Mrs Merkel went to Ventotene yesterday to meet the Italian and French leaders to try out her latest sound bite. She says she wants a better EU, not more EU.
The meeting however was full of images and associations pointing to more integration and more EU. Ventotene itself was chosen as the island where Spinelli and Rossi wrote their manifesto for a federal Europe. The three leaders commemorated his impulse to EU integration at his grave whilst there. They highlighted the work of the Garibaldi, the Italian aircraft carrier leading the EU Sophia naval mission to tackle migrant smugglers and assist with Libya. These were not convenient or easy venues, so someone wanted to make strong points that with the UK leaving the EU can get on with more integration and more common foreign policy , more common borders and security policy.
In practice France and Italy do want to press on with more EU involvement and integration, but they also want to relax the German controls over the purse strings. France wants much more EU infrastructure investment to boost economies. Italy wants to relax the 3% budget deficit ceiling imposed on Euro area members and strongly recommended to non Euro members. France too would probably welcome fiscal relaxation at the national level. Germany will be unwilling, feeling that more borrowing by less prudent states will end up with Germany paying more of the bills. Germany is always ready to remind anyone who will listen that they get on just fine in the Euro with a large balance of payments surplus, so why don’t the others?
Mrs Merkel will return from her needlessly complex travels in Italy to receive various EU leaders at Schloss Meseberg near Berlin. There she will have to reassure the Scandinavian EU members and the Netherlands that their worries about too much EU interference and too much migration will be tackled, just after hearing the case for more integration in Italy. They will be followed by eastern European leaders wanting to know that freedom of movement will still be untouched and that subsidies will still flow to the lower income countries after the loss of the UK contributions.
The French President is in a weak position domestically, with polls pointing to his exit at the forthcoming Presidential election. He now faces an opponent from the left wanting to restore more national independence, as well as the attack by the National Front. The Italian Prime Minister has committed himself to a constitutional referendum which he may not be able to win, which is damaging his standing.
When the three leaders say they want a reset, a new EU rebuilt from the bottom up, they are all acknowledging that the EU project is losing support and traction in their own countries and making their political positions difficult. Yet when you listen to what they want to do about it, they sound boxed in. They cannot easily change the Treaties or relax the laws that bite from the EU. They are unable to sort out the migration issues posed by common frontiers. They cannot even agree amongst themselves to relax the controls on spending and borrowing. So they stand on an Italian aircraft carrier talking of more co-operation, when their grip on events is loosening.