomy picture of the tensions and divisions within the bloc, but said the EU would withstand the pressures created by the U.K.’s Brexit vote.

“We respect and regret the U.K. decision, but the EU as such is not at risk,” Mr. Juncker said.

As a cure for the bloc’s ailments, Mr. Juncker put forward a series of initiatives across several policy areas, including building a greater common defense and foreign policy, doubling an EU investment fund and pushing new initiatives on a digital single market.

They are rare areas of agreement, in a sharply split bloc.

In Central and Eastern Europe, a growing club of smaller nations like Hungary are demanding tighter borders and more national autonomy, especially on migration policies coordinated from Brussels.

“Let’s return to the concept of Europe with nations,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a speech Monday, pushing for a looser, more autonomous EU. “We don’t want to exit, but to mend what we have.”

That has prompted backlash from more refugee-friendly governments.

Tensions flared Tuesday when, in an interview published in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn called for Hungary to be expelled from the EU due to its bad treatment of migrants. His Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto retorted that the Luxembourg politician can’t be taken seriously and called him “patronizing, arrogant and frustrated”.

In Western Europe, governments in Germany, France, and the Netherlands—all three facing national elections in 2017—are watching the rise of far-right parties that want to quit core parts of the EU, such as the euro and the border-free Schengen area.

In the run-up to the Bratislava summit, which includes all leaders except the U.K.’s Theresa May, EU top officials sought to play down expectations. “If they have a good day together, that will already be something,” said one senior EU official.

Mr. Juncker said that he asked each leader coming to Bratislava to think about “three reasons why we need the European Union.”

An internal diagram based on Mr. Juncker’s consultations with all 27 leaders and seen by The Wall Street Journal depicts 29 different areas of interest. But only three—the bloc’s single market, coordination in the fight against terrorism and policies in the digital sector—were backed by more than half the bloc’s nations, the diagram shows.

There was little appetite for, among other things, changing rules for workers’ mobility, on reform to the asylum system or on changing EU budget priorities.

European Council chief Donald Tusk, who represents all EU governments, including the U.K., said that the Bratislava meeting will be a moment to “make an honest assessment” of the EU’s shortcomings.

“Today many people, not only in the U.K., think that being part of the European Union stands in the way of stability and security,” he said in an invitation letter to all leaders.

Mr. Tusk blamed “last year’s chaos on our borders” for the dwindling trust in the EU. “Rebuilding this trust has become an urgent necessity, which Brexit has demonstrated very clearly,” he wrote.


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