On 16 September 2016 Bratislava will host a rare and headline-grabbing event – an “informal” EU Summit with all but one EU leader present. As a seemingly logical consequence of the Brexit vote, the UK prime minister will not attend a meeting devoted to the future of the EU after the recent British vote. This is, however, more than unfortunate as security features prominently amongst topics to be discussed in Bratislava, and the UK, a traditional net security contributor to both the EU and NATO, will be very much missed there. Thus the Summit marks a test for the whole EU as it enters an age of uncertainty in security coordination and provision without the powerful British input. The key question of “where do we go from here” looms large over the Bratislava Summit.
Before the EU respond to this question it must drop talk of grandiose projects, such as the recently touted “European army.” This is a distraction from the urgent need to focus on the development of more viable EU counterterrorism measures, ideas on how to successfully share intelligence on strategic threats to the EU Member States, and how to increase Europe’s capabilities in strategic communication. The British can be of immense value in the discussions on all of these points and it makes a lot of sense to bring them back into the fold, even in an informal capacity. Thus the “army” must wait but the UK cannot be shunned. Nowadays, one must day that shunning London seems now like a popular sport in the EU. Some interpret the upcoming Brexit as a chance to actually create valid and viable European defence capabilities and structures WITHOUT the troublesome UK. This narrative stresses the fact that NATO focused on London always blocked European integration in this respect. Nonetheless, it also obscures UK’s role in bringing to life the project of European defence in the late 1990s, its formidable by European standards, albeit diminishing, power projection capabilities, and its second to none contribution to countering terrorism at both local, regional and global levels. As a result of all this, the EU must be honest with itself and accept that the team’s star player is about to leave, to use a football analogy, the club. Let’s make sure there is no real divorce, and that he does not join another (security) club.
Seen in this light, the Bratislava Summit is not a chance to go forward without the troublesome British, as some see it, but rather an entry into uncharted waters. How uncharted they really are can be gleaned from the words and actions of different EU leaders who are now clearly working on creating a political momentum and a narrative for a more security-oriented Union. Given the scale of security issues plaguing the EU and its neighbourhood (wars in Syria and Ukraine, a recent coup in Turkey, migrant crisis), this is a worthy cause. The only problem is that one cannot be sure to what extent the thinking of all EU leaders on this topic converges. Of course, there is communication between EU’s traditional tandem of Germany and France with chancellor Merkel calling for more action “to ensure our security,” and wishing for increased cooperation in the fields of defence and intelligence sharing, and president Hollande touring Europe with similar ideas in mind. This communication or indeed coordination was then extended onto the Italian prime minister Renzi who hosted the mini-summit with Germany and France devoted to the future of the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. Its closing part was a carefully staged press conference on the deck of an Italian aircraft carrier, a novelty meant to stress the securitization the EU discourse. As if on cue, some Central European leaders also entered the security debate and vaguely called for an establishment of a “European army,” a subject floated by Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, but deemed rather unworkable in the current day EU. It would be astonishing to suddenly witness the EU still getting over the shock of the Brexit vote to embrace a “more Europe” solution in the field of defence.
Bratislava Summit will bring closure to this choreography of statements, meetings and press conferences dedicated to defence. It remains to be seen how the Central European seemingly maximalist vision of new and unified armed forces will fare amongst other EU leaders. Expect it to find relatively few takers but at the same time stay tuned for some, but not that many, specifics in how our security can be ensured via a closer and reignited European cooperation. Look for statements on referring to “Europe’s collective security” and initiatives focusing on e.g. defence industry cooperation, counterterrorism, cybersecurity or strategic communication. Do not, however, anticipate a truly revolutionary summit, and frankly, this should not worry anyone as it would be unwise to decide anything major and transformative on security in Europe without the presence of the UK. Let’s hope participants of the Bratislava Summit have this in mind during their deliberations.
Kacper Rekawek, PhD
Head of Defence and Security Programme, GLOBSEC Policy Institute