Big three tackle EU future on symbolic island

The leaders of Italy, France and Germany meet on Monday to lay the groundwork for a summit aimed at salvaging the European project in the wake of Britain's shock vote to leave.

Big three tackle EU future on symbolic island
Matteo Renzi, Angela Merkel and Francous Hollande, will meet in Italy on Monday. Photo: John McDougall/AFP

Europe's economic outlook, jihadist attacks, the refugee and migrant drama, the Syrian conflict, and relations with Russia and Turkey will all be on the table on the lush Italian island of Ventotene.

But more than anything else, the meeting, held three weeks before an informal EU summit in Bratislava of 27 states – minus Britain – will focus on how to reverse the rise of euroscepticism and strengthen the hard-hit bloc.

It will be the second round of trilateral talks between Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At their first, shortly after Britain's June 23rd vote, the leaders called for “a new impulse” for the EU.

Critics have demanded less talk more action over a crisis some states fear could lead to similar referendums in other countries, particularly the Netherlands, which opposes changes to the EU to achieve closer integration.

Coming up with a road map acceptable to all will not be easy, with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia vowing after Britain's vote to draw up their own plans for a less-centralised EU.

Renzi will welcome Hollande and Merkel in Naples at 1400 GMT before they travel on to Ventotene, where they will visit the grave of Altiero Spinelli, one of the founding fathers of the ideal of European integration.

Imprisoned on the island by the fascist government during the Second World War, Spinelli and fellow captive Ernesto Rossi co-wrote the “Ventotene manifesto” calling for a federation of European states.

Defence, economy, culture

In another symbolic move, the leaders will hold a working dinner and press conference on Italy's Garibaldi aircraft carrier, the flagship of the EU's “Sophia” mission against people trafficking in the Mediterranean.

It will be the start of an intensive tour of talks for the German chancellor as she attempts to coordinate a response to one of the EU's biggest crises in decades and quell fears Berlin wants to monopolise the debate.

After a series of deadly attacks by the Islamic State group (IS), the three leaders are expected to explore greater co-operation on counter-terrorism and an integrated European security and defence policy — a long-cherished objective that could be easier to achieve now sceptical Britain has departed.

Italy's defence and foreign affairs ministers have proposed creating “a Schengen-like defence agreement to respond to terrorism”, with a “multinational force” under a single command for specific missions.

It is an idea France is keen on, but Germany is unlikely to get behind Paris's suggestion for it to be funded with eurobonds, a move Berlin fears would leave it vulnerable to the debt burdens of eurozone peers.

In terms of the economy, Hollande wants the Juncker Plan – the EU's investment fund for infrastructure, education, research and innovation – to be doubled, according to a French diplomatic source.

Renzi is tipped to unveil a proposal to use part of those funds to restore European cultural monuments.

But while Hollande and Renzi want to tackle Europe's identity crisis through investments, Merkel is unlikely to be moved by their anti-austerity overtures.

All three leaders have been hit in the polls by varying toxic combinations of refugee crisis, economic slump and terror attacks, with eurosceptic or populist parties gaining ground.

And with 2017 bringing a general election in Germany and presidential election in France, they will be wary of ignoring opposition to further European integration at home, leaving them little room for manoeuvre.

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.