EU Strives for Unity Minus U.K. With Leaders Focused on Security

(Bloomberg) -- Leaders of the European Union’s 27 nations minus the U.K. talked up the need to secure their borders to control immigration and curb terrorism as they began to chart a way forward in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.

As a summit in the Slovak capital Bratislava got under way, government chiefs attempted to put aside disagreements on the EU’s most pressing issues -- from how to cope with a record influx of refugees to boosting economic growth -- as they cast around for solutions to fight a surging wave of populism from Paris to Vienna that’s gnawing at the bloc’s liberal principles.

“We need to be united,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters Friday on her way into the meeting in Bratislava Castle on the banks of the Danube River. “This is about showing that we can do better through action in the areas of security -- internally and externally -- fighting terrorism, cooperation on defense, that we can do better in the area of growth and employment.”

The U.K.’s unprecedented decision to turn its back on the EU was the trigger for an intense period of European introspection, but it wasn’t the only cause. An influx of more than a million migrants from the world’s troublespots, fatal terrorist attacks and an unemployment rate that’s barely budged since the ravages of the debt crisis half a decade ago are combining to increase anti-EU feeling across the bloc and a sense of existential crisis.

Eastern Concerns

Even as leaders talk up unity of purpose on migration, there’s little evidence the EU’s eastern countries are ready to participate in the bloc’s plans to share the burden of asylum seekers. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic will instead use the Bratislava summit to call for a strengthening of EU security, better control of its southern borders and protection of free movement, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on his way into the meeting.

“There’s a very strong will among everyone -- the 27 members -- to continue with the European project,” Sobotka said. “The alternative is protectionism, building fences between members, conflicts between individual countries.”

What’s not on the official agenda is the EU’s future relationship with the U.K. post-Brexit since leaders have made clear that they won’t enter into negotiations with Theresa May’s government until formal notification of Britain’s is posted.

EU Strives for Unity Minus U.K. With Leaders Focused on Security

The summit, held in Bratislava because Slovakia holds the EU’s rotating presidency, may be long on rhetoric and short on action, with leaders likely to come to few decisions. They will instead try to set broad parameters for negotiations in the months ahead.

“What is fundamental here today is that all together we work so that Europe has an identity, a heart,” said Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “If Europe deals a bit less with rules and bureaucracy and a bit more with fundamental questions I think this is good for our country and for everyone.”

Merkel used a speech late Thursday in Potsdam, outside Berlin, to vow to do everything she can to hold the EU together in the face of a populist backlash, saying the bloc’s survival is becoming a question of war and peace.

The strong language from Europe’s pre-eminent leader underscores the stakes for Merkel and the other national EU leaders as they plot the union’s course post-Brexit. While Friday’s meeting is only an opening move, economists say that a weak response risks holding back growth and plunging the EU into an prolonged malaise.

2017 Elections

Elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany in 2017 could make it difficult to achieve a significant breakthrough that revives confidence in the future of the EU, according to Philippe Gudin, chief European economist at Barclays Bank in Paris.

“We believe that the lack of ambition of the European agenda could feed a decline in confidence by markets and economic agents in the coming months, causing an economic slowdown in the euro area,” Gudin said in a note.