THE leaders of the EU 27 member states will meet on Thursday – Europe Day – for a summit in Sibiu in central Romania. This was billed as an upbeat summit to take a strategic look forward at Europe’s future in the wake of the UK’s departure on March 29.

As it turns out, the UK hasn’t left (and perhaps may not). But Theresa May will still not join the other EU leaders in Sibiu. Engrossed in inward-looking Brexit and her own, and her party’s, survival, May apparently has no time for where the EU is, and should be, going.

Yet the future of Europe is of fundamental importance. At a time when many global challenges loom – not least but not only climate change – international cooperation not isolationism is the only solution.

For Scotland and the UK, like all other EU countries, whether and how the EU rises to today’s challenges and overcome its own quite intense divisions is a vital question.

If the EU is to be a democratic, influential and progressive leader internationally as well as at home, it has to step up now.

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The EU is at the start of its next five year cycle – with the new presidents of the Commission and Council appointed by this autumn and with the new European Parliament elected at the end of this month. So it’s the right moment for a look forward.

And it’s a moment when the Scottish Government and other actors (from business and unions to universities, cultural and media sectors, NGOs and more) should be aiming to contribute to that vital debate.

Contesting Brexit is crucial. But making space to be a constructive actor in Europe, promoting Scottish ideas, values and interests is also central.

The EU has plenty to contend with. The international environment has shifted rapidly in the last decade, when the Union was pre-occupied above all with its own Euro crisis.

The US is now a problem rather than a reliable partner. And China is exerting new influence around the globe, including in Europe.

In April, the so-called China+16 group (of central and eastern European countries now joined by Greece) held a summit in Dubrovnik.

Italy has signed up (the first G7 country to do so) to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative. And Russia, as well as China, continues to seek out influence in the western Balkans and beyond.

It’s not a new story for the EU to have difficulty in agreeing a common foreign policy approach to major global players and issues. But it’s of more concern when the EU is already looking rather fractured, with notable divides on several issues between east and west, adding to longer-standing north-south divides in the Union (exacerbated by, but pre-dating, the Euro crisis).

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The migration challenge of 2015, when refugees and asylum-seekers fled from Syria and other countries to seek haven in Europe, has dominated, and to some extent warped, EU politics since.

While many countries opened their borders – notably Germany and Sweden – others, particularly Hungary, not only resisted a common obligation to settle asylum-seekers but stirred up xenophobia and Eurosceptic rhetoric around migration.

As solidarity fractured, the EU’s leaders attempted to harden Europe’s external borders and tackle the so-called “root causes” of migration.

But compromising with populist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban has not worked well for the EU (not least when, in typical populist style, Orban thrives on conflict and lack of compromise). Building a fortress Europe is not in line with the EU’s basic values – nor, in fact, with its interests, as demographic challenges mean a more open migration policy will soon be sorely needed.

And attempting to externalise the problem by funding, for example, the Libya coastguard, is adding to major human rights problems. Human Rights watch has labelled Libya’s treatment of migrants in its detention centres “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. The EU should not be complicit in this.

Yet there is no simple solution to the EU’s internal divides on migration and other issues. Both Hungary and Poland have taken overt steps to restrict the independence and freedom of the judiciary, the media, and other vital democratic institutions.

The EU has moved too slowly on these anti-democratic moves but is now increasing pressure on Poland in particular.

What is, hopefully, becoming clearer to the other EU leaders is that compromising on values and rights is counter-productive. When the EU’s leaders meet on Thursday, it is vital they recognise that the EU’s values and interests are complementary, not competing.

THE EU is seen, however imperfectly, as a leader on international development, on human rights, on climate change. It has much more to do on all of these. But what it must not do is let murky compromises on migration or rule of law undermine its development and rights strategies – or distract from stepping up to a zero-carbon future through an inclusive green new deal.

The EU is rightly seen as a strong defender of multilateralism in the face of an emerging big power, realpolitik, global politics encouraged by the US, Russia and China.

There are still many like-minded countries internationally that the EU can work in concert with. But to do that, it has to model at home the policies it wants to promote abroad.

Can the fractured, divided EU somehow meet these challenges? It’s not all doom and gloom.

The Union has been strong in taking on “big tech” including on data protection and privacy.

There is an important and healthy debate taking place on what a 21st century trade and industrial strategy should look like.

Populists may increase their seats in the European Parliament elections but they will not be in the majority – and may do less well than expected. But what is needed is strategic, dynamic leadership. Muddling through – a time-honoured EU strategy – is not enough.

And if some member states block or refuse to cooperate, the EU must move on.

A multi-speed EU is not a perfect solution but if solidarity is not to be found at 27, the EU must step up with as many member states and as much dynamism as possible.

It doesn’t look like the UK will make a positive contribution any time soon to that progressive, strategic European path. But Scotland can and must.

In the EU or not, in the UK or not, Scottish voices have much to contribute to that vital European debate on the state of our world and our common European future.