Were they there to protect them, or to make sure no one else jumps overboard and decides to chance it on their own?
Given recent developments, it was a fair question to ask, as EU leaders took a ‘relaxed’ boat cruise along the Danube, surrounded by at least 12 military defence boats, two helicopters, and dozens of balaclava-wearing police snipers.
The event — indeed, all of the public events yesterday, from the choreographed family photo to the joint press conferences, to carefully chosen words such as “challenges” to describe escalating crises — was meant to show it is full steam ahead for the good ship EU.
As an exercise in honesty, it struggled to convince.
The post-Brexit EU is facing a series of internal rifts that, if not dealt with by anything stronger than PR whitewashing, threaten to destabilise the entire political bloc.
The issue was at the heart of yesterday’s informal heads-of-state summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, and it is difficult to ignore.
The ongoing refugee crisis has split southern and eastern European nations from the north and west, with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban calling refugees a “poison”, causing his Luxembourg counterpart to suggest his country should be thrown out.
Persistent French and German calls for terrorism defence “co-operation” have led some to fear the creeping creation of an EU army and Taoiseach Enda Kenny to remind his colleagues of Ireland’s “red line” stance on neutrality.
Speaking after yesterday’s summit, Mr Kenny was keen to stress that some progress has been made on tackling the “challenges” Europe faces.
Dismissing recent claims of an EU “existential crisis”, he said the bloc is like a “massive government of co-operation” similar to Ireland’s, inadvertently leading more than a few to wonder who Europe’s John Halligan might eventually be.
During a joint press conference the same tone was struck by French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who said they hope everyone will work together to make the post-Brexit EU a “success”.
How that success can be achieved with a diverse bloc of competing and at times polar opposite interests remains unclear.
The European Council president Donald Tusk said yesterday he wants EU leaders to be “brutally honest” about their difficulties, adding they “must not let this crisis [Brexit] go to waste”. He said: “We can’t start our discussion with this kind of blissful conviction that nothing is wrong, that everything was and is ok. We have to assure our citizens that we have learned the lesson.”
It was like something a captain says to calm passengers as the boat is bounced around by waves. We have it under control. Oh, and that Brexit thing where someone plummeted overboard, never to be seen again? Just a once-off. Honestly.
The good ship EU still sails serenely along on the surface but its hull is nowhere near as sturdy as it was.
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