Slovakia-European Union leaders are gathering here in a bid to overcome deep divisions over the future of Europe, in the first extended meeting of the 27 nations that will make up the EU after the U.K. leaves it.
“This is the moment of truth,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. “We need to resuscitate the European project.”
No major decisions are expected to come out of the summit, held in the Slovak capital’s hilltop castle, overlooking the Danube River. It is supposed to kick off a series of similar summits-one in Malta and one in Italy-in the next six months, said Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, the meeting’s host.
Instead, Friday’s gathering, to which U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May wasn’t invited, is a test of whether Europe’s leaders can exchange views frankly, without aggravating already big tensions over migration, fiscal policy, and the balance of powers between EU institutions and the national governments.
“After Brexit, and the risks connected to Brexit, it is absolutely necessary to meet and have a very honest discussion about the state of the EU,” said Mr. Fico, on his way into the summit. “We all want to show unity and that we want to continue with this project.”
Leaders are expected to agree-not for the first time-to boost cooperation in the fight against terrorism, joint defense projects and to protect the EU’s outermost borders from irregular migration. They will also express support for investment policy and trade.
But they are likely to steer clear from hammering out specific details that could prove contentious.
“This is an experiment,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said. “We are meeting informally and trying to exchange views and prepare for formal decisions.”
Divisions in the bloc still run deep. Even less controversial ideas-like more military coordination-have critics: Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Friday morning he will bring up his country’s “red lines” on defense cooperation.
Even the decision to not invite the U.K. drew dissent: “I think it’s unfortunate to have summits without the U.K.,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, walking into the castle. “They are still a normal member. When they decide to get out, we will talk about it.”
Still, leaders are looking to smooth over personal and political differences. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel sought to play down a conflict after his foreign minister said Hungary should be kicked out of the EU for mistreating migrants.
“It is not the official position of the Luxembourg government. We are together in a family, if we have problems we have to discuss it in the family and not kick someone out,” Mr. Bettel said.
But he said that his foreign minister talked about Europe’s fundamental values countries aren’t allowed to cherry pick from or to “throw out the window because of economic or other reasons.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dug his heels and said that his country remains opposed to an EU program of redistributing asylum seekers more evenly across the bloc.