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A new treaty between France and Italy upends EU politics

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Nov 27th 2021THE LIST of things France and Italy have argued about in the past decade ranges from the serious to the silly. Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi scrapped over migrants crossing from Italy into France. When the gilets jaunes popped up in France, Luigi Di Maio, then deputy prime minister, offered his support to the protesting petrolheads. “The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” said Mr Di Maio. France responded by pulling its ambassador across the Alps back to Paris in protest. In Libya, Italy and France found themselves backing opposite sides in a civil war on Europe’s doorstep. An Italian minister even complained that the French were trying to claim Leonardo da Vinci was French and spelling his name wrong to add insult.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support

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THE LIST of things France and Italy have argued about in the past decade ranges from the serious to the silly. Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi scrapped over migrants crossing from Italy into France. When the gilets jaunes popped up in France, Luigi Di Maio, then deputy prime minister, offered his support to the protesting petrolheads. “The wind of change has crossed the Alps,” said Mr Di Maio. France responded by pulling its ambassador across the Alps back to Paris in protest. In Libya, Italy and France found themselves backing opposite sides in a civil war on Europe’s doorstep. An Italian minister even complained that the French were trying to claim Leonardo da Vinci was French and spelling his name wrong to add insult.

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Such rows have disappeared in the past year. Cosy dinners have replaced diplomatic slanging. In September President Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, chatted past midnight in a four-hour meeting at Le Petit Nice, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Marseille that offers a €590 ($665) set menu, wine included. Populist stirring of French politics by Italian politicians is a thing of the past, replaced by Mr Macron and Mr Draghi violently agreeing. To cement the improved relations, Mr Macron and Mr Draghi were set to sign a long-mooted Franco-Italian treaty as The Economist went to press. The treaty will cover everything from defence integration to migration to inducements for young people to experience la belle France and la dolce vita.

The model is the Elysée Treaty, which the French and German governments signed in 1963, and which has provided the backbone of relations across the Rhine ever since. Such comparisons may look overdone. Burying the hatchet after a continental war is a bigger deal than making up after some undiplomatic diplomacy. But this ignores the speed and cynicism that drove the Elysée Treaty’s signing. Charles de Gaulle saw the document as a way of driving a wedge between Germany and America. It was not mentioned in a meeting between the German and French leaders the month before. Indeed, it was thrown together in such haste that a German diplomat had to race to Hermès in Paris to find a suitably grand leather folder for its signing.

For such treaties are often about something else. If the Franco-German treaty was really about America, then the Franco-Italian treaty is about Germany. Or so say officials from other countries, watching closely. Each party in the new German government provides something for France to worry about, whether it be the feeble defence policy of the Social Democrats, the frugality of the Free Democrats or the virulent opposition to all things nuclear of the Greens. France needs options, and Italy is a good one.

A glimpse of the potential of a Franco-Italian tie-up came in 2020, when a joint push on common debt—a French and Italian dream, but a German nightmare—shoved the German government into dropping its long-held opposition to the idea. The departure of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats from government throws the EU’s power relations into flux. But no matter how much things improve between France and Italy, Germany will remain the main ally of France. A deal acceptable to both France and Germany is probably acceptable to most EU countries; a deal acceptable to Italy and France may struggle for support beyond the Mediterranean. Any major shift in policy requires Franco-Italian persistence. But it still needs German permission.

Instead, a more even relationship between the EU’s biggest three countries is the most likely upshot of the treaty. Germany is the EU’s biggest member and France is its most politically dynamic, at least under Mr Macron. But Italy is the most consequential. Whether Italy, the club’s third-largest economy, can return to real growth after decades will determine the club’s economic health. How Italy copes in a post-Draghi era when polls suggest nearly half of Italian voters will support Lega (hard right), the Brothers of Italy (further right) and Forza Italia (the vehicle of the ever-present Mr Berlusconi) will shape the club’s politics. An Italy that is able to shape EU debates—such as on looser spending rules or on migration—is better placed to deal with both problems.

Treat me well

For Italy, the treaty says more about itself than its ties with France. While at Italy’s finance ministry, Mr Draghi worked on preparations to join the euro. The rationale was one of il vincolo esterno, the external constraint: roped into monetary union, Italy would no longer suffer from self-inflicted problems such as high inflation. Now a technocratic politician rather than a political technocrat, Mr Draghi has followed a similar strategy in government. Under Mr Draghi, Italy has maxed out its €190bn share of a €750bn recovery fund, pledging wide reforms that will take years to carry out. If Italy wants the money, it must continue to follow the policies Mr Draghi set out, regardless of who is running the show.

A deal with France is another constraint. With a treaty in place, a serene bureaucratic relationship should carry on even amid the stormiest politicking. Both Mr Draghi and Mr Macron know they will not be around for ever. Their successors may make Mr Sarkozy look Zen and Mr Berlusconi resemble a statesman. Mr Macron faces elections in the spring. Meanwhile, Mr Draghi is still coy about whether he will stay as prime minister or try to become Italy’s president, floating above Italian politics—less a politician than St Mario, the patron saint of bond-market credibility.

Treaties are not foolproof. A determined enough future government could let the arrangements wither, or rip them up altogether. After signing the Franco-German treaty in 1963 de Gaulle watched as his hopes of driving a wedge between Germany and America were dashed by the German parliament inserting a flowery dedication to NATO. The general shrugged it off: “Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: they last while they last.” Sometimes, though, that is a long time indeed.

Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
Last of the commies (Nov 20th 2021)
Minimum wage, maximum rage (Nov 13th 2021)
Why Britain is such a noisy neighbour (Nov 6th 2021)

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "The Franco-Italian job"

The Economist: Europe
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