Date: Saturday, 02 March 2019
France recalled its ambassador to Rome this month, for the first time since 1940, in a move which exemplifies a deepening diplomatic rift with Italy. Discord has been rumbling for months. This article explains why recent relations have become strained and how they could play out during 2019.
French President, Macron’s decision to recall his Ambassador to Paris was a direct response to Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio meeting gilets jaunes (yellow vests) representatives near Paris on February 5. Protests from rural dwellers against an increase in fuel tax have morphed into a protracted vocal objection from all sects of French society encapsulating anti-Macron sentiment. He was angered by a high-ranking Italian politician meeting these protestors who have raised a significant challenge of his premiership. Macron is portraying it as meddling within domestic French affairs, claiming “these latest acts of interference are an additional and unacceptable provocation.”
Since Italian elections in May brought a populist combination of the Five Star Movement and the League to power, its policy towards Europe profoundly shifted from that exercised under the moderate premiership of Gentiloni. Deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini are unafraid to criticise the EU for supposed injustices. Brussels and Rome remain at loggerheads over budget and deficit reduction policy; migration is a particularly thorny issue. Macron’s contrasting European outlook burnished his credentials as a pro-European liberal seeking further integration with the EU on foreign policy and security. Such juxtaposing policy outlooks render Macron’s europhile status an easy target for Salvini and Di Maio to attack. These disputes have played out in clear view of the press, with Macron retaliating by referring to populism in Italy as a “leprosy.”
Economic policy proves another subject of discontent. In Europe, Italy has irked Brussels by proposing a budget which does little to reduce their deficit. They believe France, which has increased spending and cancelled Macron’s fuel tax initiative to appease protestors, receives preferential treatment from the EU on this matter. Italy claims France is unfairly allowed to flounce the Commission’s excessive deficit procedures. In business there are disagreements over cross-border takeovers, Italian business leaders oppose the takeover of Italian companies such as Parmalat and Gucci, whilst Italian attempts to takeover France’s largest shipbuilding asset similarly creates contention.
Policy issues continue over approaches towards Africa. Fourteen African countries use the CFA Franc, an instrument of the French treasury. Di Maio claims this keeps African states weak and permits France to wield undue influence in the region using economic means.
Furthermore, Libya remains a constant bone of contention. A former Italian colony, Italy opposed Sarkozy’s military intervention in 2011. Eight years later, disagreements rumble over how to stabilise and rebuild the war-ravaged nation and neither can agree on who holds legitimate power. Libya remains particularly pertinent for Italy which accrues significant amounts of oil from there.
Both Di Maio and Salvini have delicately interwoven the Libyan crisis with their bigger misgiving of France’s migration policy. Salvini’s League focuses on the migrant crisis and lack of assistance to Italy in dealing with migrant flows across the Mediterranean. He points to Libyan instability as a contributory cause for migrants travelling to Europe. In recent months Italy has refused to allow migrant ships to dock at ports claiming France should assist Italy in receiving these vessels.
Policy differences here are longstanding, shortly after intervening in Libya in 2011, France reinstalled Schengen border checks to prevent migrants moving northwards, angering the Italian government. But Salvini and Di Maio have been far more outspoken and vociferous in their criticisms of France’s immigration policy in comparison to their predecessors. Italy feels abandoned by Paris and Brussels on this issue. Salvini’s Northern League are latching onto France’s migrant policy as campaigning for May’s European elections reaches full swing.
Italy’s coalition government may become more truculent on the European stage. The formation of Italy’s populist coalition government is the clear catalyst for this downward trend in relations. Macron’s pro-European outlook is anathema to the Five Star Movement’s Eurosceptic outlook. He is an easy target for the Five Star Movement and the League to win votes back in Italy.
Expect these tensions to continue until the May European elections, as both the Five Star Movement and the League appeal to their bases for support and blame outside influences. The 5SM are in a particularly precarious position, hemorrhaging support as Di Maio utilises attacks against Macron to divert attention away from a stagnant Italian economy. These squabbles may play out in press statements or in symbolic means, such as Italy refusing to send artwork to Paris later this year for the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. These freewheeling interventions in the media should desist when campaigning comes to a close.
In the longer run, there may be a shift in Italian foreign policy. Di Maio appears more at home with other European strongmen such as Viktor Orbán than with Angela Merkel or any of the French political establishment. Meanwhile, through renewing Élysée Treaty with Germany in Aachen, France moved further towards European intervention and away from Italy’s increasingly disavowed views towards the EU. Italy’s attempts to cancel construction of the Lyon to Turin railway is emblematic of Italy pulling up the drawbridge. Its own cost-benefit analysis claiming to link these two cities is financially inviable. A long term consequence could be relatively cool relations between the two states, a rarely entertained occurrence between two founding members of the Union.
Brussels could have a part to play in this bilateral antagonism. Assisting Italy with issues over immigration and budget reduction could appease Rome and prevent accusations of favourable assistance to France. Italy was quick to point out it was a French European Commissioner (Pierre Moscovici) who allowed France a deficit overshoot to appease long-running protests. Still, the best remedy for a long-term reset of bilateral relations is perhaps a change of government, which is more likely in Italy than France.