France’s pro-EU government and Italy’s populist leaders sparred anew this weekend, as business giants from both countries appealed for calm amid the neighbours’ biggest diplomatic spat since World War II.
France said the recall of its ambassador from Italy was a temporary move – but an important signal to its historical ally not to meddle in French internal affairs.
In Italy, the deputy prime minister who is the focus of French anger stood his ground, renewing criticism of France’s foreign policy – in what is largely seen as electioneering in advance of the European Parliament elections in late May.
France and Italy are founding members of the European Union, born from the ashes of World War II, and their unusual dispute is rippling around the Continent at a time of growing tensions between nationalist and pro-EU forces. French officials said the recall of the French ambassador was prompted by months of “unfounded attacks” from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who have criticised French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic and migration policies.
But the main trigger for the crisis appeared to be Di Maio’s meeting in a Paris suburb last week with members of the yellow vests – the French anti-government movement seeking seats in the European Parliament.
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the visit violated “the most elementary diplomacy” because it was unannounced. Referring to Italy’s populist leaders, he criticised a “nationalist leprosy” eating away at Europe’s unity and said EU members should “behave better toward partners”.
A participant in the meeting, French activist Marc Doyer, said it was initiated by Di Maio’s populist Five Star Movement which wanted to share advice on how to build a “citizens’ movement”.
Doyer said it provided useful technical and other guidance to potential yellow vest candidates and their supporters, and called the diplomatic spat an overreaction.
“It’s a political game by certain people,” he said. “Free movement exists in Europe, and the meeting didn’t cost the French taxpayer anything.”
Di Maio said he had done nothing wrong by meeting with the yellow vest protesters without informing the French government.
A borderless Europe “shouldn’t just be about allowing free circulation of merchandise and people, but also the free circulation of political forces that have a European outlook”, he said in a Facebook video while visiting Abruzzo.
Di Maio again blamed France for policies in African countries that he said had impeded their growth and fuelled the flight of economic migrants to Europe. He also implicitly blamed Paris for the chaos in Libya that has led to years of instability and the growth of migrant-smuggling networks following France’s involvement in the Nato-led operation in 2011 that ousted former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli, meanwhile, offered France’s yellow vest movement technical advice on launching a version of the Five Star Movement’s online portal, which allows registered party members to vote on policy decisions and candidates.
As the diplomatic spat simmered, a French yellow vest activist known for his extremist views held a gathering last Friday in the Italian city of San Remo.
The stand-off was clearly sending jitters through Europe’s business world, given that the two countries are top trading partners and powerhouses of the EU economy. A pressing concern in Italy is the future of struggling national carrier Alitalia, amid rumoured interest from Air France in some form of partnership.