The emergence of new alliances within the EU is a game changing issue that is kept out of public eye. But the process is gaining momentum to change the political landscape of Europe.
In a bid to forge an anti-austerity alliance, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has invited the leaders of six southern European Union countries to a conference in Athens on September 9. The event will include France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta. The forum is to focus on the «common» challenges the EU is facing on an economic, political and institutional level and particularly on austerity, fiscal discipline and migration. It should be noted that the meeting is arranged before a scheduled European Union leaders’ summit on September 16.
The idea of a united front of Southern European countries was first mooted by leftist SYRIZA before the general elections of January 2015 that brought it to power. The current situation is potentially more beneficial for Athens as the protracted imposition of austerity on Greece and elsewhere has increased the pressure on countries in Southern Europe.
Tsipras and his Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi discussed the possibility of setting up an «Alliance of Europe’s South» to push for a pro-growth agenda on the sidelines of the last EU summit (28-29 June). They agreed on the need for southern states to create their own growth-focused agenda, compared to the austerity prescribed by Northern European countries.
France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal face similar challenges: migration, security, proximity of an unstable neighborhood – the issues that justify enhanced cooperation between them.
French President François Hollande and Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Costa seem to support the idea, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit. The participation of France is particularly intriguing as this nation has traditionally struggled to find a balance between its desire to build a sphere of influence along the Mediterranean and its strategic interests in the north. If the entire European Union agreed that the Schengen area must be abolished, then France and others could decide that it is best to regain control of their borders while Germany might decide to sign new border agreements with the northern countries.
The Greek and Portuguese heads of state signed a joint declaration in April, claiming that EU austerity-driven policies are «wrong».
Greece and Italy are also disappointed with the stance of their partners in North Europe on the migration crisis, while the French Socialist government is seeking ways to counter the rise of far-right Marine Le Pen, who now finds fertile ground for disseminating her anti-European rhetoric. The Italian government feels the pressure of the right-wing Five Star Movement, especially after its great victory in local elections.
These countries are not the only ones on the way to form alliances within the European Union. Some EU members are starting to think about a post-Schengen, if not post-EU, Europe. The Dutch Cabinet has already floated the idea of «mini-Schengen» with EU partners that would include only the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria.
It has debated a plan to introduce passport checks at the borders of several Western European countries in a bid to control an influx of migrants and refugees. The idea of carving out a «mini-Schengen» within the Schengen area would seem to violate the treaty guaranteeing free travel within 26 European countries. The «mini-Schengen area» would involve setting up transit camps for migrants outside those borders.
An alliance of these countries is plausible and it’s not the problem of migrants only. These nations tend to have similar views when it comes to financial and economic matters. This is not a random list of countries, but a collection of states that share deep cultural and historic links. They also oppose the idea of the EU as a transfer union in which wealthy countries in the north subsidize those in the south. Should the eurozone collapse, it would make sense for these economies to create a currency union of their own.
Brexit and the problem of immigration have given new life to the Visegrad Group, made up of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the V4). They work together in many fields of common interest within the all-European integration framework with perceptions of priorities on the national and the EU levels overlapping a lot. The 2015 refugee crisis ushered in a new era in the Visegrad Group’s relationship with the European Union. With the ethnic composition of the four member nations being significantly more homogenous than those of West European nations, the V4 openly opposed efforts to formulate an EU-wide resolution to the migration crisis. The group is gaining influence against the background of the economic and political chaos that is consuming Europe. It possesses enough significant growth and influence to move beyond the Continent. In particular, the combined GDP of the V4 makes it the world’s 15th largest economy, and the number of its representatives in the European Parliament is twice as large as the number of representatives of France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The V4 countries continue to use the Visegrad Fund to exercise so-called «soft power» policies in regard to their neighbors.
In late July, leaders of the group agreed upon joint proposals on reforms. The list of possible amendments will be presented at an informal summit of the European Union in September.
The appearance of alliances within the EU is on the way. The divergences on financial and immigration policies are getting deeper against the background of widening discord over the anti-Russia sanctions.
There is no coherent policy to unite the member states thinking of alternatives, should the current political, economic and security order in Europe change. More broadly, this might just be the first steps on the way to break up.