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”.
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.
Macron’s La Republique En Marche movement is a newcomer on the French political scene, but it nevertheless represents the mainstream, pro-European liberal centre. 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 centre 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.
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 levelled 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.
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.
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.
Macron is trying to implement a very ambitious programme 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 programme 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, labour 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, jeopardising the government’s finances.
Rome against Brussels
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 organisation, 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 neighbouring 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.
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.
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.