Robert Harneis -TDO- France recalled its ambassador to Paris for consultations last week after Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, without properly informing the French government, visited members of the Yellow Vests protest movement in France and offered his support.
After this unprecedented diplomatic reaction between EU partners and NATO allies, the Presidents of the two countries spoke on the telephone. The Elysée palace issued a short statement saying ‘The President of the Republic spoke on the telephone with President of the Italian Republic Sergio Matarella, following the recall for consultations of the French ambassador to Italy. The two men emphasized the importance of relations for their two countries, fostered by exceptional historic, economic and cultural links. They stressed that France and Italy, who founded the European Union together, have a particular responsibility to work together for the defense and relaunching of the European Union.‘
As Italian President, Matarella has limited but important powers under the Italian constitution. He used these to the full in a failed attempt to foil the formation of the anti-European coalition now in power in Italy. It is a good question as to which of the two men have the least good relations with the key figures in the Italian government, Di Maio of the 5-star Movement and Savino of the League.Far from being an attempt to improve relations, the call may well have been an attempt to snub government leaders by holding discussionsbetween heads of state, without their knowledge or consent. Macron has been harassed over recent months by derogatory comments at the hands of Salvini in particular, who has called him a ‘bad president who should resign’.
Macron has only himself to blame because he greeted the formation of the Euro sceptic Italian government by describing it as ‘leprosy spreading in Europe’. Salvini replied to these inflammatory remarks, commenting ‘if Macron stopped insulting and instead practiced the real generosity which he talks about by welcoming the thousands of refugees that Italy has welcomed over the last few years, it would be better for everybody. We are perhaps leprous populists… Accept thousands of migrants and then we can talk.’
Hostilities originally broke out a few days earlier when Macron criticized the new Italian government for refusing to accept the NGO operated migrant rescue ship Acquarius criticizing ‘the cynicism and irresponsibility of the Italian government’. At the same time France hid behind EU agreed procedures and refused to accept the ship themselves.
There was never any doubt that the Europhile Macron and the new Eurosceptic Italian government would not easily agree. However, by starting hostilities with a clever political brawler like Salvini, the French President may have bitten off more than he can chew. His unprecedented reaction to the uninvited visit by Di Maio to France to talk to the leaders of the turbulent Yellow jackets may have been an attempt to make the Italians more respectful. It is unlikely to succeed.
In an earlier incident in March 2018 armed French customs police entered a refugee hostel in Bardonecchia in Italy and compelled a refugee to take a drug test in the toilets, without asking the consent of the local police or authorities. There was an angry outcry in Italy. The French authorities claimed they were acting legally.
Recently the Italian government used the diplomatic mechanisms of the EU to block the issue of an agreed statement recognizing Juan Guaido as President of Venezuela. This is a policy dear to the heart of President Macron who is anxious to keep in step with the United States and appear useful.
As the European elections approach and the possibility of at least a third of the new parliament being anti-European, it is unlikely that relations between the two governments will improve, at least in the short term.