The heads of 27 European member states met at an informal meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia on 16 September. Whilst the issue of Brexit was not on the agenda, it could not be ignored with Theresa May notably absent from the ‘summit of reflection’ in the wake of the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU.
With no formal discussion regarding Brexit expected as the UK has not triggered Article 50 TEU yet, the leaders discussed the issues of migration, terrorism and economic and social insecurity. They agreed to provide Bulgaria with extra funding to strengthen the protection of its border with Turkey and to start implementing a joint declaration with NATO, following recent calls for a European ‘Defence Union’, as confirmed by the Bratislava declaration and road map.
The UK’s proposed withdrawal from the EU was however prominent in discussions, with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, saying that the decision of the UK on 23 June 2016 called for an evaluation of the state of the EU and ‘an honest diagnosis’ of the causes of the current political situation in Europe. He alluded that there was a need for trust and confidence in the EU to be renewed in the wake of the UK referendum, refugee crisis and spate of terror attacks recently.
The heads of state and government were however relatively optimistic, with the declaration stating that they are ‘determined to make a success of the EU with 27 member states’ and Tusk suggesting that the EU could be stronger without the UK. Questioned by journalists afterwards, Tusk stated that the first goal of the EU in the withdrawal negotiations would be to achieve a relationship with the UK that is as close as possible but that its other, equally important, goal is to protect the interests of the 27 remaining member states. He added that the EU is well-prepared for such negotiations and could begin them ‘even tomorrow’.
Likewise, Robert Fico, Slovak prime minister added that, unlike the UK, the EU knew what it wanted; a result whereby it is clear that it is worth being a member of the EU.
Fico stated the EU would reject ‘cherry-picking’ by the UK, referring to the UK’s perceived wish to remain in the single market but limit migration of EU citizens. He stated that there were 70,000 Slovaks in the UK who, together with many more Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians, had contributed to the wealth of Britain and that the EU would not allow such people to become ‘second-rate citizens’.
The conclusions of the informal meeting were met with some criticism. Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, thought the meeting had skirted key issues like the refugee crisis and the budget. Likewise, the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) stated that ‘the declaration provides no vision or leadership for Europe’ whilst the Socialists and Democrats Group said that it is not acceptable that ‘Brexit seems to have been the elephant in the room’, calling for the UK government to start negotiations as soon as possible.