Regional groupings have gained influence in the politics and agenda of the European Union, with groups formed according to geographical and/or thematic criteria.
The Visegrád Group, the New Hanseatic League, the Benelux or the Nordic countries have often worked together to advance their demands on various topics, from trade, economic and fiscal policies to migration and relations with external actors such as Russia.
However, the Member States of southern Europe, which have often had every reason to collaborate, have found themselves in a framework often marked by loose cooperation or, worse, by the logic of competition.
There are both historical and political reasons for the absence of enhanced southern cooperation. The significant variation in size, economic power and foreign policy interests makes southern member states very heterogeneous.
If France is listed as a Southern European (or at least Mediterranean) member state, it may perceive its role more as a leader than an equal. But France acting as “primus inter pares” [first among equals] might as well be challenged by other important countries such as Italy (also a founding member of the EC) and Spain.
During the financial crisis of 2008, the Member States of southern Europe clashed in a logic of divergence and not of convergence.
Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain have been labeled as “PIGS”, sharing ever-increasing risk premia, rising public debt-to-GDP ratios, the crisis of their banking systems, bailout programs and onerous economic adjustment conditionalities.
Northern European countries morally accused them of living beyond their means and imposed harsh austerity measures. Southern European governments, instead of cooperating to establish common solidarity among themselves, have made a conscious effort to avoid being associated with each other in order to avoid the stigma of being an unreliable partner for the rest of the EU.
This situation has changed considerably.
During the negotiation of a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Italy and Spain – with the immediate support of Portugal and Greece – proposed 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 by joint borrowing, taboo during the euro crisis, has become a reality.
In fact, the approach of the European South has become the dominant position of the EU. So when cooperation occurs, positive results for Southern Europe can follow.
As constant proponents and driving force of deeper European integration over the years, Southern European Member States today have the potential to become a proactive and dynamic alliance to foster beneficial patterns of cooperation.
Instead of acting as a blocking force as other regional groupings have done in the past, Southern Europe can help push forward much-needed European reforms, restoring confidence in European integration and confidence of the rest of the Member States.
Today, and with the re-election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, the Member States of the South constitute a fairly homogeneous group led by pro-European governments and pro-EU leaderships, although their governments belong 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 of successful cooperation include reform of economic governance systems, climate change, migration, security and defence.
As regards the reform of the stability and growth pact, there is a convergence of interests and political will to make the budgetary rules more flexible and the public debts sustainable, to provide the euro zone with a countercyclical budgetary capacity, to fight against unemployment and make the NGEU a permanent instrument. Cooperation in this respect is essential both for southern European Member States and for advancing reforms in the EU.
Forest fires and desertification
Cooperation on climate change is also fundamental for southern European Member States, as they are particularly exposed to extreme weather events such as forest fires and desertification. Southern EU countries share an interest in renewable energies such as solar, wind or green hydrogen.
Also, a concerted approach to the reform of the common agricultural policy should make it possible to develop strategic autonomy in the areas of food sovereignty, food supply chains and local food systems.
Finally, despite diverging positions on what the green taxonomy should include, there is a shared interest in developing more interconnected European energy markets and diversifying suppliers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On the Southern Neighbourhood, although it has often been a source of conflict when divergent interests collide, there are issues where cooperation is essential: first, the urgency of migration challenges in the Mediterranean; second, the need to involve the sub-Saharan region in solving the problems of security, economic growth, demography and climate change; and thirdly, maritime security, from the fight against piracy to the exploration of the untapped natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean.
Southern European Member States also agree that the EU must become a geopolitical player in the global context. They share a position on Ukraine based on condemnation of Russian aggression, a set of tough sanctions against Russia, and political, financial and military support for Ukraine.
It remains to be seen whether their support for the development of the EU’s strategic autonomy also involves strengthening a cooperative approach to defence.
After a decade of crises, the impact of which has been strongly felt in southern Europe, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain must realize that a common approach better serves their national interests than isolated efforts.
To maintain a coherent approach, cooperation at their annual multilateral meetings should be strengthened and more systematic bilateral meetings should be organised, forging common approaches and presenting new policy proposals.
As their vision increasingly becomes mainstream in the EU, southern European member states should seek to translate growing relevance into greater impact through closer policy coordination.