'Big Three' leaders insist EU not finished after Brexit

(From centre left) Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande arriving for a news conference on the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi off the coast of Ventotene island, centra
(From centre left) Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande arriving for a news conference on the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi off the coast of Ventotene island, central Italy, on Monday. All three leaders have been hit in the polls because of the refugee crisis, economic slump and terror attacks.PHOTO: REUTERS

Benefits of union outweigh challenges, say heads of Italy, France and Germany

ABOARD THE GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI AIRCRAFT CARRIER (Italy) • The leaders of Italy, France and Germany have insisted that Britain's shock decision to quit the European Union (EU) would not kill the bloc.

Speaking aboard an aircraft carrier anchored off the Italian island of Ventotene, one of the cradles of the dream of a united and integrated Europe, the three leaders used the moment to present a united front, emphasising that the benefits of the union far outweighed the challenges it faced and making it clear that Europe would persevere, even after the British vote.

"We respect the choice of British citizens, but we want to write a new page for the future," Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said on Monday.

The aftermath of the Brexit vote, as it is commonly known, called for "strong measures to boost growth and fight youth unemployment", he said, as well as for investments and structural reforms.

The leaders were speaking ahead of a working dinner aboard aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Mr Renzi called the meeting in a bid to forge a common position on the EU's future ahead of a summit of the 27 remaining states in Slovakia on Sept 16.

The Brexit vote has raised fears of similar referendums in other countries, particularly the Netherlands, which opposes changes to the EU to achieve closer integration.

But coming up with a road map acceptable to all will not be easy.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia vowed after Britain's vote to draw up their own plans for a less centralised EU.

The Ventotene trip was the start of an intensive tour for German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she attempts to coordinate a response to one of the EU's biggest crises in decades and quell fears that Berlin wants to monopolise the debate.

All three leaders have been hit in the polls by varying toxic combinations of the refugee crisis, economic slump and terror attacks, with eurosceptic or populist parties gaining ground. Their room for manoeuvre is restricted. Next year will see a general election in Germany, and French President Francois Hollande is entering spring presidential elections with record-low approval ratings, a sluggish economy and his nation in a skittish mood after a series of terrorist attacks.

"All three are weak leaders facing internal difficulties, with more or less imminent electoral tests, and therefore with narrow margins to manoeuvre," Ms Adriana Cerretelli wrote in an editorial on Sunday in the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

She called for "imagination, political courage and strategic vision to lift Europe out of the ford in which it has been mired for years".

The three leaders themselves remain divided on critical issues, not least whether to allow flexibility on stiff budget requirements for the 19 euro zone countries that Dr Merkel insists are necessary and that Mr Renzi, especially, blames for stunting economic growth.

Allowing some leeway might bolster Mr Hollande and Mr Renzi politically, but it would be further proof of the union's inability to stick to its own rules.

"He (Mr Renzi) wants a revised euro zone, moving away from austerity," said Mr Jan Techau, a German analyst who is chairman of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

"She (Dr Merkel) doesn't want to get rushed into anything before elections next year. Everyone knows that the euro zone must be reformed. But the timing and direction are completely open and completely disputed."

AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline ''Big Three' leaders insist EU not finished after Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe