Fight Club: France and Italy
BSSB.BE politico.eu 11/02/2019
* Political satire is a serious thing. In democratic newspapers throughout the world there are daily cartoons that often are not even funny, as is the case especially in many English-language newspapers. Instead, they contain a political message, and the artist takes full responsibility. Umberto Eco
In announcing its decision to pull its diplomat from Rome this week, France accused the country’s populist government of launching a series of “targeted, baseless attacks” as part of an effort to “manipulate the relationship for electoral aims.”
Indeed, the spat between the two European powers — the worst since World War II, according to France’s foreign ministry — is about more than just a diplomatic tit-for-tat. It’s the start of a new way of doing politics in Europe.
Historically, EU politics has been more of a national affair than a truly European one. When it comes to electing the next European Parliament, for example, voters across the bloc cast their ballots on different dates, for national parties and candidates running on national programs.
Over the past six decades, national leaders have only very rarely interfered in one another’s domestic affairs. Conflicts between capitals were largely seen as a contradiction between the principle of loyal cooperation that binds the bloc’s members.
That may all be in the past.
- The leaders of Italy’s populist government — anti-establishment 5Star Movement chief Luigi Di Maio and far-right leader Matteo Salvini — have realized they can score political points at home by toying with the domestic issues of another country.
- Salvini has blamed France’s colonial history for the migration crisis and encouraged the French to vote against their president in the upcoming European election. Di Maio met with prominent members of the Yellow Jackets, the movement that has attacked Emmanuel Macron’s presidency and roiled French politics since last November.
These types of personal provocations first made an appearance during the eurozone crisis, when tensions ran high between the Greek and German governments as the bloc faced the possibility of a “Grexit.” But the French-Italian spat has taken it to the next level.
Paris and Rome are in effect airing the EU’s dirty laundry, shining a light on the disagreements heads of state and government typically keep behind closed doors at meetings of the European Council. They are giving the public a taste of the deeper disagreements that stand in the way of smooth EU decision-making — including on the question of migration.
- The highly emotional dispute between the two capitals risks dredging up historical grievances and bringing deeply rooted cultural biases back to life.
- It also predates the current populist government, and has been building over several years, as a result of clashes over military intervention in Libya and control of France’s largest shipyard.
But there’s a silver lining too: This type of public bilateral dispute, by bringing disagreements into the open, may end up creating a new political space in which to hash out common European challenges.
One of the merits of national leaders paying greater attention to their neighbors’ domestic affairs is that it turns their focus away from Brussels, whose “faceless bureaucrats” are still too easily caricatured and scapegoated for the Continent’s ills, and shifts the EU blame game to where responsibility truly lies: national capitals.
- It’s a mistake to believe Europe would “render the national question obsolete or relativize it,” as the French philosopher Etienne Balibar wrote. “Every single country is afraid of being exploited by a neighbor.”
- A politician who calls out another EU leader for political behavior they find objectionable — whether at a national level or in Brussels — shouldn’t be seen as undermining European unity.
- Rather, they are holding each other accountable in the eyes of both a domestic and European electorate.
The French-Italian dispute should also be seen in the context of a political realignment taking shape ahead of May’s European election — a Europeanization of politics.
Both Di Maio and Salvini, who are running against each other in the May election, are using France’s national turmoil — as Macron tries to fend off the Yellow Jacketsand push through his political agenda — as an opportunity to revamp their political base.
- This transformation of the political conversation could free the EU from shackles that have trapped its progress for too long.
- Salvini is hoping to get the support of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally to create a broader European far-right force — a European “League of Leagues” — that could also draw Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán away from the center-right European People’s Party to boost the far-right’s ranks.
- Di Maio, meanwhile, looks likely to remain partnerless in Europe as a result of Brexit and the departure of Nigel Farage’s UKIP from their joint political family in the European Parliament.
- For him, it is not so much about targeting Macron — whom Salvini has identified as his main opponent in the Europe-wide ballot — but blaming France as a whole, for what he perceives as going wrong in Europe and, by extension, in Italy.
The showdown, then, shouldn’t only be seen as an explosive one-off, but rather as evidence of the Europeanization of the bloc’s political space. At its core, this is a positive development for the bloc: Domestic parties are reaching out to allies, both old and new, across the Continent to make their European projects a reality.
As political campaigns ahead of the European election kick into gear, this trend will only accelerate and intensify in the months ahead. Europe shouldn’t shy away from the disruption. This transformation of the political conversation could free the EU from shackles that have trapped its progress for too long.
Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and the founder of the civic startup The Good Lobby.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: politico.eu