By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union grinds back into action this week after its August break, still dazed by Britain’s midsummer vote to quit the EU and facing much the same “polycrisis” as a year ago: a mass of refugees, a fragile economy, hostile Russians and, yes, those Brits, now more awkward than ever.
When President Jean-Claude Juncker makes his annual State of the Union address to Parliament in Strasbourg on Sept. 14, he might easily repeat last year’s warning: the EU had a “last chance” to save itself from a tide of centrifugal nationalisms.
Last week, the EU’s remaining Big Three — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and their host, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — felt they needed to renew their vows at the wellspring of the union, the island of Ventotene, where in 1941 prisoners of Mussolini wrote a manifesto for a united Europe.
That they met on the deck of the aircraft carrier Garibaldi reinforced the sense of beleaguered leaders rallying to the EU’s defense as they contemplated an obstacle-strewn political calendar for the year ahead.
The EU leaders are first preparing for a summit on Sept. 16 in Bratislava — without Britain — that aims to sketch out a post-Brexit future for the Union.
On Oct. 2, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, is set to deliver another slap to Brussels: a largely symbolic referendum to reject an EU quota system for relocating refugees among member states — a scheme Juncker invested much capital in a year ago, but which has barely got off the ground.
On Nov. 8, Orban is hoping for victory for a man he calls the “valiant” Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election. Few of Orban’s EU peers are so enthusiastic. They see Trump as a disruptive maverick whose endorsement of and by Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage marks him as no friend of the Union.
A Trump win could snap a transatlantic coalition on Russia that is already fraying in Europe, where governments from Paris to Bratislava are seeking a review of Ukraine-related sanctions when measures expire at year’s end. Trump might also inject a new dose of post-Brexit uncertainty for world trade.
At home, all the Big Three leaders face their own electoral challenges from euroskeptics.
It starts with Renzi, today trying to persuade Italians he has the youthful energy for rebuilding after the latest earthquake in the Apennines, unlike the scandal-tainted Silvio Berlusconi at L’Aquila in 2009, when more than 300 people died.
Probably in November, Renzi will put to a referendum the constitutional reforms he says are needed to break a political deadlock that is choking the Italian economy. Polls are tight and the euroskeptic upstarts 5-Star are gunning for the socialist premier, who is expected to resign if he loses.
Hollande is threatened with a drubbing on April 23 at the hands of far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election.
Her appeal has been enhanced by Islamic State carnage in Paris and Nice and the summer row about burkinis on the beaches, although pollsters doubt she can win a May 7 runoff vote against Hollande or any other survivor from a mainstream party.
As for Merkel, she has yet to confirm she wants a fourth term at parliamentary elections due in just over a year. The biggest threat to her re-election remains her decision last year to welcome a million migrants to Germany as EU borders buckled. That has already weakened support for her conservative party.
Such threats to domestic survival have often spurred leaders to take potshots at Brussels — even if only the British have taken it to the length of turning most voters against the EU entirely. But even if little has changed in Brussels since last summer, optimists might see reason to hope for more unity now.
While rows go on about how, indeed whether, EU states should share out the burden of asylum-seekers stranded in Greece and Italy, what is new is how few are arriving, at least in Greece.
Rights groups were outraged this year by hard-nosed deals with non-EU Balkan states to bar the routes north from Greece and with Turkey to stop Syrian refugees reaching Greece in the first place. But those deals did slash the numbers arriving.
It’s something EU officials find hard to boast of. Many admit privately to unease at policies that, along with efforts to pay African governments to stop people setting off for Italy, sit uncomfortably with the Union’s lofty humanitarian ideals.
But look again at Merkel, Hollande and Renzi on the Garibaldi, flagship of an EU mission off Libya that is part rescue operation and military deterrent against people smugglers, and a slightly different image of today’s EU emerges.
All three spoke of Europe getting tougher and more cohesive on security. It is the kind of language that may resonate with skeptical voters dissatisfied with Europe’s struggle to thrive in a globalizing world and with the likes of Orban and other eastern leaders alarmed by Merkel’s earlier open-door policy.
Relieved of the need to keep Britons from bolting, Juncker wrung howls of outrage last week from London’s europhobic press when he called national borders “the worst invention ever”. He also renewed his call for a “European army”, which was long just a pipe dream for the Luxemburger as long as Britain had a veto.
The past few days have seen Merkel and a succession of other leaders she has met, including Orban, echo such hopes of joint military structures, indicating one area where EU integration may now forge ahead in response to the British departure.
That still leaves a host of issues dividing European leaders in the coming year: whether to be nice or nasty to Britain once it decides to open negotiations; how to shore up weaknesses in the economic cooperation that underpins the euro; how far to ease sanctions in the hope of better ties with Moscow.
Consensus will be a tall order. Merkel, standing on the deck of the Garibaldi, cited security, investment and youth opportunities as three priorities for a post-Brexit new start for a Europe united and strong. But, she warned: “Danger exists, of fragmentation, of selfishness, of retreating into ourselves.”
(Editing by Larry King)