Monday

27th Jun 2022

Opinion

Southern Europe needs a 'V4' equivalent

  • With the re-election of Emmanuel Macron, southern EU member states constitute a fairly homogeneous group led by pro-European governments and pro-EU leaderships, despite their governments belonging to different political groups (Photo: morberg)
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Regional groupings have been gaining influence in the European Union's politics and agenda, with groups formed along geographical and/or thematic lines.

The Visegrád Group, the New Hanseatic League, the Benelux or the Nordics have frequently worked together to push forward their demands on various matters, from trade, economic and fiscal policies to migration and relations with external actors like Russia.

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However, southern European member states, who have frequently had all the reasons to collaborate, have found themselves in a framework often marked by a loose cooperation or, worse, by logics of competition.

There are both historical and political reasons for the absence of a reinforced southern cooperation. The significant variation in size, economic power and foreign policy interests makes the southern member states highly heterogeneous.

If France is listed as a southern (or at least Mediterranean) European member state, it may perceive its role more as a leader than as an equal. But France acting as 'primus inter pares' [first among equals] might also well be contested by other important countries like Italy (an EC founder member too) and Spain.

During the financial crisis of 2008 southern European member states clashed in a logic of divergence, not convergence.

Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain were labelled as "PIGS", sharing ever-increasing risk premiums, mounting public debt-to-GDP ratios, crisis in their banking systems, bailout programmes and onerous economic adjustment conditionalities.

Northern European countries moralisingly accused them of having lived beyond their means and imposed harsh austerity measures. Southern European governments, instead of cooperating to establish common solidarity among themselves, made a conscious effort to avoid being associated with one another to avoid the stigma of being an unreliable partner for the rest of the EU.

This situation has changed significantly.

When negotiating an answer to the Covid-19 pandemic, Italy and Spain — with the immediate support of Portugal and Greece — put forward innovative solutions for a common EU response, based on burden-sharing and paving the way for the Franco-German proposal to launch Next Generation EU (NGEU).

Recovery through common borrowing, which had been a taboo during the Euro crisis, became a reality.

In fact, the approach of the European South became the EU's mainstream position. So, when cooperation occurs, positive outcomes for southern Europe can follow.

As consistent supporters and a driving force of deeper European integration over the years, southern European member states today have the potential to become a pro-active and dynamic alliance to foster beneficial cooperative schemes.

Instead of acting as a blocking force as other regional groupings have done in the past, southern Europe can help advance much needed European reforms, re-establishing confidence in European integration and the trust of the rest of member states.

Today, and with the re-election of Emmanuel Macron as France's president, Southern member states constitute a fairly homogeneous group led by pro-European governments and pro-EU leaderships, despite their governments belonging to different political groups.

Southern European member states should increasingly work together and contribute to a reform-oriented and forward-looking EU to forge common responses and policies to face multiple challenges. Areas for fruitful cooperation include the reform of economic governance schemes, climate change, migration, and security and defence.

On the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact, there are converging interests and political will to make fiscal rules more flexible and public debts sustainable, equip the Eurozone with a counter-cyclical fiscal capacity, tackle unemployment and develop the NGEU into a permanent instrument. Cooperation in that regard is key for both southern European member states and for advancing reforms in the EU.

Wildfires and desertification

Cooperation on climate change is also fundamental for southern European member states, as they are particularly exposed to extreme weather phenomena such as wildfires and desertification. Southern EU countries share an interest in renewable energies such as solar, wind power or green hydrogen.

Also, a cooperating approach on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy should help to develop strategic autonomy in the fields of food sovereignty, food supply chains, and local food systems.

Finally, despite different positions on what green taxonomy should include, there is a shared interest in developing more interconnected European energy markets and in diversifying providers following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On the southern neighbourhood, although it has often been a source of conflict when diverging interests collide, there are issues where cooperation is critical: first, the urgency of migratory challenges in the Mediterranean; second, the need to involve the sub-Saharan region when tackling security problems, economic growth, demography and climate change; and third, maritime security, from fighting piracy to exploring untapped natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Southern European member states also agree that the EU needs to become a geopolitical actor in the global context. They share a position on Ukraine based on the condemnation of Russia's aggression, a strong package of sanctions against Russia and providing political, financial and military support for Ukraine.

It remains to be seen whether their support for the development of the EU strategic autonomy also means stepping up in a cooperative approach to defence.

After a decade of crises whose impact was heavily felt on southern Europe, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain must realise that a common approach better serves their national interests than isolated efforts.

To sustain a coherent approach, cooperation at their annual multilateral meetings must be reinforced and more systematic bilateral meetings should be arranged, forging common approaches and putting forward new policy proposals.

As their vision is increasingly becoming the EU's mainstream, southern European member states should seek to translate growing relevance into greater impact through closer political coordination.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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