Comment on the Summit of Southern EU countries

A promising initiative for the future of Europe

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The Summit of Southern European Union countries is an informal platform that brings together the heads of state or government of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain. On April 10 it held its third meeting in Madrid. The declaration that came out of it is of particular importance, especially in terms of the symbolic significance of southern EU countries coordinating their actions on the European front.1

As was so readily apparent during the height of the euro crisis, and more recently on issues of migration and asylum, these countries do have many things in common. Working together only improves their chances of finding optimal solutions at the supranational level while contributing to the overall balance of influence and perspectives within the EU.

The EU remains open to major reforms

Naysayers may argue that this Summit is a few years late, particularly on economic issues. Austerity was allowed to became the default EU agenda. The Fiscal Compact and the legislation underpinning economic governance are all focused on budgetary discipline and fiscal rigidity. For some, the euro itself is the embodiment of neoliberalism, at least insofar as the lack of monetary sovereignty at the national level forces the government to cope with macroeconomic adjustments by relying on fiscal means (i.e. spending cuts).

While pessimism of that sort may be well founded, it is ultimately out of place in the given circumstances. A sense of timing is necessary. The European Union is about to change. Assuming things do not turn for the worst in upcoming elections, momentum is building to refashion a number of institutional arrangements starting from the end of this year.

Already from the summer of 2015, the Five Presidents’ report for completing the Economic and Monetary Union envisaged a phase of reforms that would be initiated at around the end of 2017. Similarly, the Commission’s recent White Paper on the EU’s future touts the December 2017 European Council as the starting point of a renewed effort to achieve political union (though that remains a longer term ambition in line with the need for amending the Treaties).

The permanent and major reforms to the EU institutional makeup still lie in our future. What happened during the crisis years can be described as a temporary fix: a combination of ad hoc measures amidst growing uncertainty about the sustainability of the Union, whose sole objective was to arrest the downfall and provide sufficient space for a turnaround.

The next three to five years will already offer a clear indication as to where the integration process is heading. Migration, security, macroeconomics, social policy. These are all open to discussion. Chances are that new institutions or arrangements thereof will emerge, while old ones will be reconfigured or altogether deprecated.

To that end, it is welcome news that the South is finally putting its act together and, most importantly, is willing to work constructively for the betterment of the EU.

More work on the policy front is needed

As for the actual content of the Madrid Declaration, it is admittedly generic and short on details. Even so, there are some items that hold promise, such as a clear willingness to work with all relevant non-EU countries in addressing matters of migration and asylum, or the unequivocal commitment to the reunification of Cyprus founded on European values and the concomitant abolition of any system of guarantees.

The Summit is adopting a cautious approach. Some principles and broad ideas are put forward. The specifics will be formulated in time. Vagueness can be fruitful and constructive, provided there is willingness to challenge views that would be to the longer term detriment of the South and the Union at-large.

The coming months should offer us a better understanding of the actual merits of the Summit of Southern EU countries; something concrete, beyond the tokenistic value of cooperation and open communication.

This informal platform does have the potential to develop into an important driving force of inclusive Europeanism. Whether it does so remains to be determined. For starters, perhaps it would be beneficial to set the tone by offering a common or coordinated response to the “reflection papers” that the Commission will be publishing over the coming weeks and months.

These are documents that are considered complementary to the White Paper on the future of the EU.2 Their purpose is to enrich the debate and lay the groundwork for the December 2017 European Council. But keeping the debate confined to the closed rooms of intergovernmental diplomacy is not a good way to proceed. Member States should openly comment on the reflection papers, thus allowing citizens the chance to be better informed and to become engaged in the process.

In this regard, the Summit can act as a platform for forming a common negotiating position for the short to medium term, when much about the future of the EU will be decided. Whatever the specifics, there are many possibilities and the timing is just right.

  1. The third declaration of the Southern EU Countries, also known as the Declaration of Madrid, is available in Spanish (pdf file). Published April 10, 2017. Special thanks to Felipe Henriques (@FHenriques on Twitter) for sharing the link. [^]

  2. For my critique of the Commission’s White Paper, see Thoughts on the White Paper about the future of Europe. Published March 9, 2017. [^]