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A feud between France and Italy sums up the deep rift over Europe

Quartz logo Quartz 12/02/2019 Simon Toubeau
Emmanuel Macron wearing a suit and tie: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint news conferenece with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the Elysee Palace in Paris © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint news conferenece with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the Elysee Palace in Paris

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France and Italy are in a diplomatic crisis, provoked by a recent meeting between Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, and representatives of the French Gilets Jaunes protest movement.

Di Maio has expressed his support for the Gilets Jaunes as they prepare to stand candidates in the European Parliament elections this year. This has caused so much trouble for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that the French government has pulled its ambassador out of Rome, accusing the Italian government of making verbal attacks “without precedent since World War II.”

a person standing in front of a stage: Italy's 5-Star Movement rally in Rome © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Italy's 5-Star Movement rally in Rome Di Maio’s gesture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tensions between the two governments—over corporate takeovers, policy towards Libya, and an exhibition Leonardo Da Vinci’s works—have been mounting since a new populist “government of change” came to power in Italy last June. This latest conflict has soured relations to an unprecedented point. It’s difficult to see how they can improve in the near term.

Two visions of Europe

It is exceptional for two of the founding members of the European Union to have such an open conflict. But it is also exceptional for Italy to have a government that is so openly hostile to the EU. This reveals that behind this crisis lies a deeper rift over Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with youths as part of the "Great National Debate" in Etang-sur-Arroux, France, February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool © Catalyst Images French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with youths as part of the "Great National Debate" in Etang-sur-Arroux, France, February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool Macron’s La Republique En Marche movement is a newcomer on the French political scene, but it nevertheless represents the mainstream, pro-European liberal center. Macron poached people from across the moderate left and right to form his new government. In France, the forces of the populist left (the France Insoumise movement) and right (the far-right party Rassemblement National) are in opposition. But in Italy, the equivalent forces—the Five Star movement and the League—are in government. There, it is the mainstream pro-European center that is in opposition.

So the French and Italian governments now have very different visions for the EU. Macron has ambitions for deeper cooperation in foreign, military, and economic affairs. In contrast, the League and the Five Star movement have been aligning themselves with fellow populist governments in Austria, Poland, and Hungary, all of which are either promoting eurosceptic views or are in open conflict with Brussels.

Italian military stand guard at the entrance of the Farnese Palace, which hosts the French embassy to Italy, in Rome, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. France's government spokesman said that the recall of the French ambassador was prompted by months of "unfounded attacks" from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini — and especially by Di Maio's meeting in France this week with yellow vest protesters. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) © Catalyst Images Italian military stand guard at the entrance of the Farnese Palace, which hosts the French embassy to Italy, in Rome, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. France's government spokesman said that the recall of the French ambassador was prompted by months of "unfounded attacks" from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini — and especially by Di Maio's meeting in France this week with yellow vest protesters. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Elections on the horizon

These two parvenus governments need to give some credibility to their contrasting visions because elections to the European Parliament are now in sight.

They have given voters a flavour of the forthcoming campaign, which will highlight the divisions that exist across Europe about the basic nature, purpose, and architecture of the EU. The frequent attacks leveled against the French government by the Italian government are thus indirect attacks against the former’s pro-EU integration agenda and against the EU itself.

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 4: Italian Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio attends a meeting organized by 5-star Movement (M5S) to present new budget package law including the citizenship income and its official website, on February 4, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 4: Italian Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio attends a meeting organized by 5-star Movement (M5S) to present new budget package law including the citizenship income and its official website, on February 4, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images) The populist parties in the Italian government will be running against each other on separate platforms during the European Parliamentary elections. So they are also cultivating potential allies in the European Parliament. The League is already a member of the right-wing Europe of Nations and Freedom parliamentary group that also comprises the Rassemblement National. But the Five Star movement has yet to find a suitable political home. It is therefore seeking to embolden movements elsewhere, such as the Gilets Jaunes, that contain populist elements of both left and right.

Macron’s reforms

These contrasting relationships to the EU have a direct bearing on domestic politics too. The French president’s attempt to bolster Europe has created conflict with the Gilets Jaunes, whereas the Italian government’s efforts to satisfy its electoral base has created conflict with Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with youths as part of the "Great National Debate" in Etang-sur-Arroux, France, February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool © Catalyst Images French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with youths as part of the "Great National Debate" in Etang-sur-Arroux, France, February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool Macron is trying to implement a very ambitious program of economic reforms. This is a feat that has felled more than one government in recent decades. Most of the changes are consistent with a liberal program of structural adjustment that is meant to solve unemployment problems and improve the competitiveness of the French economy while maintaining sound fiscal balances.

Brussels has applauded the reforms, but they are controversial at home. Macron has been successful in making changes to education, labor markets, and pensions—but on those issues where opposition to reform maps onto a newly emerging cleavage between liberalism and populism, between the cosmopolitan-liberal-urban so-called “elite” and the national-conservative-rural “populace,” he has struggled.

The Gilets Jaunes movement was born initially out of opposition to a tax on fuel—principally among people in the rural hinterlands that depend on their cars for their livelihoods. But it has now morphed into a protest movement comprising different strands of French society on the left and right. To appease their demands for an improvement of living standards, Macron has promised handouts and tax breaks for pensioners and low-income workers, jeopardizing the government’s finances.

Rome against Brussels

A view of the Farnese Palace which hosts the French embassy to Italy, in Rome, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. France's government spokesman said that the recall of the French ambassador was prompted by months of "unfounded attacks" from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini — and especially by Di Maio's meeting in France this week with yellow vest protesters. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) © Catalyst Images A view of the Farnese Palace which hosts the French embassy to Italy, in Rome, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. France's government spokesman said that the recall of the French ambassador was prompted by months of "unfounded attacks" from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini — and especially by Di Maio's meeting in France this week with yellow vest protesters. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) In contrast, the Italian government—especially the Five Star movement—is taking an opposite approach to economic policy. It is promising greater social protection: the preservation of pension entitlements, a citizen’s income for the unemployed, and greater spending on social services. It is doing this even though the Italian government has, for decades, been confronted by economic stagnation and high levels of budgetary deficits and debt. Both have become anathema in the EU since the Eurozone crisis. As a result, the Italian government has been at loggerheads with the EU over its proposed budget, which it had to revise several times to meet the EU’s fiscal sustainability criteria.

Or take the case of immigration policy, which has been particularly salient in Italy—mainly because of the sheer number of illegal immigrants arriving on its shores. The Italians feel, justifiably, that they have been left to deal with the rush alone. The EU, because it is a large, cumbersome organization, has been too slow to develop a common approach and to provide Italy with the support it needs. This is something that the Italians—and especially the League—have long been angry about. Along with the disillusionment that Italians feel about membership of the Euro, it now effectively forms the basis of popular resentment toward the EU. So the Italian government has refused entry to ships carrying immigrants in Italian ports, shifting the problem to the neighboring French.

The French government, facing its own populist opposition to migration, was also reluctant to step up. On this issue, Macron’s pro-EU credentials are being tested.

a group of people sitting around a fire: The Gilets Jaunes movement was born initially out of opposition to a tax on fuel © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. The Gilets Jaunes movement was born initially out of opposition to a tax on fuel

Pragmatism vs Populism

The French-Italian crisis may abate somewhat after the European elections. But it will only be genuinely resolved if there is a change in the ideological complexion of the government in Italy (or France), or if the EU is able to offer what the Italian government is seeking: greater flexibility in the domain of economic policy and greater effectiveness in the domain of immigration. Neither are likely any time soon.

Italys Interior Minister and deputy PM, and Federal Secretary of the far-right Northern League party, Matteo Salvini looks on during a joint press conference with leader of the conservative Brothers of Italy party, the leader of the Identity and Action party and Italy's former prime minister and leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party, for the Abruzzo regional electoral campaign on February 7, 2019 in Pescara. (Photo by Luca Prizia / AFP)        (Photo credit should read LUCA PRIZIA/AFP/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images Italys Interior Minister and deputy PM, and Federal Secretary of the far-right Northern League party, Matteo Salvini looks on during a joint press conference with leader of the conservative Brothers of Italy party, the leader of the Identity and Action party and Italy's former prime minister and leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party, for the Abruzzo regional electoral campaign on February 7, 2019 in Pescara. (Photo by Luca Prizia / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUCA PRIZIA/AFP/Getty Images) The only hope lies in the pragmatism that the European Commission and Italian government put on display during their discussions over Italy’s 2019 budget. But that hope should be tempered by an appreciation that populism is just as much about style as it is about policy. That style is provocative, confrontational, abrasive, and… popular.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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