The Salzburg summit of EU leaders on September 19 and 20 seemed to be a further element in the long series of stagnation in European policy.
Negotiations with the United Kingdom about a withdrawal agreement experienced a setback and in another key area, which moves EU affairs, namely migration, no substantial progress was achieved. This appears to confirm of a community, which is bitterly divided over important issues and unable to swiftly respond to even pressing questions. However, a closer look at the things reveals a more nuanced situation. The message to London shows that, at least for the time being, the 27 stand firm and continue to reject any sort of pick-and-choose compromise with the British. In migration, it came as no surprise that there is no support for obligatory distribution schemes of refugees within the Union. Hence, obviously the question was not in the center of the debates.
Given the EU objective to improve the protection of its external borders, what was more sobering was the resistance of many member states to reinforce EU-border agency FRONTEX. The European Commission wants to upgrade the entity, by establishing a standing force of 10000 border guards, who would also get additional powers to register incoming migrants. For many member states, which wish to protect their national sovereignty, this goes much too far. Despite this sluggishness, it is worth noting that the EU has been more effective, when it comes to migration. The security of EU borders is a shared priority and numbers of asylum seekers have gone down considerably compared to 2015. Cooperation with transit countries e.g. in North Africa has improved, and the deal with Turkey holds.
Also, the EU has taken first steps to do more in addressing the root causes of migration. Africa has emerged on the "political radar screen" of the Union and the readiness to support countries of origin has increased.
Hence, in a way the Salzburg snapshot is quite typical for the general shape of the EU. The Union is absorbed by managing its internal quarrels and it produces an image of division, standstill and underperformance. In practice however, it has often been able to "deliver" or at least to do crisis management and damage mitigation. This does not mean to say that living with this discrepancy has always been the modus operandi of European integration and the Union will just continue with its little elegant, but effective muddling through. At least three things have changed, since the good old days of the European project.
First, Europe's crises are not automatically catalysts for furthering integration. The sovereign debt crisis and the following reforms of the economic governance in the Eurozone have shown that crisis-induced progress is still possible. The conflicts around migration and many other squabbles however suggest that the "productive tension" between crisis and EU-reform is not a given and can easily turn into destructive gridlock. Second, as opposed to the past, when challenges from outside frequently turned out to be "external federators" and incentives for "more Europe", now, these extrinsic blows tend to act as controversial issues, which drive a wedge between member states rather than to bring them closer together. And thirdly, given the domestic political situation in many EU-countries, particularly the rise of new contesting parties and a reluctant public opinion, there are new veto players in European politics, which make it more difficult to implement change.
All in all, the EU is in period of multiple reconstruction. The hallmark of this process is more pragmatism. The European ship will not be completely redesigned according to a master plan, but according to the philosphy of ambitious gradualism, i.e. relevant, but partial change. In doing this, the EU for many will look like an UPO, an "unknown political object", as Jacques Delors once put it. So it will be a quite specific ship. But the new realism will keep it afloat and make it more robust.