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E.U. Leaders Chart Future as David Cameron Leaves Brussels

With Britain's prime minister omitted for the first time, European Union leaders at a summit meeting wrestled on Wednesday with an existential question: how to salvage a venture that has provided peace and relative prosperity to 500 million people but has lost public support.

"We all need to wake up and smell the coffee," President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania said at the start of private talks in Brussels on how to relaunch the European Union after the shock of Britain's vote last week to leave.

In the absence of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who was already back in London after attending an initial day of talks, the group's remaining 27 leaders all agreed that the European Union needs to change the way it works if it is to curb a rising tide of populism driven in large part by hostility toward Brussels.

Presenting the leaders with his own analysis of why 52 percent of Britons had voted to withdraw from the European Union, Mr. Cameron, at a somber dinner late Tuesday, said the main reason was immigration. Polls in other countries show deep opposition to an influx of foreigners.

But reducing immigration, or at least the right of European Union citizens to move wherever they want in the bloc, is currently impossible, because the free movement of citizens is an inviolable principle of the whole European project.

At the same time, slowing the flow of migrants from outside Europe is something that officials in Brussels consider a notable success. It took a long time and many meetings, but, under a controversial deal with Turkey, last year's flood of nearly a million people into Europe through Greek islands has slowed to a trickle.

Migrants are still arriving in Europe after hazardous journeys across the Mediterranean from North Africa, but they are far fewer than the number who arrived last year through Greece — the people used by campaigners in Britain to rally opposition to the European Union.

With no easy fixes to Europe's public image and no consensus on what a reformed union might look like, the main agreement reached on Wednesday was familiar: to hold another meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, in September.

In a final statement, the leaders acknowledged that the British referendum "creates a new situation for the European Union," and that "many people express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs." Europeans, they added, "expect us to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth, as well as hope for a better future."

Changing a complicated system that has three presidents, two seats of Parliament in cities hundreds of miles apart and, at least until Britain formally departs, 28 member countries, was never going to be decided in a few hours.

"The response to this new challenge for Europe will take time to find," Frans Timmermans, a former foreign minister of the Netherlands and the first vice president of the union's executive arm, the European Commission, cautioned earlier this week. "We must be brutally honest with ourselves as we debate the path forward. Today, there are more questions than answers."

François Lafond, a professor of European integration at Sciences Po, the Paris university, said the task of finding answers was so big that it should be entrusted to a special convention of experts and officials who would be given at least six months to create a new approach. Otherwise, "the populists will continue to grow," he said. "We have to give a clear signal of change."

A critical issue, Mr. Lafond said, is which functions should be returned to individual nations and which should fall within the powers of the union. Arguments over this division of labor have dogged the so-called European project since it began more than six decades ago in response to World War II, and have caused numerous crises.

One of the most serious came in 1965, when President Charles de Gaulle of France objected to proposals from Brussels that he saw as weakening national sovereignty and pushing Europe toward becoming a giant state. Infuriated by what he viewed as an intolerable infringement, he pulled French officials from the Brussels institutions of what was then the European Economic Community.

Their departure, a narrow, bureaucratic version of Britain's, became known as the empty chair crisis.

It was resolved, as most European crises have been, through back-room haggling and an elaborate compromise ensuring that France would retain its national decision-making prerogatives on major issues.

The crisis unleashed by the British vote, however, offers no bureaucratic fix, as it involves what have long been the European project's most vulnerable points: its remoteness from ordinary people and lack of democratic legitimacy. The European Parliament, elected by popular vote since 1979, was meant to fill this gap. But given no power to actually introduce legislation, it is mostly seen as a noisy, expensive forum that merely approves measures proposed by the Commission.

Perhaps the most significant role played by the European Parliament has been to provide a megaphone for some of the union's most impassioned enemies, notably politicians from the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP. The party — whose leader, Nigel Farage, and 23 followers hold seats in the assembly — campaigned fervently for Britain's exit from the European Union.

They and allies like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, call the European Union a meddling and alien force, a message that has resounded elsewhere, particularly France. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's right-wing National Front party, wants the nation to hold its own referendum.

France's deeply unpopular Socialist president, François Hollande, who is struggling to rescue his own political future as well as Europe's, said on Wednesday that drastic change was needed. "Keeping the status quo would be the worst," he said, "because populists would continue to challenge Europe."

But many of the things Mr. Hollande and like-minded European politicians want to see, such as more pooling of resources from shared European funds — are anathema to Germany, the dominant power on the Continent, which wants to enforce fiscal prudence but resists moving toward a federal state.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany shut the door on any overhaul involving the revision of European treaties, a laborious process that requires referendums and has often stoked anti-European sentiment.

Ms. Merkel said Europe needed to recover its élan and inspire ordinary citizens with an ambitious vision, as the United States did with its space program.

"When Russia, many years ago, sent the first people into space, America said, 'Now we have to send someone to the moon,'" Ms. Merkel said, citing an observation she said a fellow leader had made in private discussions. "So we have to set a positive agenda, positive goals, and try to show we have an ambition, an aspiration to produce prosperity for our people."

[Source: By Andrew Higgins and James Kanter, International New York Times, Brussels, 29Jun16]

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