The Bratislava summit of 16 September was an important step, but just one on a longer journey, according to Angela Merkel. It was a metaphor that reflects the Chancellor’s patient approach to policymaking – as could be said of the summit itself, whose proceedings and declarations embodied the spirit of the “Merkel way”.
At a critical juncture of her many years in office Angela Merkel may be facing scepticism and criticism of her policies at home in Germany. But in Europe she remains a revered leader. The agenda at Bratislava and the process of cooperation bore her handwriting in just about every detail.
Merkel has taken strong ownership of the roadmap agreed upon at Bratislava but is sharing it with French President François Hollande. It is these two leaders of the oldest coalition in the EU who are shaping the bloc’s response to the current crisis, not the Presidents of the European Council or Commission.
Shortly after the referendum Merkel and Hollande agreed on three baskets of topics to serve as the focal points in reinvigorating European integration: first, internal security, migration and borders; second, external security and its linkages to homeland security; and thirdly, economic growth and employment.
Both were keen to engage Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on this agenda – Hollande because he saw Renzi as the most vocal ally of his own ideas on growth; Merkel because she feared his demands would otherwise deepen the split between member states. The next stage in the process was to discuss the agenda with as many other leaders as possible, which was done very visibly but not exclusively by Merkel.
Jean-Claude Juncker was on board, knowing that the Commission would only play a role in whatever reform was to come if it coincided with the Franco-German view. Thus, Juncker’s State of the Union address before the European Parliament was closely linked to the agenda defined by Paris and Berlin, appealing to overcome the deep differences which had emerged in the pre-summit consultations lead by capitals. Interestingly, Donald Tusk hardly played a role in all of this, not least because of his criticism of EU policy in the refugee crisis.
Angela Merkel was determined to stay away from re-designing, re-setting, or re-founding the European Union. Her goal was to persuade member states to commit to practical steps and deliverables in all three baskets. Accordingly, the agenda agreed at Bratislava contained few surprises or lofty ambitions.
Most items have been on the table before, and none of the notable differences were resolved in Bratislava. But all actors are now committed to the roadmap, and as the end date comes closer it will become increasingly difficult for countries in a minority position to resist the consensus. This is a strategy that has worked well for Merkel in domestic politics.
In order to provide leadership, Merkel and Hollande were aware of the need to be seen as working together. In this they could rely on a rather remarkable feature of this bilateral relationship: because of its structured series of meetings and consultations it still produces ideas and pieces of consensus between the capitals even when the overall shape of the tandem appears to be weak.
Merkel and Hollande could thus point to pre-existing papers and proposals on their chosen topics by their foreign, interior and defence ministers in recent months and years. Often, however, ideas raised in these papers are quickly laid aside when opportunities don’t match, waiting to be recycled and rephrased in some future proposals.
In the past, only those initiatives which came along with the visible readiness of both capitals to press ahead – and to do so in small coalitions of the willing – really moved EU policy. A prime example of that approach is the Schengen system, which started life as an agreement between just five member states before later being expanded to include most members and was then incorporated into the EU treaties.
This is what France and Germany could use to drive the debate in the rather fragmented EU of today, though it is hardly a magic formula. Completing the digital single market or in implementing decisions on refugee and asylum policy, for example, will require cooperation from more than a small subset of members. But this approach could be used on internal security cooperation and both Hollande and Merkel have specifically alluded to its application on defence cooperation. The latest proposals raised by the German and French defence ministers were explicitly focussed on pragmatic steps instead of grand designs, highlighting changes that could actually be implemented without a prior revolution in military affairs.
Facing elections next year, political actors in Paris and Berlin are determined to keep the Bratislava process under their control and have agreed on the need to deepen European integration. Both want to see real outcomes – “deeds and not just words” as they stressed in a joint press briefing in Bratislava – and they want results which will be acceptable at home.
Nothing big is to be expected over the next six months, but integration could pick up momentum if more flexibility or variable geometry is applied. The approach Berlin and Paris will have to strengthen is that of opt-ins to counter the prevailing mood for opting out. In this sense, Britain’s departure from the process looks like a window of opportunity.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.