Saturday, February 09, 2019

Franco-Italian tensions on display

Published by The Telegraph

The last time France recalled its ambassador to Rome was during World War II, just after Mussolini declared war on France. This week, it happened again, in what many have labelled a theatrical and overblown response by President Macron to ongoing diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Since its populist government came to power last June, Macron has poured scorn on Italian politics; describing them as ‘populist leprosy’, amongst other tactless quips. In doing so, he has managed to unite Italian populists from different political factions in opposition - both to him and the wider European project.

Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister from the Lega Nord party, branded him a “terrible president”, while Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Five Star Movement, met Gilets Jaunes representatives and offered them support to gain seats in the European Parliament. The French government claims this violates“the most elementary diplomacy” because it was unannounced.

Yet Macron’s hyperbolic reaction typifies the way he has behaved since his election. His basic response to any criticism has been to ignore it until the outcry became too great to ignore, as when his government gave way to the Gilets Jaunes in response to their widespread protests at petrol hikes.

All of this has reduced his popularity to record lows and earned him the nickname “Jupiter”. “Napoleon” could have been an alternative, were it not for the fact that many French citizens still view Napoleon with reverence.

In Macron’s defence, reforming France’s bloated bureaucracy will necessarily involve ignoring some vested interests. But the real problem is less that Macron is persisting with particular reforms - rather that the reforms themselves amount to “more of the same”.

Hiking petrol taxes in a country with one the highest levels of government spending in the world - seriously? Anyone could have told Macron that he would lose popular support for his efforts to balance the French budget and scrap the “wealth tax” if ordinary people felt their tax bills increase, whether he can come up with an environmental excuse or not. Yet it seems that common sense is in short supply in the gold-plated halls of the Élysée Palace.

Macron is very much a product of the French establishment. For all the change he has promised, much remains “business as usual”. The same, of course, is true of EU policy, which explains the clash with the Italian populists. Despite their differences, both Lega and the Five Star Movement baulk at the idea of taking orders from Brussels.

Here, they differ emphatically from Macron, who has been on a constant push for further concentration of power at an EU level, pontificating about a powerful Finance Ministry for the Eurozone, more common European taxes and even an EU army. The situation worsened when Macron agreed to push for Germany to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, ignoring Italian opposition.

All of this has been compounded by a strong dose of hypocrisy. The French President has slammed the Italians for refusing to welcome boats with irregular migrants into its ports, at the same time that France has been pushing back tens of thousands of migrants at the border with Italy. These tensions date back even further - the Italians were never happy with the French-led initiative to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they believe helped fuel the migrant crisis.

Despite these problems, it remains in everyone’s interest for France and Italy to get along. With Italian growth halting, French banks are the most exposed to any sell-off of the 425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt held by banks in the rest of Europe.

The new Italian government is far from blameless in the ongoing tensions, but what would improve the situation most would be for Emmanuel Macron to come down from his high horse, moving his focus from futile international finger-wagging to overdue domestic reform. Above all, he should recognise that his grand dreams for further EU centralisation aren’t shared by much of the electorate in his own country - let alone outside of it.

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