Leaders from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta gathered in Rome on January 10th for the 4th South EU Summit Conference, discussing a host of topics affecting the region and the European Union as a whole. Following their working session, the group spoke at a press conference to discuss the jointly written declaration that resulted from their conference, titled “Bringing the EU Forward in 2018”. The declaration calls for further EU involvement on economic reforms, migration, and social equality.
The strategic gathering between the seven heads of state, which jointly represent close to 40% of EU GDP, highlighted Europe’s recovery process after a decade of financial crisis, a topic that deeply impacted each one of the South EU Summit members. “The crisis ends where it first appears, in the South. And it is ending […] with Greece’s exit from the adjustment programs in the coming August,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras said that the region’s biggest challenge is not just exiting the crisis, but preventing new crises from forming. He noted that 2018 could be a milestone year for the region as it aims to close this long chapter of economic strife. The year is predicted to be full of change for Greece, a country that has seen significant growth in its own right, with its manufacturing sector hitting record growth numbers last month for the first time in a decade.
Migration was a major focal point of the Rome gathering, as the issue greatly affects these frontline nations in particular. The group called for increased EU support in its efforts to manage migration inflows, underscoring that the phenomenon is a region-wide issue that should be acknowledged and supported by all member states, not just those countries greeting asylum seekers at their borders. “The European Union must help more to control the borders because we are in a territory where you can not leave national states alone because they are issues of enormous complexity,” said Spanish President Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy lauded the efforts that the Union is undertaking to provide its foreign policy with additional resources, but called on the group to do more to support the pillars that these seven nations have put in place. Despite the pressure that migration inflows have put on the Spanish government, the country has demonstrated steady economic turnaround, with four years of back-to-back GDP growth and a steady decrease in the Spanish unemployment rate throughout 2017.
Europe’s southern leaders also called for greater monetary unity in their declaration, with French President Emmanuel Macron heading the pack in their request for the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union. “We have a clear convergence of views to advance on finalizing a banking union and to go toward a veritable budgetary union,” Macron said. He underlined that the group’s biggest task is “to convince our partners, because we need to complete a real financing union that will allow more growth and a better coordination of our policies.” France, for its part, has demonstrated significant progress in its business climate and employment indicators, both of which have seen their highest levels this season since 2011.
The Summit’s host and Italian leader, Paolo Gentiloni, heartily supported the proposal of further economic integration for the betterment of the entire bloc. He said that Europe’s economies are undergoing a “positive moment, this is the right time to make an effort for greater European cohesion.” This is especially true for Italy, who hosted the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome less than one year ago, when the country was at financially low point. However, in the successive months, Gentiloni’s government has managed to turn the economy around with a 1.5% growth in GDP in 2017, the country’s fastest pace of economic growth in six years. Despite the large uncertainties surrounding the upcoming national election in March, Rome continues to project similar economic turnout for the 2018 fiscal year.
The seven leaders also focused on the future of the European Union through the implementation of citizens’ consultations, exercises for the region’s inhabitants to voice their opinions on how the bloc can improve. “We welcome the idea of citizens’ consultations, all over Europe, on core priorities for the future of the European Union that could be organized from next spring,” the joint declaration said. Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat fully backed the idea, underscoring the importance of giving voice to “zones where there is no economic growth”, where he noted that rising populism can spread most quickly. He pressed the need for the platform to avoid becoming a place where only similar opinions are expressed. Instead, “we would like to hear people with different ideas, to listen also to those who disagree with the EU and those who feel excluded by it” he stated. Creating healthy transparency is a value that Malta has continued to work on as it exerts effort to build a reputation as a legitimate business hub with healthy corporate governance.
The group also welcomed the proposal for citizens to vote for EU-wide party lists in the next European Parliamentary elections, a step up from the status quo system in which voters are limited to voting only for national party lists. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa openly agreed with the indispensable nature of these collective instruments as a way to sustain growth and maintain regional harmony. “It is essential to strengthen the instruments for economic convergence and for social convergence,” Costa said. The country has made a 180-degree turn in its economic and investment potential since the peak of the European crisis, implementing economic policies supporting digital business and entrepreneurship that have added to the country’s financial growth.
Leaders also included important formal support for Cyprus, the country that will host the fifth South EU Summit as soon as March, 2018. The group’s declaration reiterated the need for the creation of a “viable comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem….that reunifies Cyprus and its people, and which safeguards Cyprus’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, without guarantees.” The document assured that Cyprus will remain a member of the EU and be safeguarded from outside threats by a united bloc. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades voiced his appreciation of his colleagues’ support for the Cyprus problem, an issue “which has continued on unsolved for 44 years.” He expressed his satisfaction in being able to highlight Cyprus’s contributions to the region through its participation in the East Med Pipeline project together with Israel, Italy, and Greece. “The creation of the East Med, I believe can offer a sense of security to the EU,” he said.
The event was the fourth of its kind since the inaugural South EU Summit launch in Athens, back in September of 2016.