Written by Paolo Stohlman


Throughout the history of EU integration, Italy has often found itself in the broker’s position between the two main European giants, France and Germany. Though it has a smaller GDP per capita (Eurostat, 2022) and has consistently struggled with keeping a balanced budget (International Monetary Fund, 2020), Italy has been an important pillar in the EU family. From industrial production (US Dept. of Commerce) to technological innovation (Mori, 2019), the Italian market and government have continued to prove that it deserves a place at the decision-making table. For this reason, leaders in Berlin and Paris have battled over Italian support, seeking more influence both in Rome and at the EU negotiation tables in Brussels and Frankfurt. As of late, it seemed that France had a leg up. Italy’s internationally acclaimed and respected former PM, Mario Draghi, fostered strong working relationships with EU leaders across the board but seemed to pay special attention to French President, Emmanuel Macron. With the recent arrival of Giorgia Meloni in the EU political scene and ongoing tensions between the two leaders regarding migration, it remains to be seen whether this partnership will last.

Draghi and Macron: a political ‘bromance’

Mario Draghi was prime minister in Italy from February 13, 2021, till October 22, 2022, and was a typically Italian solution to one of the country’s cyclical political crises. Former Head of the European Central Bank, Draghi brought professionalism and competence to a country deeply in need of stability. Italy had been hard hit by the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent economic impacts. In a few months, Draghi and his ministers (a mix of political and technocratic figures) successfully issued Covid-19 vaccines to the vast majority of the population (Salute, 2022), implemented economic policies with strong growth projections (OECD, 2022), and completed a large part of the reforms the European Commission had established as conditions to access the Next Generation EU funds (Commission, 2021). Thanks to his sound governance, and excellent reputation in EU circles, Draghi was seen by many as a natural successor to outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the new de facto head of Europe (Coratella & Varvelli, 2021). For these reasons, Macron understood the importance of ensuring a strong alliance with the Italian technocrat. The French President focused a great deal of his EU policy on proposals on which he and Draghi shared the same views. From environmental policy to reform of EU fiscal rules, on which they published an op-ed together in the Financial Times, the strongly Pro-EU position that the two heads of government presented seemed to be an unstoppable force (Financial Times, 2021). Perhaps the event that most symbolised this newly invigorated friendship was the signing of the Quirinale Treaty, on November 26, 2021, which aimed to institutionalise the cooperation between Italy and France (Tratto del Quirinale, 2021). More recently, the war in Ukraine, and the following rise in energy prices and inflation, have caused tensions between EU leaders, especially concerning establishing a so-called “dynamic” price cap on energy prices. Mario Draghi was a fierce defendant of setting a price cap and had worked extensively with his French counterpart to lobby the EU Commission (The Guardian, 2022). At the European Council Summit held between the 20th and 21st of October, leaders agreed on implementing capped energy prices.

Giorgia Meloni: ally or foe?

On October 22, Giorgia Meloni, founder and head of the Brothers of Italy, the far-right Italian political party, was sworn in as prime minister. She is the first female prime minister in the history of the country and has promised to govern as a staunch conservative, both fiscally and socially (ISPI, 2022). Furthermore, Meloni is also the chairperson of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party, which currently has 3 heads of government and 1 Commissioner in its ranks. Suffice it to say that Meloni will not shy away from using her voice and influence to shake up the mainstream ideas and operations of the Brussels elite and those heads of government who tend to lead the conversation. Meloni has less of a rosy reputation among her European colleagues compared to Draghi. Her party’s roots are in the Italian Neo-Fascist movement, and before the latest Italian election campaign, she was unabashedly Eurosceptic (Bastasin, 2022). Meloni was the head of the only opposition party during the last government and heavily criticised the Draghi government on all its policies, including the Quirinale Treaty (Meloni, 2021). Animosity towards France has been a common theme in right-wing Italian politics (Toubeau, 2019), and Meloni was one of the strongest proponents of an aggressive stance against France. In 2019, she called out France for its migration policies, accusing Macron of being a hypocrite with a scolding hand towards Italy (Meloni, 2019). Anti-immigration sentiment has largely been the wave the far-right has ridden to reach the institutional palaces of Rome, and Meloni has consistently integrated these views into her nationalist policy proposals (Meloni, 2021). 

On October 23, 2022, Emmanuel Macron embarked on a two-day visit to the Italian capital, officially scheduled to visit the Italian NGO Comunità di Sant’Egidio, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Pope Francis. However, as it turned out, Meloni and Macron ended up having a quiet meeting, with little to no media warning and in an unofficial manner, in a private hotel in Rome (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2022). Though there was no official press conference, different government officials from both France and Italy spoke of a constructive meeting, in which both leaders expressed their desire to collaborate (Macron, 2022). Meloni’s office even went so far as to say that the leaders agreed on the need of establishing European solutions to major issues, while also protecting national interests (Governo IT, 2022).

Ocean Viking: an awful start to an already-rocky relationship

The atmosphere was cheery at Meloni’s first visit to Brussels alongside EU leaders (Governo IT, 2022). The trip’s success was somewhat of a surprise, both due to Meloni’s anti-EU campaign rhetoric and to President Von der Leyen’s admonishing comments prior to the Italian elections. In a speech at Princeton University, when confronted with the prospect of a new pro-Putin government in Italy, Von der Leyen quickly stated that the EU “has tools” for reigning in rogue behaviour (Reuters, 2022). Needless to say, this comment was not taken kindly by Italian right-wingers. However, it took less than two weeks for the relationship to take a U-turn for the worse. On Friday, November 11, French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, accused the Italian government of acting contrary to international law by refusing to dock the Ocean Viking ship, which was carrying 234 passengers aboard (Darmanin, 2022). Ocean Viking, a migrant-carrying NGO ship sailing under the Norwegian flag, was meant to dock in Italy. The new Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Piantendosi, however, had adopted a strict anti-migrant policy in line with that of his party’s leader, Lega’s Matteo Salvini. In fact, Piantendosi was so adamant about reinstating this hardline position, that he issued the order blocking the Ocean Viking on his first day as minister (Interno, 2022). Italy ended up accepting 57 migrants, all children and/or severely ill and left the remaining migrants on board. As a consequence, the French government felt that it was left without any option but to dock the Ocean Viking, following the ship’s request. The Elysée did, however, make its position crystal clear – with French officials from various ministries and President Macron’s office making critical statements about Meloni’s government’s actions. Yet, the debate did not stop there. In response to the Italian government’s attempt at justifying itself (Interno, 2022), Minister Darmanin announced that the French government no longer intended to welcome 3,500 migrants from Italy through a redistribution deal (BBC, 2022). To make matters worse, Meloni’s action got a great deal of attention in France, including that from President Macron’s main political rival at the moment, Marine Le Pen, who expressed her support for the Italian government in an interview (Corriere della Sera, 2022). For over four days, tensions were extremely high between the two governments. The matter garnered attention in Brussels as well, with the European Commission feeling the need to make a statement regarding the Ocean Viking and the importance of following international standards on migration (Commission, 2022). In a rare intervention, Italian head of State Sergio Mattarella, managed to stabilise relations between Rome and Paris by speaking with President Macron.


Overall, since her victory, Meloni has actively sought to soften her tone and moderate her views. Both on social and economic policy, she has made numerous remarks intended to calm the financial markets and policy-makers in Brussels. Some analysts have noted how Meloni’s hands are tied by Italy’s pressing need for Next Generation EU funds and the Commission’s conditions, in addition to Meloni’s attempts to broaden her voter base (Varvelli, 2022). Yet, Sandro Gozi, an Italian MEP elected from France and a member of Macron’s party, laid out what seems to be Meloni’s strategy, stating she “pretends to cooperate with Europe” while continuing to support extremist right propaganda in Italy (France 24, 2022). What all of this means for the future of the Franco-Italian relationship, and its sway on EU politics, is yet to be determined, but the risk of an isolated Italy certainly remains a possible future scenario.


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