“This is the beginning of a new Europe,” the leaders of Germany, France and Italy have declared at a summit to discuss life after Brexit.
“Many thought the EU was finished after Brexit but that is not the case,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as he welcomed French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a summit of the EU’s three largest countries by population.
“We respect the choice made by the citizens of Britain but we want to write a future chapter. Europe after Brexit will relaunch the powerful ideals of unity and peace, freedom and dreams.”
Renzi greeted Hollande and Merkel at Naples military airport. The three flew by helicopter to the small island of Ventotene, where they visited the grave of Altiero Spinelli, considered a founding father of European unity.
They held a working dinner on the Italian aircraft carrier Garibaldi, flagship of the EU’s Sophia mission to rescue migrants and combat people trafficking in the Mediterranean.
At a pre-dinner press conference that was long on promises but short on plans, Hollande stressed the need for improved security and intelligence-sharing to bolster Europe’s defences against Islamic extremist violence.
He warned against a retreat into nationalism after Brexit, saying the EU could enjoy a future of “unity and cohesion”, but only if its leaders and national politicians guarded against “the major risk – that of dislocation, egotism, a turning-in on ourselves”.
Merkel said the EU had been born from some of the darkest moments of European history but it must now work together in the face of extreme challenges.
She spoke of strengthening internal and external borders, boosting economic growth and providing jobs for young people.
The talks were aimed at forging a common position for the three leaders at a meeting in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, next month of the 27 EU nations (minus Britain).
“We won’t make decisions on behalf of other member nations but we will commit ourselves to lead,” Hollande said.
Calls for Brexit-style referendums could multiply, with the Netherlands likely to be first, and EU nations are split on how to combat increasing Euro-scepticism across the continent.
Berlin wants a “better Europe” rather than “more Europe”. Merkel is not keen on the idea of the continent moving further towards becoming “the United States of Europe”.
Hollande would like increases in EU investment and more economic alignment between the Euro-zone nations. Renzi has argued for greater flexibility on EU deficit rules to help Italy’s ailing economy.
All three face challenges from Euro-sceptic or populist parties at home, with a risky referendum on constitutional reform in Italy later this year and elections in France and Germany next year.