In a show of unity, European leaders gather at EU’s symbolic birthplace

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on the island of Ventotene, where in 1941 political prisoners first proposed a European federation.

Markus Schreiber/AP/File
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.) Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (r.), and French President François Hollande (l.) leave a news conference during a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin in June. Mr. Renzi has invited his German and French counterparts to pay their respects at the Italian tomb of Altiero Spinelli, one of the founding fathers of European unity, in a symbolic bid to relaunch the bloc after Britain's clamorous decision to leave the EU.

During World War II, two members of the Italian resistance movement held as prisoners on the island of Ventotene off the coast of Naples drafted a manifesto. The statement encouraged the creation of a federation of European states to curb nationalism and war, an idea that gave birth to the European Union (EU).

Seventy-five years later, the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy will gather on the island to discuss how to keep the EU together.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will visit Ventotene Monday to talk about the bloc’s economic and migrant policies in the wake of the British referendum to leave the EU. The meeting will come ahead of a EU summit about Brexit in September in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Monday’s meeting is also a show of unity among the three countries, as Brexit has set off musings among other member states to leave the soon-to-be 27-member bloc.

"Monday aims to show the unity of Europe's three biggest countries, but not to create a specific club," a French diplomatic source told Reuters.

One agenda item the three leaders will discuss is the economy. After Germany, Britain is the second-largest economy in the EU. Following the British referendum on June 23, economic growth in the EU slowed during the second quarter. Ms. Merkel, Mr. Hollande, and Mr. Renzi are expected to speak about how to reinvigorate the economy and increase employment.

"They will be coming to discuss how to relaunch Europe from the bottom up, there's a big need," Mr. Renzi said Sunday, about Merkel and Hollande’s visit. "Relaunching Europe is a totally open game but it needs to be played."  

Yet, the three leaders will come to the table with different outlooks.

France supports Renzi's push for expansionary measures and against austerity. According to a French diplomatic source, Hollande also wants the doubling of a EU-wide investment plan. Germany is likely to oppose any undermining of Europe's deficit and the debt constraint. 

The leaders are also expected to speak about Islamic extremism and violence and the migrant crisis, which has overloaded Italy.  

The meeting comes as other EU members have questioned its policies and structure. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbaán has called a referendum for Oct. 2 on whether to accept any future EU migrant settlement quotes. His administration has opposed EU migrant policies, even building razor-wire fences along the country's borders with Serbia and Croatia last year to stop the flow of migrants.

EU officials also fear the Netherlands will call its own referendum to leave the bloc. Geert Wilders, head of the Netherlands' Party for Freedom, has mentioned a "Nexit."

While Brexit has proved a divisive line in parts of Europe, it has brought other nations and nationalities closer to the EU. One region eyeing becoming a part of the bloc is Catalan in Spain.

"We are willing, almost eager, to cede sovereignty to Brussels," Andreu Mas-Colell, the former Catalan minister of economy and knowledge in the regional government until January 2016, told the Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana earlier this month "because Brussels respects us and Madrid doesn't."

If today’s great shake-up of the European Union, via rising nationalism and Brexit, has caused a general rethink about the repercussions of rocking the status quo too hard, Catalan secessionists are not cowed. They are barreling forward with plans to create an independent state.

Brexit may force the EU to reveal its pragmatic side as it seeks to maintain a special relationship with Britain despite its decision to leave. “It is going to be another example of how it can … find flexible solutions to complex and difficult situations.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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