Italy confident of EU future without Britain

NAPLES — Britain’s exit would not lead to the demise of the EU, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowed on Monday.

“Many thought the EU was finished after Brexit but that is not how it is,” Renzi said as he welcomed the leaders of France and Germany for crucial talks on how to revive the European project in the wake of the Brexit referendum shock.

“We want to write a better page (in European history).”

French President Francois Hollande said Europe was faced with a risk of “fragmentation and division”, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled that the EU had been born from some of the “darkest moments” of European history.

The three leaders were speaking ahead of a working dinner aboard the Giuseppe Garibaldi aircraft carrier, anchored off the island of Ventotene, one of the cradles of the dream of a united, integrated Europe. They are hoping to forge a common position ahead of a summit of 27 EU states in Bratislava in September. Britain is not invited.

On the trio’s agenda were expected to be the way forward after Britain’s vote, Europe’s economic outlook, jihadist attacks, refugees and migrants, the Syrian conflict, and relations with Russia and Turkey.

At a first round of talks in June, the leaders of continental Europe’s three biggest economies called for “a new impulse” for the EU.

On Monday the trio travelled to Ventotene, off the coast of Naples to lay a wreath on the tomb of an Italian intellectual seen as one of the founding fathers of European unity.

They then held talks on an Italian aircraft carrier that co-ordinates the EU naval mission against migrant traffickers from the North African coast.

“These are two symbols in one. Ideal values and concrete commitments,” Renzi said.

Ahead of the meeting, Renzi urged Europe to invest in defence, education and culture while breaking free of bureaucratic rules.

“We need to invest in a common defence policy, in digital innovation, in schools and culture,” he said.

“Europe is the affectionate mother of our values, it is not the icy guardian of bureaucratic rules that are difficult to accept,” Renzi said.

Heavily indebted Italy, whose economy has barely grown since the introduction of the euro in 1999, has repeatedly chafed against stern EU budget rules, and both Renzi and Hollande want greater flexibility to help boost growth. While Italy is eager for greater European consolidation in the wake of Brexit, Merkel wants to cement “a better Europe” rather than forge ahead with “more Europe”.

The talks on Monday mark the beginning of a week of meetings for Merkel with other European governments that will see her travel to four countries and receive leaders from another eight. “The goal must first of all be to preserve the status quo and to prevent a further disintegration of the EU-27,” an EU diplomat said.

The Garibaldi, the Italian aircraft carrier on which the talks were held, is the flagship of the EU’s Sophia mission in the Mediterranean. The operation is intended to tackle migrant smugglers, help enforce an arms embargo off Libya, and train the Libyan coast guard.

Disagreements over how to handle the migrant situation has laid bare divisions between member states. Italy, the main entry point for Africans but rarely their planned destination, is struggling to house migrants turned back from neighbouring countries including France, and has disagreed with Germany over how to finance the response.

AFP and Reuters

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