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February 08, 2019

Macron turns stand-off with Italy into a game changer

France called back its ambassador to Italy, an unprecedented move since WW II. The trigger was a meeting between Luigi di Maio and the gilets jaunes, But there is more at stake.

Di Maio and Matteo Salvini have been attacking Emmanuel Macron for months. Until now the French president shrugged off these attacks as insignificant and insisted that he only dealt with the Italian prime minister. What has changed? To elevate a political crisis into a state affair is quite an extraordinary move that will have political consequences. Did Macron think this through?

Let's first look at the trigger itself: Di Maio met with members of Ingrid Levavasseur's list and one of the other most outspoken representatives of the gilets jaunes, the controversial Christophe Chalençon. Di Maio then posted a photo of them all together with an enthusiastic tweet on twitter. Levavasseur herself was not there, she has even warned that di Maio was about to spoil what their project is about and insists that even if there were members from her list present it has nothing to do with it. So was this photo just a smoke screen, intended for Italian Five Star voters? Is this to serve his strategy to stir up sentiment against the French president as a way to raise his profile ahead of the European elections? According to the Italian TV channel La 7, Giuseppe Conte told Angela Merkel last week that Di Maio aims to attack France to recover lost ground ahead of the European elections, as he is lagging behind Salvini who already claimed the theme of immigration for himself.

Now that Macron responded in such a strong-armed manner, the game has changed. The fact that Chalençon has called for a military coup in the early weeks of the gilets jaunes helps the French government to argue the case about why it is a state affair after all. But it does not seem to us an essential link. The ambassador himself was surprised by Macron's move to call him back to Paris. Les Echos quotes a former ambassador to Italy who considers it an overreaction and who expects this to be of a short duration. 

What does it bring Macron? At the European level, Macron may hope to revive his anti-populist front. It sends a strong image of a president who acts if provoked. French right-wing voters who found Macron too subservient to German interests at the Aachen treaty may cheer at this strong response against Italy. But will this staging have any lasting effects? Will it not come back to haunt Macron if he tries to form a transnational alliance for the European elections himself?

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February 08, 2019

Is there a strategic intent behind Macron's decision?

There can be no a denying that the French decision to recall its ambassador from Italy constitutes a major European crisis. As Italy's newspaper recall this is first time this happens since 1940 - when it occurred for obviously different reasons. The Italian media are reporting that the decision was not preceded by a phone call. The foreign ministry learned about it from a press release, just like everybody else. The immediate effect of Emmanuel Macron's move is to create unity between the Italian government and its critics. Take Lucia Annunziata, the editor of the Huffington Post Italia and a well-known TV talk show host, someone whom we always saw as close to Matteo Renzi. Here is her analysis this morning (our translation from Italian):

"Suddenly, on an early afternoon in February, we entered 'war' with France. The conflict comes in a rush of statements, answers, and reasons given and denied. They follow one another in a hasty, unexpected, chaotic journey: no formal consultation between the governments of the two nations, no institutional process or phone call between the leaders of the two countries. We rush head-on into an extra-institutional space, as if this was a clash between two political parties. Which, in the end, is exactly what this is about: two electoral campaigns that cross and explode in the common European space."

Annunziata does not side with the tactics of Luigi Di Maio, but reserves most of her criticism for Macron. She regards his decision as a sign of weakness, given his failure to drum up enough support for his European vision. 

The broader political reaction in Italy was restrained. Prime minister Giuseppe Conte said he was simply stunned - speechless more than angry. Five Star politicians have interpreted Macron's reaction as a cannon shot to kick-start the European election campaign, and promise to do more of the same. The Lega tried to keep some distance to Five Star as the rivalry between them increases ahead of the European elections. And, as a report by Corriere this morning suggests, this conflict has raised the public profile of Five Star which had been lower than that of the Lega. At a stroke, Five Star is back in the news.

Nikolas Busse offers a different perspective in his comment for Frankfurter Allgemeine. He does not focus so much on whether Macron was right or wrong to act this way, but on the negative impact the Italian populists already had on the culture of political dialogue in Europe. The whole idea of European integration is to solve legitimate differences in a civil way through negotiations. When an Italian minister entered into a dialogue with violent protesters, including a man who advocates a military dictatorship in France, he crossed a line. The thugs of the left and the right in Europe have managed to destroy the traditionally good bilateral relations among member states within a short period of time.

Wolfgang Münchau writes: Macron has turned a cross-border political confrontation into a confrontation between states. I would assume, but cannot be certain, that there is an ulterior calculation behind this move beyond what we have been told. I also assume, but cannot be certain, that he has an exit strategy. Has he considered whether it will become easier or harder for him to forge an alliance in a country where he has no natural political allies in the party spectrum - except for Matteo Renzi, the lone wolf of Italian politics? Another question is how this plays out in the smaller EU countries which are traditionally sensitive to bullying from the larger EU member states. Will the likes of Sebastian Kurz side with the Italian neighbours or Macron?

I am also wondering how Angela Merkel will see this. I assume that Macron did not consult with her on this decision either - since he did not even bother to alert either Conte or Italy's president Sergio Mattarella. Mattarella acted very professionally and offered to mediate in this dispute. But why on earth did Macron not co-opt him before the decision?

Macron's move coincided with another one: to cancel his attendance at the Munich Security Conference in order to focus on domestic issues. I am sympathetic to the French position on Nord Stream 2, but is it not foolish to attack Italy and Germany on the same day? In England, I recall that not long ago the concept of "German diplomacy" was considered an oxymoron. These days, if you want to find diplomats shooting from the hip, you have to look south of the Alps and west of the Rhine.

The manner of the decision, the lack of co-ordination and the short history of Macron's presidency lead me to conclude that this was an impulsive act, done in the context of domestic politics only without consideration for the welfare and interest of the EU. It is the tragedy of pro-Europeans like ourselves that our most prominent political representative in the EU acts like a buffoon.

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