It is impossible to underplay the significance and symbolism of the EU summit in Bratislava tomorrow. A mere quarter of a century ago the continent was full of hope. The Berlin Wall had tumbled, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Velvet Revolution had resulted in the amicable division of Czechoslovakia. Bratislava would shortly become the capital of Slovakia.
Eastern and central Europe was in the midst of transition for the better. Liberal democracy and market economies had proved their superiority over authoritarian communist regimes. The EU would grow from an exclusive club of 12 into a fully fledged union of 28.
Today, the general sentiment of all those defending the free world seems to be one of despair. Populists are inciting fear and winning the hearts of many voters. Nationalism, anti-globalisation, outright racism and xenophobia are on the move. Brexit and Donald Trump are but a manifestation of things to come.
Should the defenders of democracy, market economies and globalisation abandon all hope? The short answer is absolutely not. But much depends on the leadership shown by EU institutions and member states in coming months.
This meeting should be seen as the first step on a long road to renewal: an EU without the UK, an EU that needs to prove why such a union remains the most successful means of managing relations between nation states. To pave the way forward, European leaders should convey three clear messages.
First, go slow on Brexit. It is the most significant event in the process of integration since the Maastricht treaty. There will be far-reaching and unpredictable political, economic and legal implications. Let the Brits sort out what kind of relationship they want with the EU. Let the EU try to understand what life without the UK will mean.
Second, focus on the basics. The legitimacy of the EU ultimately rests on its ability to obtain results. Economic growth, job creation and security are top of the list. If one of these is seen to be weak, the whole union suffers. If the EU proves unable to deal with the migration crisis, the economy or terrorism, then other options will emerge. And unfortunately those options have more to do with the rejection of liberal democracy.
Third, make a strong case for European values. Today’s defenders of liberal democracy, market economies and globalisation are few and far between. Some of the language used in the west, even among EU leaders, makes the traditional despot look like a supporter of democracy and peaceful coexistence. Many east and central European leaders were considered heroes in the fight against authoritarian communism. Yet some are turning their backs on the very principles they fought for: tolerance, human rights and democracy. This must change if Europe is to survive.
In a given situation, the EU has a tendency to advance in three stages: crisis, chaos and suboptimal solution. In a post-Brexit world we are somewhere between one and two. Time is running out but it is not too late to change tack.
This week we have seen different approaches to the crisis: the institutionalism of Jean-Claude Juncker , European Commission president; the pragmatism of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council; and the blatant nationalism of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president making another bid for the Elysée. This was a good foretaste of the debate in Bratislava.
The EU’s basic aims — peace, prosperity and security — have not changed. And it has largely achieved those aims because post-1945 leaders had the courage to pool sovereignty and rely on common institutions. Today, more than ever, we must defend those aims. In an era of globalisation it would be a travesty to revert to hastily contrived nationalist and populist propositions.
So to all the leaders meeting in Bratislava, please think hard about what we have achieved in the past 25 years. Cherish it, defend it and, above all, improve it. It is time we made Europe great again.