BRUSSELS, Sept 14 — The Devil has the best tunes, they say; leaders of the European Union are taking the adage to heart by borrowing a slogan they think won the Brexit vote for the forces of eurosceptic darkness: “Take back control”.
This being Europe, of course, the problem remains to agree to “take control” of what? From whom, for whom and by whom?
But in a week when EU leaders gather to assess the damage from Britain’s referendum, the idea is appealingly punchy, hard to argue against and suggests they have heard voters’ fears — even if, as is becoming clear of the Brexiteers who coined the phrase, they can’t yet actually agree on quite how to do it.
Friday’s summit in Bratislava will, in the words of the man who will chair it, European Council President Donald Tusk, not be about “Brexit per se” but about the lessons from it; it will aim to “bring back the political control of our common future”.
Given deep policy disagreements, however, on problems such as creating jobs, shoring up the euro currency or sharing out the care of refugees, the focus will be showing consensus on a lowest common denominator of shared headaches.
Expect bogeymen like migrants and terrorists to get a verbal battering from the 27 leaders — British Prime Minister Theresa May will be absent. Listen, too, for talk of war on abuses in a digital global economy that Europeans find ever more frightening after centuries of setting the world’s rules to suit themselves.
“The Brexiteers were on to something with their ‘take back control’,” one EU official told Reuters. “Their prescription was totally wrong but they correctly diagnosed what worries people.”
When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker makes his annual State of the Union policy address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, two days before the Bratislava gathering, he is likely to lay out proposals the EU executive thinks can persuade voters of the value of “Europe”.
Already lately, Brussels has hit Apple Inc with a record tax demand, spared Portugal and Spain from fines for breaking budget rules and launched a new push to cut mobile roaming bills — all presented, at least in part, as standing up for the little guy.
“This is Europe fights back,” another senior EU official said. Juncker’s proposals, based on existing priorities, would “mean something for the real people” and challenge the “cheap, populist discourse” of anti-EU movements beyond Britain.
After a Dutch election due by March in which an anti-Islam party leads polls, French President Francois Hollande faces defeat in April to the National Front’s Marine Le Pen; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has defined Europe for a decade, is losing support ahead of an election a year from now to insurgents trading on her decision to let in a million refugees last year.
Irregular migration; violent militants; and of a global economy of footloose capital that has left Europeans fearful and turning to the political sirens of xenophobia and protectionism.
Leaders hope to come up with more concrete policies by March, when they meet in the Italian capital to celebrate 60 years of the Union’s founding Treaty of Rome.
Of course, it was from the EU itself that Britain’s Leavers wanted to “take back control” — and that tension remains for the rest as the 27 deal with an ambitious Commission in Brussels.
For Juncker, officials say, meetings in the past weeks among national leaders in various formats have confirmed their disarray and a need for Commission initiatives.
On major issues like the economy, north-south, left-right, or even Berlin-Paris splits can be discerned on how far to let euro zone governments spend more to promote growth.
As with Spain and Portugal, the Commission is tending toward flexibility and this week may also see it extending its “Juncker Plan” loan programme to encourage investment.
The migrant crisis exposed not just divisions between the welcoming Merkel on the one hand and easterners like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or this week’s summit host, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who sought to close the door.
It opened a rift between states and the Commission when it tried to enforce mandatory national quotas for taking refugees. That argument rumbles on. But the heat has subsided since a controversial, and still shaky, deal with Turkey and a tightening of border controls that have slowed the flow.
Leaders can chorus in Bratislava on their determination to beef up a new European Border and Coast Guard. Merkel has even won Orban and Fico’s backing for some notion of a “European army” that would have been shot down in London pre-Brexit.
Tusk’s third agenda item [http://bit.ly/2cqKKuw], after migration and security, is restoring “balance” in globalisation.
There will be talk of standing up to protectionist voices opposed to US and Canadian free trade deals. Juncker may trumpet his pursuit of corporate tax dodging.
But balance, let alone consensus, is elusive in Europe. If Brussels presents its pursuit of Apple as taking control for the public, the Irish government is fighting what it calls a bid to remove control of its people’s right to set their own tax laws.
EU leaders are well aware that once they get into specifics, the arguments begin. The watchwords at Bratislava will be keep it simple, keep it vague. All agree on a priority to shore up the Union — even outspoken nationalists in the east, who are well aware their voters like the subsidies flowing via Brussels.
Avoiding argument will also reduce the scope of what can be agreed. But for now, as popular scorn at Juncker’s predecessor taking a plum job advising Goldman Sachs on Brexit shows , the first worry is simply to burnish their image.