On Friday, June 14th, Malta played host to the Sixth South EU Summit – also known as the Southern EU Countries’ Summit. Government leaders from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta united for a perennial gathering to evaluate progress and joint challenges affecting the region as a whole, whilst also cementing their positions as a bloc ahead of the European Council meeting, which took place mere days later, between the 20th and 21st of June.
The focus of the latter meeting – which consists of government leaders from the EU28, along with the presidents of both the EU Council and Commission Presidents – was as much on reaching a consensus to fill the Bloc’s top positions, as it was agreeing to the EU’s priorities, from a political perspective, for the next five years.
While the outcome of the South EU Summit bears no binding effects on the wider Union, many of the joint positions established between the seven Southern European leaders resonated in the later EU Council meeting, convened in Brussels.
Mirroring the scope of previous South EU Summits, topics addressed by government leaders included the ‘Cyprus Issue’, migration, and climate change. However, and of particular importance, this conference also focused on European security, development, and social rights, as was outlined in the Valletta Declaration.
Notably, the EU Council meeting concluded without a consensus on who would assume the leadership of the Commission, once EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, resigns from his post. EU leaders agreed to a follow up meeting on June 30th, two days prior to a meeting of the European Parliament.
Despite the lack of an accord, EU Council President, Donald Tusk, acknowledged the need for the bloc’s leadership to reflect the diversity of the European Union – a message that had been previously echoed by the leaders of Southern Europe in the Valletta Declaration. The joint statement call for the EU’s leadership to reflect “our ambitions for a strong EU and a fair balance in terms of geography, size of countries, gender and political affiliation”, adding that this is of utmost importance to reflect the “modernity and inclusiveness of the EU”.
A Strategic Agenda was adopted at the closure of the EU Council meeting, outlining an overall framework for the EU’s priorities for the next five years, focusing on four underlying areas: countering climate change, boosting security and addressing migration, fighting disinformation and the myriad threats that undermine democracy, and coordinating policy, research, and investment regarding digital technology.
Moreover, and while headway was made during the EU Council Meeting on topics such as the ‘Cyprus Issue’, greater ambition was required on others, such as the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), or in establishing a united strategy to tackle migration.
Planning for Growth and Future Economic Shocks
“The euro area is today more resilient and better equipped to handle shocks”, reads the Valletta Declaration. But setting the stage for future growth is easier said than done.
In order to keep Europe’s economy resilient and “shock-proof”, the South EU Summit focused on deepening the monetary union (EMU) by completing the Banking Union, which will bring all the disparate systems together under one regulatory framework. This would include the quick implementation of a fully- fledged European Deposit Insurance Scheme, that will protect deposits of up to 100,000 euros anywhere in the EU, and the Capital Markets Union sought to enable capital for businesses, in a bid to create more jobs. Ultimately, member states would be more closely aligned to both boost competitiveness, and stabilise the joint European economy.
The EU’s Strategic Agenda sets forth that deepening the EMU is among the bloc’s main objectives. “We must ensure that the euro works for our citizens and remains resilient, deepening the Economic and Monetary Union in all its dimensions, completing the Banking and Capital Markets Union and strengthening the international role of the euro”, it reads. However, there is no reference to the European Deposit Insurance Scheme – the third and final pillar for the completion of the Banking Union.
Instead, a call was made to finance ministers to continue working on EMU reform, while EU Council President Tusk highlighted the need for Member States to finalise the reforms aimed at broadening the competences of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), by the end of 2019.
On the other hand, the seven Southern European heads of state agreed to support “the creation of a budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness”, adding that this would play a “stabilisation function within the Euro area (…) that could target investment and job- creation”.
This idea builds on the French President’s initial proposal to create a eurozone budget, along with a so-called “rainy-day fund”. At the Euro Summit in Brussels, on December 14th, EU leaders approved the creation of a eurozone budget – albeit a scaled down version of Macron’s vision, and it was agreed that additional details would be hashed out following the EU Parliament elections – particularly relating to the governance and financing of the instrument. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez has been a key proponent for the creation of a eurozone budget.
On Friday’s summit, in what is considered a modest move in the right direction, EU leaders greenlighted a plan for a Budgetary Instrument for Convergence and Competitiveness (BICC) – envisioned as a quasi-budget to assist eurozone countries improve their public administration and help attract corporate investment. While details regarding the actual size of the instrument and its sources of financing are yet to be determined, it has been suggested BICC would have a budget of 17 billion euros, spread over seven years, between the nineteen eurozone countries. However, the instrument would not have the initially desired “stabilisation function”, and falls far from initial ambitions, equal to several percentage points of gross domestic product of national economies.
Nonetheless, Macron remains confident, having urged for the new European Commission to continue pursuing eurozone reform, and for BICC to be turned into a self-governed and amply funded mechanism – including the sought after stabilisation function.
Standing In Solidarity with Cyprus
Due in no small part to Turkey’s bid to explore for hydrocarbons in Cyprus’ EEZ, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are high. On Thursday, Turkey dispatched a second drilling ship to prospect for hydrocarbon reserves offshore Cyprus, after having initiated drilling activities in May of this year – a move that has been widely condemned by both the European Union and the United States.
While the ‘Cyprus issue’ is a recurring theme during the gatherings amongst Southern European leaders, the seven heads of state came out swinging with a much tougher stance this time around – a move that succeeded in garnering sweeping EU-wide support.
“We are closely following the situation in Cyprus and, we reiterate our support to the efforts by the United Nations Good Offices Mission for the resumption of meaningful negotiations, leading to a viable comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem (…). The solution must safeguard Cyprus’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, without guarantees, rights of intervention and military presence of foreign troops. In this respect, we expect Turkey to demonstrate tangible commitment for a comprehensive settlement within the UN framework.” reads the Valletta Declaration.
Addressing the press after the summit, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades thanked his counterparts for expressing solidarity with his state “in expressing their condemnation of the actions that Turkey [has taken] actions in the Eastern Mediterranean (…) to condemn this behaviour that goes fully against the principles and values of the European Union, particularly if the country that violates it is a candidate for EU membership.”
French President Emmanual Macron voiced his agreement. “I wish here once again to reiterate my full solidarity with Cyprus and my commitment to respect its sovereignty. Turkey must cease its illegal activities in the EEZ of Cyprus. The European Union will not show any weakness on this subject”, he said.
Following the subsequent European Council Meeting, not only was a united stance resonated by the EU28, in a show of solidarity with Cyprus, the Union threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey, unless illegal drilling activates were ceased.
“The European Council endorses the invitation to the Commission and the EEAS [EU foreign affairs service] to submit options for appropriate measures without delay, including targeted measures”, read the European Council’s press release.
EU Commission President Juncker later added “What Turkey is doing in the territorial waters of Cyprus is totally unacceptable. The Commission has been charged to propose measures to be taken as soon as possible when it comes to this conflict and will do so, and these will not be soft measures.”
“Today the European Council sent a clear and stern message to Turkey”, said Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, referring to a statement released at the conclusion of the Council Meeting. Tsipras told reporters on Friday that it was “the first time after decades of international violations of international law by Turkey that the EU, after coordinated actions by Greece and Cyprus, has condemned Turkish actions in such a clear and decisive manner”.
Turkey, for its part, has claimed that its drilling activities are being undertaken within the continental shelf – therefore in compliance with international law. Although a candidate for EU membership, the European Parliament called for the suspension of accession negotiations with Turkey in March of this year, in response to alleged widespread abuses of human rights.
Migration and EU-Africa Cooperation
Migration is a staple on the agenda of the perennial gatherings amongst Southern European leaders; one often linked to security and borders. Speaking before the summit, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat noted that “our geographical location makes us susceptible to persistent migratory pressures (…). We need, however, to look at a more permanent mechanism within the context of a fully functioning migration policy, based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity”.
Southern European states – referred to as frontline countries – have borne the brunt of the migrant crisis since its peak in 2015, having long called for united action at a European level, in the form of burden sharing. The crux of the debate is centred on the reform of the Dublin Regulation; the current EU law that defines an asylum seeker’s country of first arrival as responsible for both processing the claim and providing asylum. It is widely accepted that Dublin has proven both insufficient and problematic for the scale of the migration crisis, ultimately placing overwhelming burdens on Southern European states – the first landing ground for people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Valletta Declaration focuses on “improved control of the EU’s external borders, enhanced external action and a reformed and harmonised common European asylum system, that will guarantee effective implementation of the principle of solidarity and fair burden sharing between Member States”, adding the need “to promote a renewed and operational partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood, building on convergent interests in the region”.
Besides the reform of the Dublin Regulation, the text refers to the need to deepen ties with the African continent, in the form of investment and EU-African trade, leveraging the EU-Africa Alliance.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expressed “frustration” over the fact that following a full year since the conclusions adopted at the June, 2018 European Council Meeting, these decisions had yet to be translated into practical actions. This, said Conte “is leading to our citizens’ lack of satisfaction”. Conte also highlighting the need to address instability in Libya, while strengthening cooperation between Africa and the European Union.
“Africa is our closest neighbour”, enthused Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, reinforcing that besides being the European Union’s greatest development opportunity, “it is the part of the world with the demographic and economic dynamic that demands of Europe a greater and growing proximity”. Costa urged the European Council to include a strategic partnership with the African continent for the 21st century as a key priority within its next Strategic Agenda.
With regard to the conclusions of the EU Council Meeting, while an attempt was made to reach an agreement amongst the EU’s top leadership on the reform of the Dublin Regulation “based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity, taking into account the persons disembarked following Search and Rescue operations”, an overall consensus is still lacking. Any significant steps in this direction are not expected until October of this year.
Nonetheless, the EU Council’s Strategic Agenda sets out the determination to “further develop a fully functioning comprehensive migration policy”, and to “continue and deepen our cooperation with countries of origin and transit to fight illegal migration and human trafficking, and to ensure effective returns”.
Likewise, and with regard to EU-African cooperation, objectives were set out to “pursue an ambitious neighbourhood policy”, adding that the EU “will develop a comprehensive partnership with Africa (…) to work towards global peace and stability, and to promote democracy and human rights”.
Tackling Climate Change
Addressing climate change and meeting EU goals was a major topic at both the South EU Summit and the EU Council Meeting.
“We shall strive to jointly tackle the effects of accelerating Climate Change in the Mediterranean basin, and intensify work on the EU’s climate strategy, mindful of regional specificities, in order to implement the Paris Agreement objectives. We reaffirm our commitment to the objective of climate neutrality, which should be reached by 2050,” reads the Valletta Declaration.
Similarly, the results of the EU Council Meeting resulted in the adoption of a five-year Strategic Agenda to boost intensive efforts to counter climate change. However, European leaders were unable to unanimously agree to climate neutrality by 2050 due, primarily, to opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
But the issues of climate change are inextricable from the interrelated issues of energy security, innovation and disruption, and the economy. After the summit in Valletta, Muscat brought attention to Malta’s transition to electric vehicles, Anastasiades mentioned climate change in the same breath as Europe’s monetary union, and Costa spoke about the need to not leave anyone behind due to transitions in the economy or society.
Tsipras noted that during the European Parliament elections on May 26th, “the European citizens have also spoken clearly, particularly young people, when talking about the environment. We have seen their awareness grow. This is a warning sign to us, to governments, to leaders of governments, that environmental matters are very important and must be a priority in the next five years.”
The EU Council’s atrategic agenda urges the need for the Union to step up its action to manage the existential threat posed by climate change. “The EU can and must lead the way, by engaging in an in-depth transformation of its own economy and society to achieve climate neutrality. This will have to be conducted in a way that takes account of national circumstances and is socially just.” it reads.
Nonetheless, goals for climate neutrality by 2050 were only established “for a large majority of Member States”, based on the conclusions of Thursday’s gathering – a botch Greenpeace has blamed on French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for failing to get the unanimous support needed to achieve the EU’s climate goals.
“Merkel and Macron failed to convince Poland and bring others on board. With people on the streets demanding action, and warnings from scientists that the window to respond is closing fast, our governments had a chance to lead from the front and put Europe on a rapid path to full decarbonisation. They blew it”, said EU climate policy adviser Sebastian Mang in a statement on Thursday.
However, it appears eight countries are exerting pressure to achieve a firm commitment towards climate-neutrality by 2050, ahead of the United Nations summit in September – namely Cyprus, Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. With this effort, there may still be time to sway the climate-change laggers in the opposite direction.
Encouraging Social Rights
During discussions, social rights were often linked to economic growth. Speaking before the regional gathering in Valletta, Muscat said “We need to safeguard our citizen’s wellbeing and their freedoms.”
“We can talk about social rights and an improved quality of life today because our economies are improving; A strategy for further economic growth, which leads to more and better jobs, has to be at the centre of our policies.”
The Valletta Declaration sets forth that, “A fair EU is one which puts its social agenda at the forefront”, adding that “we are committed to further promote gender equality, including through an ambitious gender-equality strategy. We call upon the incoming European Commission to prioritise LGBTIQ rights”.
Addressing the press after the gathering amongst Southern European leaders, Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, added “a social Europe guarantees safety and security to all its citizens making sure that no one is left behind, especially in the moment of technological transition, [whether digital or renewable]. We need to advance together, we cannot leave anyone behind”.
The Strategic Agenda adopted at the conclusion of the EU Council meeting states that “Europe must be a place where people feel free and safe. The EU shall defend the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens,” which is underpinned by common values, functioning as “the foundation of European freedom, security and prosperity”. This requires implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights and addressing inequality, as well as providing more opportunities for citizens in a transitioning economy.
Proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission in November, 2017, the European Pillar of Social Rights comprises twenty principles and rights, broken down into three categories: Equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. However, implementation of these principles depends on local, regional and national authorities, and while advances have been made, there is still a long way to go for social equality to be a reality.
For example, within the space of gender equality, the EU has historically been at the forefront in the advancement of women’s rights. However, over the past decade, progress has stalled: only 67 percent of the active female population work, while merely 31 percent of all entrepreneurs are women. The gender pay gap resides around 16 percent, and women continue to be widely under-represented in leading political and economic decision-making bodies.