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Italy and France heal their rift with a treaty

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ROME — After a few years of stormy transalpine relations, Italy and France are putting their differences behind them with a treaty that is meant to establish a new motor of cooperation between two EU heavyweights in sectors ranging from industry to culture.  

In a sign of the importance of the rapprochement, Italy is taking the highly symbolic step of hosting Friday’s ceremony — and a dinner the night before — in the president’s sumptuous Quirinale palace, under the gaze of helmeted cuirassiers. In testament to the long roller-coaster ride of Franco-Italian tensions, the former papal palace chosen for the event was redesigned under the instructions of Napoleon who had planned to turn it into his residence after French forces occupied Rome, although he never ultimately moved in.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi now reckon it is time to turn a page on the rocky Paris-Rome relationship, which became especially toxic between 2018 and 2019 when a governing coalition led by the anti-establishment 5Star Movement and the far-right League held power in Italy. While there has been a marked improvement in ties since Draghi took over in February, the leaders want to lock down a structure that will now enable permanent partnerships in core areas from 5G and space launchers to justice and migration.

Despite having competing aims over the past years — including on migration, Libya and industrial projects — Paris and Rome have become closer in recent months while coordinating over the EU’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan. As both nations are heavily indebted, they have a shared interest in pushing the EU to cut them more slack on spending.

The new treaty should create “more trust in working together and in addressing European challenges,” Vincenzo Amendola, Italy’s undersecretary for European affairs, said during a visit to Paris last week to meet French Europe Minister Clément Beaune.

“Even at times of tensions, we think the same on most European issues, we are in almost total agreement on economic issues, health issues, and all the initiatives we have taken during the [pandemic] crisis, we started them in a Franco-Italian way,” Beaune noted.

The so-called Quirinale Treaty will be signed just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s exit creates a vacuum in European politics and before the French presidential campaign begins in 2022. To some degree, its promise of bilateral cooperation bears similarities to the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany, created to heal their shattered relationship after WWII and renewed in 2019 in Aachen by Macron and Merkel.

But the French are keen to stress that the Italian pact should not be viewed as Paris edging away from the Franco-German relationship. “There is a similarity of approach, a similarity of ambitions, but from that I would not draw that there’s a more strategic willingness from France to review its alliances,” said an Elysée official, asked about the two pacts. The French official added it would be “difficult” to rank the two treaties, but acknowledged that the Franco-German treaty was more ambitious in terms of security and defense.

So what’s in the treaty?

In late drafts of the new pact, France and Italy committed to coordinate in a true laundry list of areas. According to people familiar with negotiations, the zones for partnerships include security, defense, European affairs, migration, industry, strategic sectors (including 5G, AI and the cloud), justice, venture capital in start-ups and innovative businesses, macroeconomics, culture and youth.

The treaty could include a common commitment to develop the space launchers Ariane 6 and Vega-C, noted another person informed on the talks.

Ministries connected to these sectors will be mandated to coordinate with their counterparts, while the finance and economic development ministries of both countries will commit to work more closely in “forums” on industry and the economy. The entire government must meet for an intergovernmental summit once a year, according to those familiar with the drafts. 

Under the draft treaty, Rome and Paris should coordinate before European Council summits of leaders or other EU meetings to try to agree a common position, a process that already takes place between France and Germany. The draft treaty includes a commitment to strengthen EU defense strategy, a pet project of Macron as a complement to NATO capabilities, according to those familiar with the upcoming pact. Further clauses mandate a committee of cross-border cooperation and a Franco-Italian youth council, according to the Elysée.

Ups and downs

Macron first suggested the treaty in 2017 with talks starting in 2018 with then-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, today the EU’s economy commissioner. But following the creation of a populist coalition government between the anti-establishment 5Star Movement and the far-right League led by Giuseppe Conte, relations entered a period of “profound crisis,” according to Jean-Pierre Darnis, an expert in Franco-Italian relations and associate professor at the Université Côte d’Azur and Luiss University in Rome.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini clashed openly with Macron over migrants and Libya. When Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio met the French Yellow Jackets protesters, Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome. Relations reached their lowest point since World War II, as the French foreign ministry put it

Under the second Conte government in 2020, this time a center-left coalition, discussion of the treaty was revived. But it was Draghi’s arrival in Palazzo Chigi that brought about an acceleration, said Darnis. “It’s a sign that Italy can be trusted. Draghi is a guarantee of political, technical and economic capability.”

A few months after Draghi took power, the French offered an olive branch, extraditing 10 convicted terrorists from the so-called years of lead — political violence in the 1970s — and cleared the way for cooperation. 

“This treaty has been essentially negotiated this year,” said the Elysée official, while noting that talks started in 2018 but there has been “a certain slowdown due to the crisis between the two countries.”

“But we believe that this crisis is really behind us and that we have re-established a Franco-Italian relationship of exceptional quality,” he added.

Industrial cooperation is likely to be a litmus test of whether the new pact is more than symbolic. The presence of France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire in Rome with Macron seems to point in that direction.

Europe’s industrial policy has traditionally been dominated by the Franco-German pairing – which often set the EU’s industrial agenda by coming up with joint investment plans or by pushing together for reforms — while the Franco-Italian industrial relationship has frequently been tense, with takeover bids on industrial jewels being vetoed by governments on both sides of the Alps.

The failed takeover of France’s Chantiers de l’Atlantique by Italy’s Fincantieri in January this year and the tensions surrounding a possible sale of some of Italy’s defense giant Leonardo to Franco-German consortium KNDS show that Franco-Italian industrial rivalry is still alive.

The merger between carmakers Fiat Chrysler and the Peugeot Group has been more successful, despite some Italian concerns about the French government holding a stake.

Economic ties between the two countries are very strong, especially in terms of trade, but when it comes to investments, tilted in France’s favor.

France was the number one foreign investor in Italy in 2019, while Italian investors ranked 8th in France, according to the French economy ministry. Last year, a parliamentary committee for national security even warned against “a growing and planned presence of economic and financial operators of French origin in our economy” which could result in industrial decisions against national interests.

“We hope that the pact will contribute to rebalancing that gap,” noted Paolo Formentini, a League lawmaker and vice-president of the foreign affairs committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Sandro Gozi, former undersecretary for European affairs, who worked on the treaty during the Gentiloni government, and later advised Macron, said the more structured relationship could help to avoid misunderstandings between the two countries that “assume they know each other well,” but have “a lot of preconceptions about each other.” 

Divisions that were often addressed too late have demonstrated the need for the treaty, he said. “Libya was a lesson. Because of the competition and disagreement [between Paris and Rome] everyone lost out, the Russians and Turks came in,” he added.

Détente

In Italy, opposition is limited, with Draghi being supported by a grand coalition. 

Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the opposition hard-right Brothers of Italy, slammed the government for not involving the parliament in negotiations and accused Italy’s left of being “the spokesperson of French interests in Italy.”

But the far-right League, which is part of the government coalition and has the industry portfolio, is more positive.

“The League is always on the side of national interest,” noted MP Formentini. “It is in the national interest to talk with each other, especially when it comes to the stabilization of the Mediterranean and migration,” he added, noting that his comments were based on press reports about the deal.

Even the French right has been cautious. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, pointed at the treaty as evidence that national governments, not the EU, are the main actors on the international stage. “It actually seems to me to be another sign of the great return of nations and bilateral relations between sovereign countries,” she told Corriere della Sera in a recent interview. 

The Paris-Treaty treaty may not be as deep as the Franco-German one, which for example mandates that ministers from the two countries attend each other’s cabinets at least once a quarter, but it’s a step in that direction.  

“It was never intended to be an exact replica as France and Germany have 60 years of experience in cooperation, and for Italy, it’s the first time. But the treaty could evolve into something closer to the France-Germany treaty in the future,” Gozi said.

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