Three elements that could damage relations between France and Italy give food for thought on the difficulties the European Union is going through.
Economic discord: Italy is drawing up a decree to ensure that French interests do not take control of what Italy regards as a flagship of the Italian agri-food industry – namely, the milk giant Parmalat.
Conflicting policy over Libya: together with Britain, the French would like to see Gaddafi gone, whereas Italy, because of Berlusconi’s good relations with Gaddafi, is exploring every avenue for a negotiated and honourable exit for the dictator.
Finally, a squabble that touches on immigration: the Italians, whose island of Lampedusa is the entry point for those exploiting the Tunisian revolution to get into Europe, resent the attitude of the French, who at the Franco-Italian border are halting Tunisians trying to get into France to find work.
The first point of friction is totally inconsistent with the rules that make a single market work well. The Italian position is hard to accept, but we must recognise that it is part of a strategy that governments have been increasingly using. That strategy is economic patriotism, erected as a barrier to market forces. Both the Germans, in the Opel affair, and the French as well, gladly made use of the very argument which Italy is today bouncing back against France. These are sterile wars, most often to the detriment of European consumers, even if the trend towards mergers do pose undeniable social problems. But it is for Europe to propose and dispose.
The second problem relates to European defence. Rome’s attitude, which is closer to that of Moscow than to those of Paris and London, is at bottom hard to accept as well. There are special ties between Berlusconi and Gaddafi and between Gaddafi and Putin that, to some extent, explain the benevolence shown to Colonel Gaddafiby these two leaders. Above all, though, the attitude of Italy — and even more so that of Germany — takes us back to 2003. It is as if we are living through a sort of 2003 in reverse. That was the year the war in Iraq split Europe and pitted Rome, London and Madrid, standing with George Bush, against Berlin and Paris, which together with Moscow had formed an axis opposed to the war. The EU, we must recall, had a hard time wiping out the traces of that. And so we are living through a new paradox. The reconciliation, in terms of military operations justified by the duty to intervene — indeed by the values we cherish — and organised around a London-Paris axis, is perhaps an indication that Britain can be rallied to the embryonic idea of common European defence. This is made all the more necessary given that American leadership is not what it once was and a distinction will therefore be drawn between those Europeans who will continue to appeal to American leadership and those who, as has happened in France and Britain, believe that the relative decline of US leadership makes possible a different distribution of roles, one that will devolve more initiative to Europe.
In terms of what could be the European objectives, Italy can be criticised for its attitude both to Libya and to migration, and one cannot help but feel shocked by the lack of solidarity that attitude is getting. The situation in Lampedusa illustrates yet again a very serious deficiency in Europe. Everyone knows that migration flows can only be controlled through an increasingly coordinated and coherent approach among European countries. What do we see in reality? The unbearable spectacle of an Italian government letting the situation in Lampedusa drag on, all the better to justify more radical measures in the eyes of the public; and, at the same time, European leaders who all seem to have been modelled after Pontius Pilate. This situation is unacceptable.
These episodes, which all too unusually are bringing Italy and France into conflict, make it clear that each passing day should convince us to get back somehow onto the lost path towards European integration.