EUMed9: Trying to rebuild a “European South”

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Is the Athens meeting of leaders from EU South member countries, a forum already expanding from the original EUMed7 to EUMed9 (with the addition of Croatia and Slovenia) and able to ensure the participation of high-profile personalities like Emmanuel Macron or Mario Draghi (European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also joined the event) a new piece for the European architecture of tomorrow? Could – or should – one speak of a re-emerging European South, over and above the photo-opps offered by the SNf/Phaleron venue overlooking the Athens Riviera?

Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis was the effective organizer of the event. The EUMed started as EUMed7 back in 2013, at Spanish-Cypriot initiative in Brussels; it graduated to full visibility in 2015, in Paris; its first Summit was in 2016, at the Zappeion in Athens, with an “Athens Declaration” on the role of the EU over migration as well as on investment needed to ensure growth and youth employment. The expansion now to EUMed9 through the addition of Croatia and more surprisingly of Slovenia, now presiding the EU Council and usually priding itself to belong to the Mittel Europa, comes at a time that the Covid-19 crisis has led to a rebalancing of “Europe” with the Next Generation EU Project underway, but also with deeper fractures looming in the (recovering) EU.

Mitsotakis was careful enough not to aim too high: the focus of the Athens 2021 meeting was the impact of climate change – or, rather, the climate crisis – and the need to work for sustainability in the extremely fragile Mediterranean environment. “[There was] unprecedented ecological damage and response capabilities are being stretched to the limit” was the sobering conclusion. The experience of the recent weeks of drought and the wildfires in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Italy, reminiscent of the 2018 tragic experience in Greece and Portugal brought to the leaders’ meeting portents of an ominous future.

The Athens EUMed9 offered tepid support to the woes of Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the truculent behavior of Turkey in the region – all the way to Libya. In a context where only France used to show some interest, it would be important to have e.g. Italy and Spain joining in expression of concern; instead, participants heard out Mitsotakis setting out the problem – and Macron suggesting that the previous EUMed7 Conclusions (in Corsica) were successful in defusing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. As could be expected, EUMed9 leaders expressed concern-plus over the refugee situation boiling over after the Afghanistan debacle, but did so in more-or-less wishing the problem away: refugees should remain in countries close to the Afghan borders…

The real challenge for the EUMed9, though, is to build some sort of “new European South” ready for the critical EU/Euro-area debate that is due to start in 2022 (meaning once the German elections are over, and the new German Coalition Government is formed) over the future of the Stability Pact and the effective economic “Future of Europe”. The Athens EUMed9 may have served for participants to realise that if the South is not to fall dangerously behind in the years to come within the EU, then “the time is now” to get a coherent stance – if not a single voice; to this point, there are no real signs for such an evolution that would fight off a further economic regression in the South as national economies are revving up after the pandemic. One last point: as EUMed leaders were leaving Athens (existing) German Chancellor Angela Merkel was taking stock in Berlin of the results of her own visit to Belgrade and Tirana, meeting with leaders of Western Balkan countries. In a region not only adjoining but indeed participating to Mediterranean concerns, German leadership asserts itself in both economic and geopolitical terms; given that tensions still existing in Greece over future relations with North Macedonia and Albania the next moves on this intricate chessboard should be closely watched.