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What does the future hold for Southern Europe?

The idea of a southern European forum is very much needed. Surprisingly, a summit  of the incumbent nations sparked little interest both within and outside the countries in question. Português

Family photo during a Mediterranean Leader's Summit in Athens, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis. All rights rerserved.

In September, the leaders of Portugal, France, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Greece and Spain met in Athens, following an invitation by Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime-minister. The meeting struck unsurprising conciliatory tones. In its Athens declaration, all countries agreed on the need for prioritising growth over budgetary concerns and called for a new vision for Europe.

The (invisible) elephant in the room?

What is perhaps surprising is that the summit sparked little interest both within and outside the countries in question. Other than the Greek press coverage, news of the EUMed meeting did not reach front-page status in other countries. Although reports of the summit have featured in every major newspaper in each country, the news were given a somewhat less prominent role than Tsipras had perhaps expected. Tellingly, the Greek PM turned down an invitation by Angela Merkel for a meeting in Berlin ostensibly due to his participation in the Thessaloniki International Fair. The most senior reaction to the summit came from the EPP leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber. The MEP - while implying France’s Hollande and Italy’s Renzi were being manipulated by Greece’s Tsipras - dubbed the gathering as one of Mr Tsipras’ “usual tricks”. According to Mr. Weber, this was another attempt to divide Europe and divert attention from the reforms Greece pledged to deliver under the third bailout agreement. Mr Tsipras and the leaders present at the EUMed summit refuted these claims, stating that the meeting was a move “against no one.” The French President reiterated the Greek PM’s declarations by adding that the gathering “seeks to unite Europe more, not to divide it.”

What is perhaps surprising is that the summit sparked little interest both within and outside the countries in question.

Perhaps for being a careful observer of the Greek reality, Mr Weber risked overlooking other, previous examples of sub regional alliances. To be sure, this is already the case in many different parts of the continent. The Visegrad Group is perhaps the most noticeable. Initially an informal gathering of the leaders of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the Visegrad Group is today a growingly influent regional alliance. Since 1991, it has evolved into a truly cohesive organisation with a rotative presidency, headquarters, a think tank and even its own patent institute. This is miles away from a single summit by a group of countries and it certainly has a splinter tendency. The Visegrad Group proved particularly useful for its member countries as a means to consolidate their policy on refugees: the firm resistance of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in receiving any of the thousands of refugees entering Europe contributed significantly to the eventual fiasco of the Germany-backed refugee settlement program.

Other, more recent examples can be found in the region. The Craiova Group, created last year, is a group set up by Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia that aims to further each country’s European integration, focusing mostly on economic cooperation and matters related to transport and energy. The list of regional informal groups is as immense as it is odd: from the NORDEFCO, a security and defence cooperation structure of the Scandinavian countries to the Arraiolos Group, a yearly gathering of non-executive heads of state. These meetings have taken place since 2003; Germany, together with Portugal and Latvia, has not missed a single one. Selective meetings of different European countries are not new to anyone. Certainly, it is not the EUMed submit that risks deepening a pattern of regional fragmentation, let alone starting one.

The case for the summit can arguably be made along simple, evident lines: the participating countries are seeking to increase their influence in the EU’s negotiation table. France has lost further field to Germany as one of Europe’s driving forces; Italy has for years presented grievances about the lack of support of the EU and its member states in the handling the migrant crisis (much previous to the refugee inflow from Syria). Italy’s “Mare Nostrum” operation, ran throughout the year of 2013, rescued roughly 150,000 migrants. According to some estimates, the operation cost was at 9 million euros per month, that Italy supported largely alone. Greece and Portugal were heavily hit by years-long austerity programs following their bailout deals with the EU and the IMF. Spain, Malta and Cyprus governments have so far kept a low-profile approach but their presence in the summit suggests they carry grievances of their own – Cyprus’ “bail-in” and Spain’s banking system bail-out has certainly left many dissatisfied.

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, escorts Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa during a Mediterranean Leader's Summit in Athens, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016.AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis.

An uncertain future: the summit’s prospects

This is not to say that the future of the EUMed summit is guaranteed. Potential threats can be found within the participating countries. Even if that was not the central point of the summit, it certainly had an ideological influence: 5 of the 7 present head left-wing cabinets. However, there is a high degree of uncertainty looming the political future of some of those presents in the summit.

The case for the summit can arguably be made along simple, evident lines: the participating countries are seeking to increase their influence in the EU’s negotiation table.

The most obvious case is the French President: it is almost certain Mr. Hollande will not be seating in the Elysée after May 2017, even if his Socialist Party wins the elections. With the main contenders for the job lining up to be the winner of the Republican party dispute (either Mr. Juppé or Mr. Sarkozy) and Marine Le Pen from the National Front, whoever wins the French elections will surely have a different message to carry to next year’s EUMed Summit – or not bother to appear at all.

In Spain, as eternal as the post-election indecision may have seemed, a new government is in place and in full working order. With PSOE mired in a serious crisis, Mr. Rajoy is once again the country´s prime minister. Italy’s Matteo Renzi will reach September 2017 with a constitutional referendum behind him (due to December 2016), but not its results. Both him and Malta’s Joseph Muscat will also be thinking about the elections both will face in May and June, respectively. Portugal, that will host next year’s summit, seems politically stable for now. However, the risk of rupture of the unprecedented but ever-fragile agreement sustaining the current left-wing government will always be there.

Portugal, that will host next year’s summit, seems politically stable for now.

Not that external conditions are much more favourable: on the contrary, the issues hitting the South of Europe will hardly reach the headlines when the unavoidable unwrapping of Brexit and its consequences, the lack of response from the EU towards issues as pressing as the refugee crisis and the continuous rise of anti-liberal forces that are growing to level threatening the European project’s very core to the anticipation of another wave of economic stagnation across Europe are hitting the news.

The EUMed summit is arguably a good idea. It perhaps comes a few years past its most-needed time, when bailout packages were being negotiated and the balance of power in the EU was not as irremediably changed as it nowadays, but the idea of a southern European forum is very much needed. However, it will only bear fruit should the participating countries agree to meet again for the following years and effectively lobby for each other in Brussels. If not, it risks being another accurate portrait of a struggling EU: countless meetings, good-willing declarations bearing the name of the host city… and repeat.

About the author

Rodrigo Vaz holds a BA in International Relations from the Catholic University of Portugal and a MSc in African Politics at SOAS, University of London. He was until recently at Graduate Attache Researcher at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. His research interests lie mainly in political transition and regime change within a combined history and politics approach.

Rodrigo Vaz é licenciado em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade Católica Portuguesa e tem um Mestrado em African Politics pela SOAS, University of London. Foi até recentemente um Graduate Attache Researcher no British Institute in Eastern Africa. Os seus interesses académicos focam-se sobretudo em transições politicas e mudanças de regime, numa perspetiva combinada entre historia contemporânea e ciência politica.


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