Italy-France fireworks expected to continue for some time
Last week saw a most unusual development between two members of the EU as, for the first time in the 70 years since the end of the Second World War, a member of the bloc recalled its ambassador from another member state. In this case, the French government recalled its envoy from Italy.
The immediate provocation had been a highly controversial meeting between Italian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the extreme-left Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio and some members of French street movement the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests), which has plagued the French government with its weekly protests since November and which has caused huge embarrassment to President Emmanuel Macron.
The French saw the meeting as unprecedented interference in its internal affairs and they seem set for a long face-off with their neighbors across the Alps. While the recall of the ambassador may be a historic low, relations between the second and third-largest continental European economies have been testy for nearly four years — ever since the migrant crisis hit European shores in 2015.
Italy, which, along with Greece, has been at the forefront of receiving the majority of those arriving by sea, has long criticized France for closing the border between the two nations to migrants, thus leaving Italy alone to deal with a crisis that is essentially a European problem. Italy accuses France, and with a whole lot of justification, of shirking its responsibility as a large European member to deal with the crisis and take in its share of migrants.
Breaking the moral and legal obligations placed on it by the Schengen Agreement, which allows visa-free travel between its 26 member states, France used its police to turn back refugees who were trying to move from Italy, leading to loud protests from human rights organizations and the Italian government. The Northern League’s Matteo Salvini last week accused France of having turned its back on an agreement to take in some of the 47 African immigrants who were stuck in a boat off Sicily in January. Interior Minister Salvini said that, once again, France had left Italy to deal with what is a European problem.
France’s recall of its envoy to Italy seems to have been a response strong enough to shake the relationship and force the Italian government to tone down its comments.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Relations between the two nations took a dramatic plunge with the formation of a bizarre coalition government of Di Maio’s Five Star and the extreme right Northern League after the elections last year. Though at opposing ends of the political spectrum, both are extremely anti-Europe. And they have both been highly critical of the pro-EU approach of Macron, causing a war of words between the two countries.
While Macron has described the Italian and other nationalist governments in Europe as a form of “leprosy” that is attacking Europe, the Italian leaders have blasted the ultra-liberal economic policies of Macron and some others for reducing the purchasing power of their citizens, who have been forced to take to the streets to protest.
Another area of disagreement between France and Italy, even if much milder than the war of words, is the much-delayed and extremely high-profile and controversial project to build a high-speed train connection between the French city of Lyon and the Italian city of Turin. When it is expected to be completed in 2030, the 270-kilometer line aims to take a large share of the extremely dense truck traffic between Lyon and Turin off the roads. It also aims to cut the travel time between the two cities by half from the current four hours.
The project has been controversial ever since it was conceived 30 years ago. While the business communities on both sides of the border are strongly supportive of the new connection and hope it will promote economic activity, the environmental lobbies in both France and Italy are against the project due to the large damage its construction will cause in the Alps. Five Star has been stridently against the plan, calling it a waste of public money. It has promised to end the construction and use the money to address more urgent social needs like education, health and housing. This has incensed the French, who were already unhappy with the slow progress of the project.
However, the project is likely to continue as Five Star’s coalition partner is firmly in favor and is unlikely to let Di Maio’s party sink it totally.
France’s recall of its envoy to Italy seems to have been a response strong enough to shake the relationship and force the Italian government to tone down its comments. However, expect the fireworks to continue for at least a couple more months for domestic consumption in France as well as Italy. With the European elections around the corner, the Italian coalition’s members are hardly likely to turn sober quickly, while Macron’s own En Marche party, which has been undergoing severe convulsions since the beginning of the yellow vest protests, is also keen not to be seen as losing face to a foreign power, having been brought to its knees already by its own citizens.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.