BRUSSELS – After decades of often unbridled expansion and increasing prosperity, the once-robust European Union is this week looking at its biggest challenge — crumbling from within, says EU President Donald Tusk.
Only days ahead of a crucial summit that opens Thursday, Tusk is crisscrossing his bloc of half a billion people and 28 nations — literally from Paris to Bucharest, on to Athens and Prague to finish in Berlin in little more than 24 hours — in yet another desperate quest to somehow reap unity where division has been sown.
"This is a critical moment," Tusk said in Bucharest as he sought to find a willingness to compromise to make sure that Britain would want to remain in the EU. "The risk of break-up is real," he said Monday, now publicly saying what had been on his mind for weeks.
British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to walk away from the two-day summit in Brussels with the blueprint for a reformed EU that he can sell to his historically halfhearted nation to make sure he can win a British referendum on EU membership that could come as early as June.
The stakes are immense, Tusk acknowledges, fearful that if Britain goes it will start an unraveling that no one knows when and where it might end. A so-called Brexit might turn into a full-blown EUxit.
"This process is indeed very fragile. Handle with care. What is broken cannot be mended," Tusk said, raising the stakes as the summit approaches.
The European Union was built on the ashes of World War II, first taking decades to bring economic wealth before taking on the task of bridging the huge ideological divide that cut the continent into a capitalist west and a communist east.
As a Pole, Tusk himself was reared under communism before the collapse of the Soviet empire. Barely a dozen years ago, Poland joined the EU at the very height of the bloc's powers. Now, he does not want to oversee the collapse of what he so dearly believes in.
Everyone has always known the British to be argumentative and not easily given to compromise. "I make no apology for that. That is who we are," Cameron said last week.
The problem is that it is this lack of compromise and stubbornness which is now seeping into the cornerstones of the EU ever more.
Compounding the predicament caused by a potential British exit, is the migrant crisis affecting just about every single member state, causing more bad blood than Britain's show of hard love.
"The migratory crisis we are witnessing now is testing our Union to its limits," Tusk said Monday.
And it is turning the members of the EU ever more against each other. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have come, almost unchecked, through EU member Greece and on to Germany and Sweden into the rich heartland. Almost everyone complains Greece isn't doing enough to stem the influx. The rich member states who are the draw for the migrants complain the eastern Europeans are not doing their part to shelter refugees. Some eastern European nations complain that they lack the resources to handle large numbers of refugees and that the more prosperous nations are too soft-hearted and have allowed the borders to be overrun.
And just about every country has said that the European Union has failed miserably to deal with the migrant crisis.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said "If it were up only to us Central Europeans, that region would have been closed off long ago," referring to the south where the migrants come from.
Tusk knows the challenge facing EU members at the upcoming summit. He says he was also driven to despair by last summer's cliffhanger when Greece was almost pushed out of the euro zone due to its financial crisis.
It could be the same soon.
"It is high time we started listening to each other's arguments more than to our own," he said.
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert.
Monday 15 February 2016
12.00 Meeting with President François Hollande
18.20 Meeting with President Klaus Iohannis (photo opportunity - press statement 19.00)
Tuesday 16 February 2016
10.00 Meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (photo opportunity - press statement 10.45)
13.30 Meeting with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (photo opportunity - press statement 14.40)
20.30 Meeting with Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel