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European Leaders Meet To Thrash Out Brexit, Trump Response Plan

LISBON (AFP) – Leaders of seven southern European Union nations meet in Lisbon on Saturday to forge a common approach to deal with Britain’s looming exit from the bloc and the new protectionist administration of US President Donald Trump.

The mostly centre-left leaders taking part in the gathering — the second by southern EU leaders in four months — are also expected to renew their push for action to boost flagging growth in the EU and tackle the ongoing migrant crisis.

Faced with the rise of “protectionism and populism”, the EU needs urgent reforms to “surpass the economic, social and political legitimacy crisis which is weakening it,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, the summit’s host, said Tuesday.

French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni are scheduled to take part in the talks, which are due to start at 11:00 am (1100 GMT). Also holding court are the leaders of Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta.

The leaders will issue a joint statement after the meeting that is expected to focus on the need to boost growth and investment in Europe.

This is a follow up to a first gathering held in Athens in September 2016 as part of a push by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to create a strong southern “axis” to counter the influence of nations in northern Europe.

The group is often referred to — sometimes dismissively — as “Club Med”, even though one of its members, Portugal, is not on the Mediterranean.

It includes some of the nations which were hit hardest by the financial crisis. Portugal and Greece both got international bailouts worth tens of billions of euros which came with demands for tough austerity measures and economic reforms.

The Lisbon summit comes ahead of a February 3 meeting of EU leaders in Malta to reflect on the future of the bloc without Britain, its second-largest economy and its richest financial centre.

– Politically weak leaders –

Analysts said forging a common front will be hard as southern EU nations have different priorities and many of the leaders who will be at the Lisbon summit are politically weak.

Hollande is not a candidate in France’s presidential election later this year and his Socialist party is trailing in the polls.

“So whatever Hollande promises or agrees this weekend will probably be forgotten by the middle of the year,” Adriano Bosoni, senior Europe analyst at US private intelligence firm Stratfor, told AFP.

“The Italian government is also fragile. The Greek prime minister is struggling to keep his government alive.”

Paris is not interested in breaking its traditional partnership with Germany which has long set the pace for the EU, said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based think thank.

“France is both a nation of the south and the north, she creates bridges between the two regions. There is no reason for her to seek confrontation with Germany,” he told AFP.

– Trump challenge –

Hollande travelled to Berlin on Friday on the eve of the summit for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a sign of the continued importance which Paris puts on the French-German axis.

During a joint press conference with Merkel he warned Trump’s administration poses “challenges” to “our trade rules, as well as to our ability to resolve conflicts around the world”.

Trump has rattled his traditional European allies with a range of radical policy plans, from calling NATO “obsolete” to announcing he would rip up a planned transatlantic trade plan and supporting Britain’s move to leave the EU.

Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem warned Thursday that Europe was “on its own” after Trump took over as US president, but said it could be an opportunity to strengthen the EU.

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