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An ill wind from Italy
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 02 - 2019

The European Union has given inter-European diplomatic relations some of the highest degrees of maturity and coordination yet achieved, though this was not done overnight.
It followed nearly two millennia of struggles from the time of the Roman Empire through the kingdoms of mediaeval Europe to the Second World War followed by four decades of Cold War between the Western and Soviet camps. Throughout these years, Europe did not find political stability or lasting peace.
However, these feuds started to come to an end after the Second World War and finished with the establishment of the European Union in 2000, which despite its shortcomings represents a relief from millennia of wars and conflicts. It is against this background of lasting peace in Europe that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has withdrawn its ambassador from Italy over the latter government's contact with the leaders of the gilets jaunes movement in France in an event not seen over the past five decades.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Italian Five Stars Movement (MS5) and son of neo-fascist Antonio Di Maio, met representatives of the gilets jaunes movement and made a series of controversial statements about French President Emmanuel Macron describing him as a “terrible president” and so on. It was the worst verbal feud between these European countries since the Second World War and since Italy led by fascist leader Benito Mussolini declared war on France in 1940.
Di Maio's criticisms extended to France's policies on immigration and its economic and political policies in Africa, particularly on the Libyan Civil War which Di Maio accused France of fostering. He rubbed salt into the wound when he met leaders of the growing gilets jaunes movement, describing it as “beautiful”.
“The wind of change has crossed the Alps” from Italy into France, he said.
The Italian government move was a diplomatic blunder that the French government perceived as a stab in the back from an allied country. For two of Europe's biggest economic and military powers to reach such a level of disagreement is alarming. Di Maio's recklessness in handling a delicate situation did not take into account the French reaction, even if his aim was to garner support for his MS5 Movement in Italy, which according to some analysts has been losing steam.
It has been opposing several ties to France including a proposed project for the construction of a high-speed railway connecting Turin and Lyon. Such ties might fall victim to the escalating feud between the two countries that shared $84.4 billion of trade in 2017. The Italian side is more likely to be affected negatively as France is Italy's second-largest trading partner after Germany. There are also some 1,900 French-owned companies in Italy employing nearly 250,000 people, while there are only some 1,000 Italian companies in France. French investments in Italy are much larger than Italian investments in France.
If the Italians pursue their current aggressive behaviour, they risk losing investment or even a French boycott of their products. The Italian economy, already at a point of near stagnation, could do without further ripples resulting from political gaffes and aggression. With over two trillion Euros in debt and annual government borrowing of nearly 275 billion, Italy may be heading towards a major debt crisis that could make the Greek debt crisis pale in comparison. Even the Greek economy is now starting to show some signs of progress after five years of austerity, something Italy cannot brag about. Equally importantly, the Italian government is risking the anger of other European countries, whose citizens may be wary of visiting a country known for its majestic sight-seeing and history if its aggressive stance towards others continues to grow
Italian politics have been on a rollercoaster ride since former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in 2011 after a series of political, financial and sexual scandals that rocked the Italian establishment. Di Maio and other far-right politicians in Italy are in favour of exiting the European Union, and as a result are less keen on retaining cordial relations with other European leaders than on garnering the domestic support that may come from attacking them.
These far-right leaders have found an opportunity in the French gilets jaunes movement despite the fact that a majority of the French movement's members do not share their ideology as their demands are mostly about domestic matters such as lowering taxes that have nothing to do with the European Union. Di Maio and others in Italy believe that exploiting the movement may expedite their separatist ambitions just as Brexit did in the United Kingdom.
There are darker skies ahead for the European Union, and signs of its possible disintegration are becoming more and more apparent. The biggest sign of that possible disintegration is the British decision to leave the European Union, an instance of a major European economy deciding that it no longer wants to be part of the Union. If Italy, the third-largest economy in Europe with the eighth-largest nominal GDP in the world, were also set to leave the EU, this would deal another major blow to the European Union.
With Angela Merkel stepping down as Germany's chancellor by 2021, the future of Europe looks bleak, especially in the wake of reports about slowing economic growth across the continent. The last thing Europe wants now is for such signs of worry to extend to diplomatic feuds between major countries that could even escalate into economic wars.
The Italian government's act of provocation against France is unprecedented since the Second World War. For an Italian official publicly to express his support for a movement seeking to topple an allied government is a violation of diplomatic norms or even an act of provocation warranting, as here, the French response of withdrawing an ambassador from Rome.
It is not unusual for Western powers to interfere in third-world countries and demand the resignation or stepping down of leaders. The most recent case of this came in France's actions supporting the rebellion in Syria and former French president François Hollande's demand that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad step down.
Now it seems that French politicians may be getting a taste of their own medicine, calling for a different approach from French diplomacy.
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The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt's Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.


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