Leaders hope to agree 'Bratislava roadmap' to new-look EU

Leaders hope to agree 'Bratislava roadmap' to new-look EU

European Union leaders are anxiously seeking to forge a sense of common purpose at a meeting in Slovakia in the face of the planned departure of Britain and fundamental disagreements over issues ranging from migration to the economy.

The 27 leaders, who are meeting without British prime minister Theresa May, hope their day of talks in the Slovak capital will provide the outline of a new "Bratislava roadmap" that should lead to a new-look EU by next spring.

The EU has been rocked by Britain's decision in a referendum in June to leave the EU and is assessing the fallout on its future.

Top of the agenda is how to heighten security and better defence cooperation, secure external borders to deal with chaotic immigration and measures to get the vast ranks of unemployed youth in Europe back to work.

Added urgency comes from the fact that countries like France and Germany hold elections 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.

Slovak Prime Minister - and summit co-host - Robert Fico said that "we all want to show unity and we all want to show that this is a unique project and we need to continue".

France and Germany have been the EU's driving forces since its inception over half a century ago, and they are cooperating intensely to get the project back on track ahead of a summit in the Italian capital next March, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the EU's founding Treaty of Rome.

"We are in a critical situation," German chancellor Angela Merkel said. "I hope that Bratislava stands for the fact that we want to work together, and we want the problems that there are in Europe to be solved,"

She immediately threw her country's economic weight behind the planned reset. "We have to show through actions that we can make it better," she said.

French president Francois Hollande said the "Bratislava roadmap" consists of three simple themes to help restore the confidence of citizens in the European project.

"Protection, which is to say security; the preparation of the future, which means being able to be a great power on the global scale in terms of the economy and creating employment; and lastly to give hope to youth," he said.

Mr Hollande is under intense pressure to come with some success as he 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.

The weeks preceding the Bratislava summit have seen an endless array of regional meetings of government leaders on how the EU should be run in the future. Divisions have emerged along geographical or ideological lines, or a mix of both.

The refugee emergency has been specifically divisive. Countries in the east - Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and others - have openly opposed proposed solutions coming out of EU headquarters Brussels and even defied the wishes of their neighbours.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has been one of the most abrasive voices coming into the summit, saying there should be no more "lawmaking tricks" from EU institutions which he said circumvent the sovereign decisions and will of the nation-states on the migration issue.

Orban said that while the EU leaders had voted for voluntary refugee resettlement quotas, the EU parliament and the EU Commission transformed them into mandatory quotas. "I asked them not to do this anymore because the nation-states cannot accept it."

The foreign minister of founding member Luxembourg last week called on the EU to consider kicking Hungary out over human rights issues.

Prime Minister Xavier Bettel sought to dampen down on that talk, describing the comments as "awkward." This was not his government's policy, he insisted.

While the EU seeks to create common cause, Europe's economy remains weak.

Though Greece may have secured its euro future last year after its third international bailout, it is still struggling to deliver on its promises to creditors. How to deal with the euro's problems remains divisive - on one-side pro-austerity countries led by Germany, on the other more social-minded governments.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, whose country has been at the centre 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 PM Mark Rutte, though, insisted such internal quarrels have always been there.

As leader of a founding nation, he should know. "Differences are of all ages. When we started with six nations, they were there too. We have to make sure we can fix them," he said.

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