Leaders of the EU’s southern countries taking part in an Athens summit on Friday sought to forge a common strategy ahead of next weeks informal gathering of European leaders in Bratislava to discuss the bloc’s future in the aftermath of Brexit.
The Athens summit – attended by French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Maltese premier Joseph Muscat, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Spain’s State Secretary for the European Union, Fernando Eguidazu – addressed key issues such as the refugee crisis, negligible economic growth, high unemployment, the rise of the far right and euroskepticism.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was not able to attend the meeting amid efforts to form a coalition government in Madrid.
Hosting the summit, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stressed that Europe’s Mediterranean countries “can and must raise their voice,” while the French president highlighted the need to “foster growth, protect Europe’s border, deal with immigration and the joint effort against terrorism.”
“It is now common knowledge that Europe is at a crossroads,” Tsipras said, stressing that economic stagnation, the lack of social cohesion, the rise of euroskepticism and isolationism and the rise of far-right populism are “issues that we cannot bypass.”
However, the mini-summit’s participants insisted they were not trying to form a southern front against Europe’s northern countries over the issues of fiscal austerity and migration, as critics have suggested.
Nonetheless, the gathering of the seven Mediterranean nations – or Club Med, as some critics have called them – drew some derisive remarks from several northern European officials, including German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
“When socialist party members leaders meet, most of the time, nothing terribly intelligent comes out of it,” he said. Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party – European Parliament’s largest party – took a direct swipe at Tsipras, accusing him of fostering divisiveness.
“Alexis Tsipras is once again playing the little games he knows so well,” Weber said, adding that what Europe needs is unity and not new efforts to divide it.
Tsipras, who has repeatedly accused Germany of trying to dominate Europe and of pursuing fiscal policies that essentially undermine the recovery of southern countries, was adamant in his dismissal of accusations that the summit was convened to foment further divisiveness.
“The summit is a positive contribution to the dialogue on the future of Europe,” Tsipras said, while his aides referred to the so-called Visegrad group – Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland – as an example of countries forming a faction to oppose EU policies.
Hollande echoed the same sentiment, saying that within the present framework of the EU, “we need unity and cohesion to meet the demands of the people.” Analysts, however, were wary that backing a common strategy in Bratislava will come up against the obstacle of different ideological backgrounds of Mediterranean governments.