A handout picture provided by the Bundesregierung on 22 August 2016 shows Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (C-L) French President Francois (C-R) Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) arriving for their meeting in Ventotene island, Tirreno sea, Italy, 22 August 2016.
Photograph: EPA/Guido Bergmann / Bundesregierung / Handout

The leaders of Germany, France and Italy flew to a tiny Mediterranean island on Monday to honour a founding father of the European Union before brainstorming on the bloc's present-day crises, including migration, terrorism and Brexit.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi accompanied German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to Ventotene, where Altiero Spinelli, a dissident exiled there by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, wrote a manifesto for European unification in 1941.

Quoting from it, Renzi said: "The moment has arrived in which we must know how to discard old burdens, how to be ready for the newworld that is coming, that will be so different from what we have imagined."

The Italian leader organized an event heavy on symbolism, taking Merkel and Hollande to lay flowers before Spinelli's grave in Ventotene, before moving to an aircraft carrier that is normally engaged in rescuing migrants.

Italy's Garibaldi aircraft carrier is the flagship of the EU's anti-migrant smuggling operation in the Mediterranean Sea. The mission, code-named Operation Sophia, is preparing also to train Libya's coastguard and help enforce a United Nations arms embargo.

"Today we were able to sense and appreciate the roots of the European Union," Merkel said in a press conference where Renzi and Hollande also spoke. It was held before the three leaders actually sat down to talk business.

They said they would discuss improving EU cooperation on intelligence and defence matters, giving aid to African nations to stop migration flows to Europe, and promoting growth and jobs, particularly for the younger generations.

"We sense in the face of Islamist terror, in the face of the civil war in Syria, that we must do more for our internal and external security," Merkel said, adding that Germany had also come round to the idea of tackling migration issues at EU level.

Hollande mentioned "known challenges" at Europe's borders such as "the tragedy in Aleppo, a humanitarian catastrophe which one day will be a shame for the international community if we do nothing about it," and called for EU unity against national "selfishness."

Renzi urged "strong measures to support growth and fight youth unemployment," and dismissed talk of an existential threat for the EU. "A lot of people thought that after Brexit, it would be over for Europe. That's not the case," he said.

The EU is reeling from Britain's referendum decision in June to leave the bloc - a major political setback that will require complicated negotiations and threatens to inspire the secession of other eurosceptic countries.

The EU's remaining 27 states are to discuss the future of the bloc in Bratislava on September 16. To prepare the talks, EU President Donald Tusk held a working dinner with Merkel on Thursday, and is due to meet 10 other leaders, including British Prime Minister Teresa May.

Europe's refugee crisis also cast a heavy shadow over Monday's talks, especially since deadly terrorist attacks in France and Germany reawakened fears that the mass arrival of people from the Middle East and Africa may represent a security threat.

Merkel defended a controversial EU-Turkey deal that has helped stem migration flows through the Balkans, but which has come under increased scrutiny because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's slide towards authoritarianism.

Italy's woes were also on the agenda on the Garibaldi, after recent data showed that growth in the EU's fourth-largest economy has ground to a halt, while public debt is at a new record high and the banking sector remains in a precarious state.

Renzi is seeking extended leeway from EU budget discipline constraints to spend money on reviving the economy. This could also help him win a crucial referendum on constitutional reforms expected to be held in November.

Questioned about Italy's chances to win concessions on deficit and debt rules, Merkel was non-committal, noting there are "flexibility" margins in EU regulations, but that it was up to the European Commission to see how they can be applied.

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