Tue, Mar 07, 2017 - Page 7 News List

EU’s big four meet, seeking political boost


The heads of continental Europe’s biggest economies yesterday met in the gilded splendor of the Palace of Versailles in France, seeking ways of bolstering an EU facing Britain’s exit and mounting populism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande — whose two countries are often described as the EU’s “engine” — were joined by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni.

“The idea is to try to give political momentum to the four nations,” a French diplomatic source said.

The meeting comes in the run-up to celebrations on March 25 of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which founded what is now called the EU.

That date, combined with last year’s referendum in Britain on leaving the EU and the rise of populist and nationalist figures, has triggered a wave of angst about Europe’s future.

The EU faces legislative elections in The Netherlands this month, followed by presidential elections in France in April and May.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and paymaster, holds legislative elections in September.

Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is widely forecast to reach the runoff in the vote, while the party of firebrand anti-Islam Dutch minister Geert Wilders is expected to perform strongly in the Dutch race. Merkel, is facing pressure from the hard-right populist party Alternative for Germany.

Of the five options that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed in a White Paper on the bloc’s post-Brexit future, ranging from a simple single market to even deeper integration, Paris and Berlin have already made their choice: a “multi-speed” Europe.

In this scenario, countries wanting to move ahead on issues such as economic growth, border protection and defense could form smaller groupings, leaving reticent members behind.

“We certainly learned from the history of the last years ... that as well a European Union with different speeds, that not all will participate every time in all steps of integration,” Merkel said after a summit in Malta last month.

Berlin and Paris say the challenges of Brexit, coming after the eurozone crisis, migration and the Ukraine conflict, make a fresh drive to bolster the EU’s authority more urgent than ever.

Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have signed on to the multi-speed idea, as they worriedly eye the rise of anti-European parties.

However, to avoid antagonizing member states who resist the idea, including many in eastern Europe, no concrete project is planned to be announced after the meeting in Versailles.

In other developments, the EU is set to approve the creation of a headquarters for its military training missions in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said she would urge foreign and defense ministers to “take immediate decisions on the establishment of a military planning and conduct capability.”

She said it would provide a “more efficient approach to the existing military training missions we have.”

The term “headquarters” is taboo in Brussels, with members like Britain saying the EU must not waste money by doing similar things to NATO.

Arriving for the meeting, British Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon said just that, urging his European partners “to cooperate more closely with NATO to avoid unnecessary duplication and structures.”

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