Why the Franco-Italian diplomatic row is a cause for big concern

February 13, 2019 18:44
A diplomatic crisis between France and Italy may not only undermine the mutual trust between the two powers, it could also further damage the internal unity of the entire EU. Photo: Bloomberg

Just as the European Union (EU) and Britain are stuck in a gridlock over Brexit, a diplomatic crisis has broken out between two founding EU member states: France and Italy.

The rift between Paris and Rome has escalated to such an extent that the French government recalled its ambassador to Italy last week in protest against the latter’s stance on refugee policies and, in particular, on the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) movement that is still raging across France.

The deepening diplomatic row between the two Continental European powers has added to international concerns about the gloomy future of the EU, which has continued to be plagued by internal disunity in recent years.

The last time France recalled its ambassador to Italy was back in 1940, when Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini swept to power in Rome and then aligned himself with Nazi Germany.

The rapidly deteriorating relationship between France and Italy is an outcome of the rise of populism across Europe.

Ever since the ultra-right Movimento Cinque Stelle, or the Five Star Movement, came to power in Italy in mid-2018, French and Italian officials have been engaging in a continued war of words over various issues, especially refugee policies.

Paris has accused Rome of being the architect of the ongoing humanitarian crisis by refusing to allow refugees stuck in limbo on boats to disembark, whereas on the other. Rome, on its part, has  hit back and strongly criticized Paris for slamming its door on refugees while hypocritically telling other EU members what to do.

In January this year, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio publicly lashed out at France over its colonization policy of Africa, which, Di Maio claimed, was the root cause of today’s refugee crisis.

Deeply infuriated, the French government immediately summoned the Italian ambassador to protest Di Maio’s provocative remarks.

And things just got worse. A few days later Di Maio granted leaders of the gilets jaunes movement a high-profile audience in Rome.

Their meeting turned out to be the last straw that prompted the already highly dismayed French President Emmanuel Macron to respond ferociously by pulling his ambassador out of Italy immediately and downgrading diplomatic relations with Rome.

The reason why the populist leaders of Italy are coming after Macron relentlessly is not only because they want to build an image of being audacious defenders of national interests who aren’t afraid of antagonizing other great powers if need be, it also stems from partisan feelings.

Let’s not forget that the European Parliamentary election is scheduled for May this year, and ultra-right political groups across Europe are now working aggressively to run in the upcoming race with a view to becoming a force to be reckoned with within the European Parliament.

As such, by rattling their saber at Macron, who has remained a key figure in promoting EU integration ever since he became French president, the Five Star Movement and its populist allies can undermine his political energy, while also giving their anti-EU counterparts in France such as the Gilets Jaunes movement as well as the far-right National Rally a much needed shot in the arm.

As far as Macron is concerned, there are many political calculations behind his decision to recall his ambassador to Italy in the name of protesting against Rome’s interference in the domestic affairs of his country.

By escalating the diplomatic spat with Italy, Macron may be attempting to foster an impression among the French public that the Yellow Vests movement is orchestrated by foreign powers and hence doesn't deserve its popularity.

Moreover, by linking the nationwide protests to the Italian government, Macron can, hopefully, thwart the bid of the leaders of the gilets jaunes to gain ground in the upcoming European Parliamentary election.

And since both France and Italy have their own secret political agendas to serve, we believe it is unlikely that the ongoing Franco-Italian tension will ease before the EU parliamentary race in May.

The problem is, this snowballing diplomatic crisis between France and Italy may not only undermine the mutual trust between the two powers, it could also further damage the internal unity of the entire EU, thereby taking yet another heavy toll on the global influence and say of both the supranational body itself and leading Western European powers.

Worse still, the diminishing regional influence of the EU, factoring in the potential Brexit and diplomatic crisis between France and Italy, may also mean that the Russian aggression under President Vladimir Putin will be difficult to suppress, leaving Ukraine and the Baltic Sea region more vulnerable in the coming days.

Last but not least, a weakened EU could provide the extra rocket fuel for the unilateralist and protectionist policies adopted by US President Donald Trump, further exacerbating the volatility in world politics and the global economy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal