Unity is the only way forward for Europe

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French President Emmanuel Macron stood in front of reporters last week and declared the gathering of seven key power players in South-West France to have gone “according to plan”.

The annual G7 gathering has always been thought of as a space in which decision makers could speak frankly on contentious topics. Leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan reportedly walked out of the meeting last week having discussed issues ranging from the recent destructive Amazon fires to the ongoing trade agreements.

At their core, however, G7 meetings have arguably always been about their leaders, more than about institutions.

And while cameras in Biarritz could not stay away from the photo-op of the first encounter between US President Donald Trump and new UK leader Boris Johnson, leaders went in with the plans to simmer tensions and push their agendas.

Sat at the round table in Biarritz, Macron sought to position himself as a leader that pushed for European values.

The French leader has long been trying to place himself as someone who is able to champion EU ideals while remaining in the good books of the likes of Trump. His goal comes at a time when globalisation and populist sentiments had seen a rise across Europe. During the past few years, voices have started doubting whether the European project had managed to achieve its goals.

The doubt has pushed populist politicians like Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage to emerge and give voice to a movement that favours national interest. This movement pushes for ‘selective interconnectedness’ with other countries, over a globalised world.

In fact, support for populist parties rejecting globalisation has more than tripled over the last 20 years, leaving political analysts scratching their heads over their meteoric rise.

But, in the midst of rising populism, other leaders – notably Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel – have spoken out fervently in favour of European values.

While his popularity has been waning on his home turf, Macron continues to try and portray himself as a leader who can front a united Europe; but can Macron be the countermeasure to Trump and Johnson?

During the closely-watched summit, Macron pushed for aid to deal with the Amazon fires and invited Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif for a meeting – a surprise move which seemingly paid off.

Europe will need to find a way to counter the populist sentiments that have been on the rise in the past few years

There’s always more to these meetings than meets the eye. Politico said this was the “summit of spin” and reported that Macron and Johnson differed in their accounts of the summit. For example, while one of them said talks on Brexit had improved, the other insisted nothing had changed, the media house reported.

 Europe will need to find a way to counter the populist sentiments that have been on the rise in the past few years. It remains to be seen whether Macron’s rhetoric can be Europe’s new shining light.

Last week saw another glimmer of hope against populist movements as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte began trying to form a new Cabinet after re-establishing his position at the helm of the government.

Saying it has not been an easy ride for Conte would be an understatement. League leader Matteo Salvini pulled the trigger that would bring down the government earlier last month.

Conte accused Eurosceptic Salvini of having an obsession with closing ports to migrants, but Conte has also insisted that Italy should remain united and inclusive, and that it should be at the forefront of Europe.

A new coalition has since formed, and Conte will remain Prime Minister. The move to try to take down the Italian government has been widely seen as a mis-step by Salvini to gain more power in Parliament. But he did not take into consideration the possibility that others would team up to stop him.

The unrest also comes during a time when European Commission President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen is meeting hopefuls to form the new Commission.

The President-elect recently met with Malta’s nominee and former European Affairs Minister Helena Dalli, according to reports.

Her opening statement in July had been described as progressive, but it remains to be seen whether she will achieve her targets for a greener Europe and a more gender equal commission.

Parliament is expected to vote on the full college of Commissioners next month. We still need to see whether Von der Leyen will have garnered more support from MEPs than she had on July 16, when she got the margin for an absolute majority by only nine votes.

With Brexit looming and a new Commission set to be voted on, it is clearly a time of change for Europe. Questions about how to move on from here have been asked, but a clear majority on what the answer should be has not yet been found.

Europe needs to present a united front on the way forward, and it needs to do so as quickly and swiftly as possible.

Jesmond Saliba is founding partner of CiConsulta and Managing Editor of Corporate Dispatch.

Article was published first on The Times of Malta.

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