Why Giorgia Meloni spells trouble for France and the EU

Why Giorgia Meloni spells trouble for France and the EU

Following the snap resignation of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month, French President Emmanuel Macron is bracing for stormy waters ahead as Italy’s far-right upstart Giorgia Meloni doubles down on her nationalist rhetoric on France.

Paris and Rome were more closely aligned than ever under Draghi, with the leaders of both countries signing the bilateral Quirinale treaty late last year in a bid to cement partnerships in sectors ranging from telecommunications and defence to justice and culture. Here, at long last, was a tangible alliance between the two European heavyweights- until Draghi’s ousting by the Italian right last month.

The chaos in Italy comes at a time when the need for European unity is more pressing than ever. Between the crisis in Ukraine, record high inflation and the climate change emergency, there are very real fears in Paris and across the bloc that a far-right government in Italy threatens to destabilise EU policy efforts on a fundamental level.

Until now, Italy and France, along with Germany, have demonstrated unity and strength in the face of Russia’s war of aggression. In June, the leaders of all three countries took the night train to Kyiv to reinforce their support for Ukraine; the following day, the EU Commission announced its recommendation that Ukraine be given candidate status for the bloc.

At the same time, Draghi and Macron have been laser-focused on managing and containing previous Franco-Italian tensions with an eye to EU integration. Viewing the world through the lens of global finance, both leaders shared a view that post-pandemic Europe will rely on greater integration to endure the challenges of the coming decades; indeed, the two were widely seen to have built a stronger relationship between leaders of their countries since World War II.

With the rise of Italy’s Meloni, the future of relations between the two countries is far less certain. To her credit, Meloni has at least affirmed she would continue supporting Ukraine against Russia, just as Italy ratified Finland’s NATO accession. “We have always defended and supported the Ukrainian cause,” Meloni told state media last month, “[The West] needs to know they can count on us…I would not tolerate any ambiguity on this point.”

On a more granular level, however, Paris will have to deal with an increasingly unruly country likely bent on exaggerating pre-existing disagreements and reviving old but dormant ones. A case in point for the former could be Nutriscore, the French packaging label that has already been the cause of cultural tension between Paris and Rome. Italy – not without reason –considers its algorithm flawed because it allows food producers to adapt their highly processed products to fit the label, thereby discriminating against the Mediterranean diet.

Italy’s Competition Authority (AGCM) also recently found Nutriscore to have a “bias in the judgement that does not incentivise the consumer to make an adequate assessment to follow a diet useful for satisfying the daily intake of nutrients”. Italy’s promotion of its own label, Nutrinform, is thus only set to heat up as the Commission is getting ready to reach a final decision on the front of packaging (FOP) label debate.

Legitimate questions about how the population can be effectively incentivised to make healthy dietary choices aside, there are far more politically dangerous issues on the horizon that could harm the entire EU. A far-right government in Italy could see the hailed Quirinal treaty weakened, or even upended. When the deal was signed last year, it was compared with the ground-breaking 1963 Elysée Treaty between Germany and France which rang in a new era of Franco-German friendship. But Meloni slammed Draghi’s government for not involving parliament in negotiations, and charged the Italian left with being “the spokesperson of French interests in Italy.”

Casting the treaty aside would undoubtedly deliver a critical blow to bilateral relations between Rome and Paris, and structured political support systems within the EU itself. The cooperation clauses contained therein were not only hoped to give Italy a boost in its more structurally weak areas, but as a way forward for the entire EU. As such, it was regarded as a definitive conclusion to festering Franco-Italian tensions.

At the same time, more mundane issues threaten to turn into major bilateral obstacles. On the back of a French decree for the protection of natural habitats (APPHN), Meloni has called into question the current border arrangement regarding the Mont Blanc, a longstanding but largely ignored issue between the two countries.

France and Italy’s territorial dispute over Mont Blanc dates back to the 1800s, but the issue was reignited in 2019 after French authorities in Chamonix, Les Houches and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains set up a natural protection zone intended to prevent tourist overcrowding. The measures included a vehicle ban, and a ban on taking pets to the area. The zone affected an area on the Gigante glacier designated as a part of Italy, prompting exaggerated responses from Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio and Meloni’s far right party Brothers of Italy, who called France’s actions an “unacceptable French invasion of Mont Blanc,” just as Meloni declared on Twitter that “We cannot tolerate yet another attack on Italy.”

The return of Italy’s far right with a vengeance is thus a turning back of the clocks on European integration, and threatens death by a thousand cuts for the European Union at a time when the continent is already besieged by threats from all sides.

Image credit: European Central Bank/Flickr

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