President of the European Council Donald Tusk looks on during a joint news conference with Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven (unseen) at the government headquarters Rosenbad in Stockholm, Sweden, September 9, 2016. Marcus Ericsson/TT News Agency via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union must be less "politically correct" and act firmly to protect citizens from fears of immigration, terrorism and economic globalisation if it is to survive after Brexit, a senior EU official told leaders on Tuesday.
In an invitation letter to a leaders meeting on Friday in Bratislava, summit chairman Donald Tusk said Britain's vote in June to quit the Union showed that eurosceptic populists could pull the rest of the EU apart too if governments failed to pull together and demonstrate its benefits on issues that mattered.
"People in Europe want to know if the political elites are capable of restoring control over events and processes which overwhelm, disorientate, and sometimes terrify them," European Council President Tusk said in the letter, seen by Reuters.
"Today many people, not only in the UK, think that being part of the European Union stands in the way of stability and security," he told the 27 heads of state and government who will attend. British Prime Minister Theresa May is not invited.
Tusk said the process of Brexit would not be central to the summit. May has yet to give formal notice of leaving as her government works out its demands and Tusk repeated that there would be "no negotiations without notification".
Instead, he highlighted three priorities to be achieved as soon as possible involving closer coordination among states: to convince voters that Europe's borders were under control and there would be no repeat of last year's migrant crisis; to combat violent militants; and to ensure that lives were not badly damaged by free trade and economic globalisation.
Those themes are likely also to be reflected in the annual State of the Union address by the EU's chief executive, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, when he speaks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.
BALANCE FREEDOM WITH SECURITY
In what sounded like a dig at Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who were outspoken last year in insisting Europe must take in refugees, Tusk, who has long adopted a tougher tone on border control, said European leaders had sometimes failed to reassure voters that migration could be controlled.
"All too often they heard politically correct statements that Europe cannot become a fortress, that it must remain open," the former Polish prime minister said. "We must demonstrate to our citizens that we are willing and able to protect them from a repeat of the chaos of 2015."
Migrant flows have been reduced sharply through a deal with Turkey to block routes, as well the closure of Greece's Balkan borders to asylum seekers. However, states remain at odds on how to share out the task of sheltering those who do arrive.
Alluding to Europe's history of totalitarianism, Tusk said basic freedoms were at risk if leaders did not convince voters, who were hearing "false arguments" from anti-EU nationalists, that the Union can work in their interests:
"They will start looking for alternatives. And they will find them. History has taught us that this can lead to a massive turn away from freedom," he wrote. "It is therefore crucial to restore the balance between the need for freedom and security."
Leaders are also likely to renew their resolve to work together against militants such as Islamic State following the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and other European cities.
The one-day summit will not take formal decisions but Tusk called on leaders also to endorse EU efforts to rein in the downside of globalisation. One example of that drive following the Brexit vote was a headline-making demand by the Commission for Apple Inc to pay a record 13 billion euros in back taxes.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Boulton; @macdonaldrtr)