France will face a series of daunting challenges in 2022 – as will the European Union as a whole. Yet, with Germany focused on negotiations to form its next coalition government, France has the perfect opportunity to strengthen the coalitions it will need to address these challenges. It can do so by working alongside Italy to build a bridge between southern EU member states and the so-called frugal countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. In this way, the Franco-Italian partnership could support the French presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2022. The partnership will soon be reinforced by the Quirinal Treaty – which is designed to create an institutional framework for cooperation between France and Italy, and which is based on the Elysée Treaty that France and Germany signed in 1963. As Paris and Rome both recognise, it is vital to maintain European cohesion at a time when the EU confronts a growing number of complex internal and external threats.
Since 2016, bilateral relations between France and Italy have run into difficulties on several fronts. For example, the two countries were long unable to find a common position on the war in Libya, which prevented the EU from acting as one to end the conflict. France recalled its ambassador to Rome in 2019 after Luigi Di Maio, then Italy’s deputy prime minister, met with representatives of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement. And, earlier this year, Paris and Rome announced that they would no longer proceed with a merger between shipbuilders Chantiers de l’Atlantique and Fincantieri.
Much of the tension can be explained by the political and economic asymmetries between France and Italy: a presidential system versus a parliamentary one; an economy based on large corporations versus one that is both more industrialised and more centred on small and medium-sized enterprises; and an Italian public debate that often focuses on France versus a French public debate that rarely touches on Italy. Another factor is the differing approaches of policymakers and officials on either side of the Alps. Since Emmanuel Macron’s inauguration as French president in 2017, he has had to work with three Italian governments – not all of which made his life easy, to say the least.
Because Italy has not consistently used all the financial and political tools at its disposal, some of its EU partners do not take it seriously. Nonetheless, NextGenerationEU proves that Italy can use these tools: the recovery plan is widely seen as originating in a deal between France and Germany but, in fact, it began as a Franco-Italian initiative. It was only after reaching a consensus with Italy that France sought German support for the plan (which was especially valuable, given that Germany has closer relationships with the frugal countries). If the Franco-German partnership brokered the deal, the Franco-Italian one initiated it.
French and Italian leaders should keep this success in mind as they work towards furthering such cooperation, at a time when it is particularly difficult to find a consensus in the EU. In doing so, they will need to account for the blocs that have already formed within the union – such as the Visegrad group, and the challenges its members pose to the EU’s core values in areas such as the rule of law. They should also be prepared to adjust to the position of the next German government – not least on economic and monetary integration.
France will need to keep its allies close if it is to maintain its influence within the EU. Perhaps the greatest opportunities to improve the Franco-Italian relationship come from the fact that, as ECFR’s Teresa Coratella and Arturo Varvelli explain, Prime Minister Mario Draghi has created a new political moment in his country. He has shifted Italy’s priorities towards cooperation with its main partners in the EU and multilateralism more broadly – with the explicit aim of strengthening the EU as a geopolitical actor. In the lead-up to its April 2022 presidential election, France should consolidate its bilateral relationship with Draghi’s Italy and launch ad hoc coalitions that will reinforce EU policymaking once Germany is back in business. These efforts could focus on the foreign policy aspects of security and defence cooperation. Draghi feels more comfortable defending Europe’s ‘strategy autonomy’ – a topic that is important to Macron – than many other European leaders do. He appears to recognise that a strategically autonomous EU could be a useful security partner of the United States and NATO.
The emerging ‘Dracron’ partnership appears to have recently helped Italy and France move closer to each other’s positions on some of the issues that had divided them. In March 2021, the foreign ministers of France, Italy, and Germany made a joint visit to Libya – a tacit acknowledgment that Franco-Italian disputes over the Libyan war helped create an opening for intervention by actors such as Turkey and Russia (neither of which share the EU’s aims in the region). France’s turn towards multilateralism in its response to the war, and its withdrawal of some of its support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has been instrumental in this.
French leaders should acknowledge that their Italian counterparts will struggle to support unilateral foreign policy moves of the kind that contributed to instability in Libya – and will want France to treat Italy as an equal. For many years, the Franco-German engine has left other member states with few opportunities to make their voices heard, sometimes leading them to develop an inferiority complex. Therefore, rather than being a lonely leader, Paris will need to build on the fact that Rome now shares its vision for Europe – as reflected in the fact that Draghi used the phrase “ever closer EU integration” in his maiden speech in the Italian Senate in February 2021.
The Franco-Italian partnership can help redefine the EU’s international role and ensure that the bloc takes action rather than loses time in theoretical debates. The Draghi government has distanced itself from its predecessors’ courtship of Beijing – which led Italy to become the only EU country that has signed a memorandum of understanding on China’s Silk Road, and which involved public praise of Chinese medical aid during the pandemic. Italy could also help operationalise the French-sponsored EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, France has declared that one of the priorities of its EU presidency will be digital issues and their consequences for Europe’s relationships with China and the US. And France will need allies if it wants to make progress with two related pieces of EU legislation currently in the making: the Digital Market Act and the Digital Services Act. This is a topic on which there is a natural convergence with Italy, particularly in funding European firms in the digital sector – perhaps to create champions capable of competing with their US and Chinese counterparts – and on the content regulation France sees as necessary to protecting European digital sovereignty.
While ad hoc cooperation between France and Italy is crucial, the two countries should further institutionalise their relationship if they want it to survive the next crisis. Signing the Quirinal Treaty before the end of the year would be an important step towards a stronger, more resilient Franco-Italian partnership.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.