Vidya Ram

The fight for Europe’s embattled soul

Vidya Ram | Updated on February 19, 2019

Rising tension The French government is irked over Italian politicians’ open support for the ‘yellow vest’ movement   -  FRED TANNEAU

The spat between the far Right in Italy and the Centrist government in France poses an ideological challenge to the idea of EU

Last week, the French government took the rather dramatic step of recalling its ambassador to Italy, accusing its fellow EU member-state of exploiting the two countries’ relationship for electoral aims and violating the “respect” owed to the country’s democratic choices.

“For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims,” said the French foreign ministry. The final straw was a meeting between Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Five Star Movement, and members of the French yellow vest (Gillet Jaune) protest movement in France.

From a grassroots leaderless campaign, the Gillet Jaune movement has evolved in different directions, with some announcing plans to field over 10 candidates for the European Parliamentary elections due to take place in May via a group calling itself the Citizen Initiative Rally (Ralliement d’Initiative Citoyenne).

The ambassador’s recall highlighted the rapid deterioration in French-Italian relations. While prominent tensions between EU member states are not unknown, the recall of an ambassador remains a relatively rare measure. The last time an EU nation did so was in 2016, when Greece recalled its ambassador to Austria in a dispute over the country’s willingness to accept asylum seekers.

Ever since the elections that brought the Right-wing coalition government to power in Italy last year, tensions have been on the rise between the two EU states.

While French President Emmanuel Macron has positioned himself as one of the defenders of liberal values globally in the face of nationalist forces, the new Italian administration has come to represent the opposite, with its regular criticisms of the EU (and any drive for closer alignment), and its anti-immigration rhetoric and positioning, which has already resulted in legislative changes such as the one last year that cut the asylum rights of those seeking refuge in the country.

Italy-EU stand-off

Last year, the Italian administration was engaged in a standoff with EU authorities over its planned budget for 2019 and commitments to deficit reduction — at one point even facing the prospect of sanctions. A full-blown crisis was averted following compromise from both sides, though the issue of Italy’s spending and debt management is likely to resurface in the future.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down as leader of the governing CDU and not planning to seek re-election in 2021, the Macron administration has become an easy target for the Italian government on a host of issues from domestic to international politics.

In January, Di Maio accused the French government of fuelling poverty in Africa through ongoing colonialist policies, linking it back to the movement of people across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe.

The Gillet Jaunes movement — and the Macron administration’s response — has provided further opportunities for the Italian government to draw links, and in particular promote the notion that Macron’s movement (La Republique En Marche) was not the fresh face of politics that it had promised to be but simply part of the establishment.

“Gillet Jaunes, do not give up!,” wrote Maio in an official Five Star Movement blog earlier this year, suggesting that its origins and sentiment — rooted in a quest for direct democracy and a battle against the elites — were the same as those that drove the Five Star Movement to success since its founding in 2009. He even volunteered logistical support for the movement.

However, there are many other reasons for this push, not least the dire state of the Italian economy, which fell into recession in the last quarter of 2018. While the government has sought to blame external forces such as the global uncertainty triggered by the trade war between the US and China, many observers have pointed to internal factors, not least the battle the government picked with the EU, which hit investor sentiment, and raised borrowing costs.

While the economic difficulties have hit the popularity of the Five Star Movement, their coalition partner the League of Matteo Salvini (who has also spoken out in recent weeks in support of the Gillet Jaunes) has proved far more successful, performing well in recent local elections, as it has used anti-immigrant sentiment, focusing on migration policy as one of its key battlegrounds.

All this also comes ahead of the crucial European Parliament elections that will take place in May, which are expected to be particularly decisive for the future direction of the EU. Building on their successes in domestic elections, anti-EU, right wing forces are expected to make a big play, and could do better than ever before.

The far right challenge

According to a paper published by the European Council on Foreign Relations this week, anti-European parties could win over a third of the seats in the Parliament, presenting major challenges to the recent trajectory of EU policy on everything from Russia to trade.

While far-right MEPs have typically been divided within the EU Parliament, this could well change if they increase their share of seats in the Parliament, the think-tank suggests, adding that alliances with mainstream Eurosceptic parties on the right could also be forged. (Changes in the structure of alliances could well be aided by Brexit, which will mean British MEPs will no longer sit in the European Parliament.)

The potential impact of these changes could be profound: Di Maio for one has been strongly critical of EU trade policies such as the Canadian free trade agreement, suggesting at one point last year that any Italian official who supported the agreement could be removed from their position.

With all this at stake it is hardly surprising that the Right in Italy has been exploiting every opportunity to vaunt its populist policies — even at the risk of hurting relations with its neighbour and ally. But what may begin as a bilateral tiff for electoral purposes could well tip into an ideological battle for Europe.

Published on February 15, 2019

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