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EU leaders discuss 'critical situation' after Brexit
[BRATISLAVA] EU leaders began tough talks without Britain in Bratislava on Friday to chart a path out of the "critical situation" post-Brexit amid deep divisions over migration, security and globalisation.
The 27 leaders, meeting in a castle overlooking the River Danube in the Slovak capital, were warned they would have to be "brutally honest" to find a way forward.
They aim to draw up a roadmap for the future that they will discuss at further summits and then approve in Rome in March next year on the 60th anniversary of the EU's founding treaty.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters as she arrived for the summit: "We are in a critical situation. We have to show with our actions that we can get better."
Ms Merkel said the bloc had to improve "in the domain of security, internal and external security, the fight against terrorism, the cooperation in the field of defence", as well as defence and jobs.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is hosting the summit, said the leaders "all want to show unity" but warned that it would not be easy.
"After Brexit and the risks connected with Brexit, it is absolutely necessary to me to be very honest," he said.
But Fico himself has taken a very hard line on the migrant issue, refusing to allow in a "single Muslim" and taking the EU's refugee sharing policy to court. His views are shared by other Eastern European leaders.
In a further sign of the tensions over migration, Luxembourg's foreign minister this week called for Hungary to be suspended from the bloc for treating refugees from war-torn Syria and other countries like "animals".
EU President Donald Tusk had warned on the summit eve that they must "have a sober and brutally honest assessment of the situation." The leaders, who were greeted by soldiers in bright blue uniforms and ceremonial plumes, will hold talks at the towering castle before having lunch during a river cruise on the Danube.
Increasing EU defence cooperation post-Brexit is meant to be a key issue the leaders hope to rally around, but the issue still threatens to cause divisions.
French President Francois Hollande - whose country will be by far the bloc's top military power after Britain's departure - said as he arrived in Bratislava that his country "cannot be alone" on defence.
France and Germany, the EU's power couple have prepared plans for a "more active" defence policy to restore confidence shaken by terror attacks, the migrant crisis and globalisation.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker this week proposed an EU defence headquarters, underscoring how the EU is keen to move on now it no longer has to worry about Britain's long-term opposition to any European Union army which would undermine NATO's role.
The EU leaders will not formally discuss Brexit negotiations, with the rest of Europe impatiently waiting for frozen-out British Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger the two-year divorce process.
The EU, a bloc of 500 million people, has been under siege since the 2008 global financial crash threw millions out of work and austerity policies undercut its claim that it alone guaranteed a better economic future.
Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the migrant crisis and deadly Islamic State attacks in the heart of Europe in France and Belgium have eroded confidence that the EU can protect its citizens.
Cracks in the union are evident everywhere.
Thrice-bailed out Greece last week gathered mostly centre and centre-left southern EU leaders in Athens to urge their northern counterparts to share more of the migrant burden and ease up on austerity.
In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia meanwhile oppose taking in more migrants and believe nation states are the future of the EU, not a centralised superstate.
Britain meanwhile is left out in the cold, with the Times newspaper saying it was being treated as a "pariah state" and should have a say on issues which still affect it while it remains in the bloc.