by Liu Fang, Maria Vasileiou
VALLETTA, Feb. 1 (Xinhua) -- As the EU informal summit in Malta is to be held on Friday, a senior researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice has described the summit as "a moment of truth" for the EU27 bloc.
"The current challenges urge the EU to clearly define what kind of global actor it wishes to be, what values it stands for, and how it can defend its interests. The capacities are there, and perhaps now that political will follows as a necessity," said Joris Larik.
The EU experienced a tumultuous year of 2016 dominated by terror attacks, migrant crisis and Brexit vote outcome, and began to face new challenges in the first month of 2017 amid new U.S. administration's unprecedented open hostility towards the European integration.
U.S. President Donald Trump openly encouraged the withdrawal of a EU member state and sowed disunity among the remaining ones, which represents a complete U-turn in U.S. policy towards Europe from the last 70 years, said Larik.
He referred to Trump's pronouncements that the UK was "so smart in getting out" and "other countries would leave." The U.S. president also called the EU "basically a vehicle for Germany."
"Its open hostility thus far towards the EU and European integration in general is unprecedented," commented Larik.
The Malta Summit is the first meeting of leaders of all 28 EU member states since Donald Trump started a new U.S. administration marked by radical break with the past.
In a letter to the 27 heads of state or government released three days ahead of the Malta summit, President of the European Council Donald Tusk branded Trump's "worrying declarations" as an external threat, which, along with other factors, "make our future highly unpredictable."
But such external threats are not the only concerns for the EU, while it is also being plagued by some internal ones.
Tusk mentioned in his letter "the rise in anti-EU, nationalist, increasingly xenophobic sentiment in the EU itself" and "decline of faith in political integration, submission to populist arguments and doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy."
Two weeks ago, European far-right leaders, met in Koblenz, Germany. Those leaders, including France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Germany's anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Frauke Petry, Netherlands' anti-Islam Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini of Italy's anti-EU Northern League, jointly sought to present a common front in a year of high-stakes elections.
Moreover, they have all expressed admiration for the new U.S. President Donald Trump.
Tusk concluded his letter with "we should remind our American friends of their own motto: United we stand, divided we fall."
But will the EU show "European pride" as Tusk has summoned remains a question, as it is still grappling with its own thorny issues, such as migrant crisis.
The flow of refugees to Italy from the Libyan coast has become the main concern for the EU after a EU-Turkish deal reached last year has slashed the numbers arriving in Greece via Turkey.
At the debate on the U.S. travel restrictions at the European Parliament's mini-plenary session in Brussels on Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU "certainly disagrees with" the executive order issued by U.S. President Donald Trump.
"No one can be deprived of his or her own rights because of the place of birth, their religion or their ethnicity," said Mogherini.
Apparently, the EU policy on refugees is quite different from Trump's drastic ban on refugees and all travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
"Each approach comes with its own political, economic and human costs. The challenge for European policymakers will be to develop an approach that espouses values central to the European Union, such as respect for international law, human rights, and openness. At the same time, the EU must make sure not to threaten its own cohesion with half-baked governance models, which cause public frustration, embolden populist, xenophobic movements, and put certain Member States under disproportionate pressure," analyzed Larik.
"If the EU can manage that, it can really distinguish itself as a capable and morally sound actor on the international stage. If not, not only the EU's international reputation, but its very viability are at stake," he added.
As to another imminent problem of the EU, Brexit, the researcher called for a united front within the EU.
"As the British government is pushing ahead with Brexit, it will be important for the EU27 to maintain a united front," said Larik.
"A crucial part of this will be a firm expression of their confidence in the EU's principal Brexit negotiators. In addition, regarding the UK's attempts at ingratiating itself with certain third countries, the EU27 will have to show confidence in themselves, including in the economic weight of the internal market. As the English say: Keep calm and carry on," Larik said.
Tusk's letter is not a policy paper and the EU leaders are not required to follow his advice when they meet in Valletta.
But the expert believes that a clear stance is good to the bloc.
"Muddling through is certainly not an option anymore. In that sense, the summit and the next months are a 'moment of truth' for the EU. Either it is able to show the new U.S. administration that it is a force to be reckoned with, or it risks being torn apart by the many centrifugal forces tearing at what keeps it together," he said.