Attica: Seeing Europe at a turning point, Greece will seek common ground at a mini-summit that opened in Athens on Friday with fellow southern EU states struggling with migration and austerity.
"Europe`s Mediterranean countries can and must raise their voice", Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in an interview with news site EurActiv ahead of the seven-nation huddle.
With French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister 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.
"It is now common knowledge that Europe is at a critical crossroads," Tsipras added.
"Economic stagnation, social cohesion problems, the rise of Euroscepticism and isolationism, the strengthening of far-right populist phenomena, are issues that we cannot bypass."
The four-hour conclave is also a chance to craft a common platform ahead of a 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 on Friday.
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."There is a clear need for southern EU states to coordinate their position in order to counterbalance the Visegrad bloc," said 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.
Human Rights Watch called on Greece Friday to end the detention of migrant and refugee children, pointing to "cramped and filthy conditions."
Greek authorities registered more than 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and other migrant children who arrived in Greece in the first seven months of 2016, HRW said.
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.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was not optimistic over the impact of the gathering.
"It is a meeting of party leaders, I won`t comment. In addition, when socialist party leaders meet nothing terribly intelligent comes out of it most of the time," he told reporters.