By Isla Binnie
NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Europe needs to invest in defense, education and culture while breaking free of bureaucratic rules, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Monday ahead of a meeting with the leaders of Germany and France.
Renzi will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande at a summit rich with symbolism as the European Union gropes for a way forward following Britain's shock referendum in June to abandon the 28-nation bloc.
The trio will travel first to an island off the coast of Naples to lay a wreath on the tomb of an Italian intellectual seen as one of the founding fathers of European unity. They will then hold talks on an aircraft carrier that is coordinating an EU naval mission against migrant traffickers.
"These are two symbols in one. Ideal values and concrete commitments," Renzi said.
He said Europe needed to overcome the Brexit vote and a recent wave of militant attacks, and rediscover its role.
"We need to invest in a common defense policy, in digital innovation, in schools and culture. Europe is the affectionate mother of our values, it is not the icy guardian of bureaucratic rules that are difficult to accept," Renzi wrote.
Heavily indebted Italy, whose economy has barely grown since the introduction of the euro currency in 1999, has repeatedly chafed against stern EU budget rules, and both Renzi and Hollande want greater flexibility to help boost growth.
Germany is keen for rules to be respected and the issue is not expected to be broached on Monday. But the three leaders are due to discuss common positions ahead of an EU summit in Bratislava next month which Britain was not invited to.
While Italy is eager for greater European consolidation in the wake of Brexit, Merkel wants to cement "a better Europe" rather than forge ahead with "more Europe".
MIGRATION AND SECURITY
Monday's talks mark the beginning of a week of meetings for Merkel with other European governments that will see her travel to four countries and receive leaders from another eight. "The goal must first of all be to preserve the status quo and to prevent a further disintegration of the EU-27," an EU diplomat said.
Threats to the union that emerged long before the Brexit vote are also likely to be on the agenda, including internal and external security after Islamist militant attacks and Europe's migration crisis.
The three leaders are due to hold a news conference at around 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on the Italian aircraft carrier, the Garibaldi, which is the flagship of the EU's "Sophia" mission in the Mediterranean. The operation is intended to tackle migrant smugglers, help enforce an arms embargo off Libya, and train the Libyan coast guard.
The EU plans to offer incentives to African governments to help slow the flow of migrants who have poured into Europe over the past three years, but disagreements on how to handle the situation have laid bare divisions between member states.
Italy, the main entry point for Africans but rarely their planned destination, is struggling to house migrants turned back from neighboring countries including France, and has disagreed with Germany over how to finance the response.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Giles Elgood)