Southern EU meet to talk migration woes, post-Brexit Europe


Athens (AFP)

Alarmed by rising xenophobic rhetoric in Europe, Greece will seek common ground at a mini-summit in Athens on Friday with fellow southern EU states struggling with migration.

The huddle between the European Union's seven Mediterranean states is aimed at fighting "marginal, racist" views and "intolerance" in the bloc, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Thursday.

With France's Francois Hollande and Italy's Matteo Renzi in attendance, the gathering comes less than two weeks after rescuers saved a one-day record of 6,500 migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The four-hour conclave is also a chance to craft a common platform ahead of the major summit in Bratislava next month to chart the union's post-Brexit future.

The 27 EU leaders -- the entire bloc, except Britain -- will gather September 16 to discuss the fallout from the British vote in June to quit the EU.

The so-called Visegrad group -- made up of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland -- has demanded a tougher EU stance on migration.

"Visegrad countries cannot be allowed to dominate the debate on Europe's future," Tsipras said in an interview with French daily Le Monde.

Leaders of Portugal, Malta and Cyprus are also expected in Athens, though Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will skip the meeting amid desperate efforts in Madrid to form a coalition government.

A showdown is expected in Bratislava, with the Visegrad four already holding their own meeting in June to present a united front.

- 'European Union or German Union' -

"There is a clear need for southern EU states to coordinate their position in order to counterbalance the Visegrad bloc," says analyst George Pagoulatos.

More than 850,000 people -- most of them fleeing conflict in war-ravaged Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan -- arrived on the Greek islands last year alone after often risking their lives on unseaworthy boats and dinghies.

"We need to reach a European asylum system that is realistic and shows solidarity, instead of shifting the burden to entry states," Greece's junior foreign minister for European affairs, Nikos Xydakis said in an interview with AFP.

EU states on the bloc's Mediterranean flank also have a key stabilising role to play in the Middle East and North Africa, Cyprus government spokesman Nikos Christodoulides told Greek state agency ANA.

Tsipras, an anti-austerity champion who says the fiscal straitjacket favoured by Germany will never allow weak economies such as Greece's to recover, is also trying to swing more EU states to his vision.

The EU stability pact, whose budget deficit limits are already tested by France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, "is not the word of God, but rules we have agreed to and must improve", Tsipras told Le Monde on Thursday.

"We must collectively agree if we are a European Union or a German Union," he added.

Even so, Friday's meeting is unlikely to bang the austerity revision drum too loudly to avoid antagonising Berlin, which has otherwise proven very sympathetic to southern states on migration, Pagoulatos notes.

"Germany is favourable to coordination on migration, but not to the formation of a southern anti-austerity front," he said.