As the other 27 European Union members wake up from its long August holidays, thoughts are turning to what will be a critical quarter for the bloc as it makes preparations for divorce talks with Britain and a future without the world’s fifth-largest economy.
That began in earnest this week with the summit of the ‘big three’ post-Brexit EU economies – France, Germany and Italy – that kicks off a whirlwind of intra-EU diplomacy leading up an informal meeting of the “EU27” in Bratislava on September 16.
Here are five things we learned from the Hollande-Renzi-Merkel show:
“Brexit won’t break us…”
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? But even so, there was a distinct note of defiance yesterday as Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime minister, said that many people had felt that “after Brexit Europe would come to an end”, but that “this was not the case”.
In truth, it will be a decade or more before anyone really knows whether Brexit heralded the beginning of the end for the EU or – as Mr Renzi promised – the start of a brave new European future unshackled from Britain, that most reluctant of EU members. For core Europe, nothing less than survival is at stake.
“But we admit there are some problems that need fixing…”
Whatever the brave rhetoric, the reality is that – as Francois Hollande, the French president noted – the forces of “fragmentation” are rising in Europe and (as he didn’t say) Britain’s vote for Brexit is adding a significant load to those centrifugal political forces.
The sharp rise in terrorism, the failure to protect external EU borders and the current failure of the European project to deliver sufficient jobs and prosperity to the coming generation are the daunting challenges that face Europe’s leaders – as well as those in Britain.
The decisions taken in Europe over the next year or two will determine whether those challenges will be better met inside the EU or, as Britain has decided, out of it.
“So we’re going to raise an EU army…”
Not as a cure for southern Europe’s chronic youth unemployment problem, but as a token of what Mr Renzi called a new future of deeper European co-operation, and a statement that Europe was prepared to take its place in the world.
Britain has always blocked plans for a so-called ‘EU Army’, arguing that it would undermine Nato as the cornerstone of European defence and (we don’t say out loud) our influence in Washington and at the Nato conference table.
But with Britain ‘out’, Europe is now determined to open this new strategic front. Like the decision to stage the press conference on the Italian aircraft carrier Garibaldi, anchored as it was near the grave site of Altiero Spinelli, one of the intellectual fathers of European federalism, the symbolism was deliberate.
Importantly, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government published a white paper advocating new pan-European military command structures after Brexit, has agreed that Europe must do “more for our internal and external security”.
The focus on promises for a more unified defence apparatus belie the reality of the European project’s current predicament – that on the really existential economic questions surrounding the economy and the Eurozone, there is no political agreement.
The French want deeper economic integration for the Eurozone, the Italians want permission to tax and spend but the in Germany – where there are massive surpluses – there is absolutely no political will to pay for either of these demands.
As Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia group, says, Mrs Merkel “will only pay lip service” to Franco-Italian pleas to end German austerity-economics – meaning that far more important than what was addressed at this summit, was what was left unsaid.
But that doesn’t mean Britain will get an easy ride
While Europe clearly has its problems, the tone of this meeting will have served as a quiet warning to those who believe that Europe will cut Britain a sweetheart deal when the talks finally begin.
No-one was expecting any concrete detail on Brexit talks, since Britain has not yet indicated which of the myriad possible relationships with Europe – Norway, Swiss, Canada, WTO or bespoke – it will press for when it invokes Article 50.
But while the tone was respectful, it was also rather coldly clear – the European Union is fighting for its political survival and it will cling to its core ideals to protect itself.