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Brexit proves springboard for EU-27 restart to avert collapse

Saturday, September 17, 2016 - 07:24
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The UK's impending exit from the European Union provided a kick start for the rest of the 28-nation bloc as leaders identified measures they hope will re-engage EU citizens and avert further disintegration.

[BRATISLAVA] The UK's impending exit from the European Union provided a kick start for the rest of the 28-nation bloc as leaders identified measures they hope will re-engage EU citizens and avert further disintegration.

During an eight-hour meeting in a hilltop castle in the Slovak capital Bratislava, EU heads attending their first summit without Britain discussed national gripes about the bloc and tried to work out how to mesh them into a coherent and common way forward.

The result was a "roadmap" of concrete steps toward closer cooperation on defense, spurring economic growth and bolstering security both internally and on the EU's external borders, with Brexit cited as the impetus to overhaul the way the EU works.

"Although one country has decided to leave, the EU remains indispensable for the rest of us," leaders said in a declaration after the summit.

"We need the EU not only to guarantee peace and democracy but also the security of our people."

Having emerged from the embers of World War II, the EU is confronting the greatest ever threat to its existence. The UK's vote to quit the club it joined in 1973, terrorist attacks in the EU's major cities, a wave of migration from outside its borders that's frayed the fabric of social cohesion and a jobless rate twice that of the US have combined to strangle Europe's confidence and raise question about the bloc's force for good.

"The risk of Europe's dislocation has never been this great," French President Francois Hollande said in a stark statement published on Facebook during the summit discussions.

"I'm really talking about a separation, and that means a return to borders, the end of free movement, the end of solidarity, the abandonment of the euro."

With elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year and with anti-EU populists seizing on the bloc's difficulties to present their alternative view of the future, leaders know they are in a race against time to come up with solutions radical enough to win back support from voters.

Leaders broadly fell into three camps at the summit, according to an EU official. Some want the bloc to focus on improving its response to migration and bolstering its external borders; another group wants more to be done to tackle youth unemployment that's nudging 50 per cent in Spain and Greece; and a third set is mostly concerned about stopping the growing terrorist threat.

While the prevailing mood was one of unity, bad feeling boiled over into public as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he was unable to hold a joint press conference with Mr Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he disagreed with them.

For Mr Renzi, who faces a crunch referendum of his own at a time when his country has the second-highest debt load in the euro area and stands on the front line for arrivals of refugees from Africa, the summit failed to live up to his hopes for an end to the EU's obsession with austerity and for ways cope with the migrant influx.

"I am not satisfied with the conclusions" of the summit "on growth and on migration" and for that reason "I cannot hold a news conference with Merkel and Hollande, not sharing the conclusions as they do," he said shortly after the summit finished.

To say progress was made on migration "is a flight of fantasy." EU President Donald Tusk set out leaders' targets for the months ahead, including guarantees to ensure full control of borders, continued work with Turkey and African countries on migration, intelligence-sharing to fight terrorism and exploring ways to cooperate in defence.

"We are determined to correct past mistakes," he said.

What wasn't on the official agenda was the EU's future relationship with the UK post-Brexit, although Mr Tusk reiterated that leaders have made clear they won't enter into negotiations with Theresa May's government until formal notification of Britain's is posted.

The period of EU introspection will continue at follow-up gatherings in Malta and Italy in the first three months of next year.

"Bratislava is not the magic moment where we'll wake up tomorrow to find Europe has been revolutionised," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after the summit. "It's a process."

BLOOMBERG