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Analysis: What Happened At the 5th South EU Summit and Why Does It Matter? (Part I)

Cyprus hosted the 5th South EU Summit on January 29th, bringing together the Heads of State of France (Emmanuel Macron), Italy (Giuseppe Conte), Greece (Alexis Tsipras), Malta (Joseph Muscat), and Cyprus (Nicos Anastasiades), along with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Spain (Josep Borrell), in representation of President Pedro Sanchez.

The regional gathering, that was launched in Athens in September, 2016, has developed into a perennial meeting amongst Southern European leaders, and an opportunity to jointly address regional challenges, while contributing to shape the future course of the European project. Addressing the press, Cypriot host, President Nicos Anastasiades, underlined the strategic timing of the South EU Summit “given the challenges that the Union is facing,” adding that he had no doubt the meeting would “prove to be of decisive importance in the further course our countries will follow together.”

Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, announced that his country would host the next South EU Summit later on this year, and commended the strategic nature of the regional meetings, explaining that, “rather than just debating on what will happen, or what we will say at the next Council meetings, we try to take a longer term perspective, and I think that this is the crucial competitive edge that we have as a group of countries.”

The conclusions of the government leaders – that were set out in the joint Nicosia Declaration – addressed pressing matters. Most notably, however, were Brexit, migration, energy security, eurozone reform, and the Cyprus Issue. Following closed door deliberations, each of the Southern European leaders delivered statements to the press.

But what was decided by Southern European leaders? Here is what you need to know regarding Brexit and Migration:

Brexit

The clock is ticking, and the potential of a no-deal Brexit seems increasingly more likely with every day that passes, with only 2 months left before Britain’s departure from the European Union. On Tuesday, Britain’s law makers agreed for British premier Theresa May to return to Brussels, and reopen negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement – the primary objective being the replacement of the “Irish backstop” with “alternative arrangements”.  Any potential changes to the Withdrawal Agreement would need to be unanimously agreed to by EU member states.

Southern European leaders took the opportunity of their meeting in Cyprus, to voice a united front on the matter, rejecting a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU bloc. While expressing their regret for the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, the leaders conveyed their commitment “to an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU”, that could set the basis “for an ambitious future partnership”, while noting, however, that they “stand firmly by the Withdrawal Agreement” and “intend to proceed with its ratification”.

During the press statements, French President Emmanuel Macron minced no words: “this Agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK is one of the best and it is not renegotiable.” Macron said he hoped the British government would present the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, with “the next steps that will prevent an exit without an agreement, which nobody wants but for which we must all prepare ourselves.”

Migration

Establishing a united front on the reform of EU migration and asylum policy, has been on the agenda of every single summit between Southern European leaders, since the onset of the gatherings in Athens, 2016. Bearing in mind that the matter remains the most divisive issue amongst EU Member States, and the main concern of European voters, in 22 of the 27 EU countries that will head to the polls in the upcoming European Parliament election, it’s no surprise that migration was at the centre of discussions during Tuesday’s summit.


A Syrian refugee with his daughter. Copyright: Giannis Papanikos / shutterstock.com

Southern European leaders reiterated the call for “shared responsibility and solidarity with those most affected [by migratory flows],” –  and urged their EU counterparts to push ahead with the “implementation of the Conclusions of the June 28 European Council.”

In June 2018, EU leaders agreed on an array of measures, geared towards the management of migratory inflows. But most importantly, they committed to alleviate the burden on frontline countries – such as Greece, Italy and Spain – that have been subject to excessive pressures, through shared efforts amongst Member States – but “only on a voluntary basis”. The materialisation of this commitment, however, has been slow in coming.

“It is there [at the European Council] that we expressed quite clearly, the principle that anyone setting foot in any European country, actually sets foot in Europe as a whole,” voiced Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, adding that given the Union’s failure to solve the issues relating to migration, “we should not be surprised to see our citizens turning their back on Europe.”

Italy closed its ports to migrant rescue boats in June 2018, in a bid to increase pressure on EU Member States for a collective response. Tensions, since then, have escalated rapidly.

While the Italian premier was openly critical of the EU’s inability to “single fund the problem,” alluding to the “lack of synchronisation” when “dealing with these crucial matters,” Conte also acknowledged that “Italy is one of the founding members [of the EU], and it has a historic duty to do its best, so that the EU has a better future, and will be able to deal with all the challenges it will meet in the future”.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pressed for the reform of the Dublin Regulation, underlining that solidarity cannot exist “without creating a mechanism that shall reallocate the asylum seekers between the EU member states.” According to the Dublin system, the first country that an asylum seeker enters is responsible for the examination of their claim – placing a heavy burden on frontline countries, given most migrants arrive via the Mediterranean Sea. The proposed reform of the Dublin Regulation, which has long been called for by Southern EU countries, supposes the introduction of migrants’ relocation quotas for each EU member state – something that has received hefty opposition from countries such as, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Nicosia Declaration acknowledges that progress has been achieved in reducing illegal border crossings – particularly since the onset of the migrant crisis in 2015, that recorded circa 1 million arrivals, compared to 172,000 Mediterranean Sea arrivals in 2017. However, it cautions that “migratory routes, such as those running through the Eastern, Central and Western Mediterranean, continue to require close attention.”

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, drew attention “to the need for Turkey to fulfill all its obligations toward Cyprus, including cooperation, as well as effective implementation of the Readmission Agreement with the European Union, without discriminations.” In 2018, Cyprus ranked first in asylum claims per capita, with close to 6,000 requests – with Turkey being their main port of departure. Anastasiades explained, in an interview, that there is also a high percentage of economic migrants whose return is not feasible, due to Turkey’s failure to apply the EU–Turkey Readmission Agreement towards Cyprus.

However, the Southern EU leaders also coalesced around the need to address the root causes of irregular migration, tackling this through “economic development and managed migration.”

“We define as a priority the need to hold a dialogue with the countries of origin and, thus, help them from an economic point of view, so that the people will be able to find themselves in a better situation,” stated Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, urging Europeans to understand that “there is a need to support the African continent.”

Costa took the opportunity to announce that a core focus of Portugal’s EU Presidency in 2021, will be EU-Africa cooperation. “There is need a for a permanent mechanism of solidarity to deal with emergency situations when they arise,” said Costa, indicating the importance of an EU-wide participation, according to each Member State’s “capacities and needs”.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borell – who attended the summit on behalf of Spanish President Pedro Sanchez – stressed the correlation between managing migratory inflows and promoting economic development programs in African countries. “Spain has presented an integrated approach, reinforcing its cooperation with origin countries like Morocco, as well as with transit countries,” said Borrell. “There is an absolute need to contribute to the economic development of Africa, taking into account the lack of balance in terms of democracy at the two sides of the Mediterranean.”

If you would like to know what was concluded by Southern EU leaders on other pressing matters, including energy security, eurozone reform, and the Cyprus Issue, stay tuned for our follow up analysis piece on the 5th South EU Summit.

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Editorial Staff

South EU Summit's editorial team is comprised of an international team of journalists and communication specialists with wide-ranging areas of expertise. We pride ourselves in developing firsthand content, and undertaking personal interviews with the most influential players in each market.

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