BRATISLAVA — With policy splits among European Union countries putting their bloc under existential threat, national leaders agreed Friday on a six-month time table to come up with solutions for the multiple crises hobbling their union. But they delivered few concrete commitments on ways to bridge the deep differences.
While not on the agenda, Britain’s decision to leave the EU hung over the meeting, reinforced by the absence of British Prime Minister Theresa May. But the 27 leaders attending talks in the Slovak capital had plenty of other divisive issues to discuss: Migration, a common European defence policy, worrying unemployment and the anemic state of the economy.
In the end, the leaders committed to have a clear roadmap of the way ahead and some practical results when they meet in late March to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU founding Treaty of Rome in the Italian capital.
“Europe can, must move forward, as long as it has clear priorities: protection, security, prosperity and the future of the youth,” said French President Francois Hollande in a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel called the current situation in the EU “critical”, not only because Britain voted in June to leave the EU, the first ever member to do so.
She noted the migration crisis and economic problems that have fed growing disenchantment with the EU among many member states. Still, she said there was a common willingness to bounce back beyond the many issues that divide and even anger individual EU nations.
EU Council President Donald Tusk agreed, saying the mood in the EU now was “sober but not defeatist”.
Still, comments by some leaders as they left the meeting suggested hard work ahead.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the staunchest opponent of liberal EU migration policies, again blamed Germany for refusing to set limits on migrant arrivals under Merkel. Unless Berlin caps arrivals, he said, the flood will continue “because everyone sees . . . that there is a place in Europe where the good life can be achieved, where they are welcomed and where their needs are taken care of.”
Orban said Hungary should be praised instead of criticized for erecting a razor-wire barrier at its southern borders. “Our job is to stop at the Hungarian border the negative consequences of the suction effect of German domestic politics,” he said.
The refugee emergency has been particularly divisive and Orban has been one of the most abrasive voices as he makes common cause with other countries to the East — Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland — to oppose solutions coming out of EU headquarters in Brussels.
At the end of a “difficult day” of consultations, Orban said the good news is that all 27 remaining EU members said they would stay in the union and work together to improve it. But he complained that the current “self-defeating and naive” migration policies would remain.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, frankly acknowledged the divisions. “There are different views, different ideas,” he said. “We need to be more concrete in the future.”
Still, some of Orban’s allies noted recent give by Brussels on the notion of mandatory refugee resettlement.
“It is of great importance that we are leaving today with a new political agenda that will open the process of EU reforms,” Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said. “We are opening the process of reforming Europe.”
Others also noted some progress in discussions on how to heighten security and defence cooperation, secure external borders and get Europe’s unemployed youth back to work.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said a decision was taken to award 108 million euros (US$121 million) in emergency funding to Bulgaria for border management at one of the most porous borders, with Turkey — a decision praised by Orban. Other EU nations committed extra equipment and personnel.
Added urgency for EU reform comes from planned elections in France and Germany next year where far-right and populist parties are seeking to exploit uncertainty generated by Britain’s decision to become the first country to walk out of the EU.
Hollande is trailing in the polls ahead of next May’s French presidential elections. His far-right opponent from the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has already said she will call for an in-out referendum on EU membership if she wins.
Europe’s weak economy also hampers EU efforts to make common cause. Greece remains in the zone of EU nations using the euro after its third international bailout. But it is still struggling to deliver on its promises to creditors. How to deal with the euro’s problems remains divisive — on one side are pro-austerity countries led by Germany, on the other, more social-minded governments.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose country has been at the center of the region’s debt crisis and seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly from Turkey, over the last year, said things cannot continue as they are.
“What Europe should not do is to continue sleepwalking in the wrong direction,” he said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country was one of the EU’s founders, insisted internal quarrels were not new.
“When we started with six nations, they were there too,” he said. “We have to make sure we can fix them.”