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Books The Critic Essay

Europe between the Seine and the Tiber

It is time for Paris and Rome to rethink sovereignty and their relationship with the EU

L’Europe et la Souveraineté. visions franco-italiennes 1897-2023, PLEIN JOUR, 24,00€

In Ever Closer Union, Perry Anderson highlights the poverty of contemporary European reflection on the EU. For the past few decades, it has been America that has shaped the Old Continent’s imagination. This has been recently on display during the discussion about the world’s increasingly pronounced shift toward neomercantilism. As Brussels tries to reconsider its geoeconomic paradigm, the phrase “Hamiltonian Moment” frequently appears.

According to Anderson, the most original contributions to reflections on European integration have come from American scholars. Haas, Moravcsik, Schmitter, and Eichengreen have been unrivalled on the continent. Anderson makes one exception for a Briton, Alan Milward. Today, however, the United States has turned its focus inward, and this moment of introspection is an opportunity for Europe to learn to think for itself. 

L’Europe et la Souveraineté: Approches franco-italiennes 1897-2023, is an interesting attempt to stimulate more independent thought on European affairs. It consists of important articles and speeches by Italian and French politicians about the European project.

When comparing Italian and French voices, one is struck by the greater diversity of views on the French side. Even les pères fondateurs, the founding fathers, had their doubts; Robert Schuman wrote that it would be highly dangerous to overlook the problems that integration brings. The Italian section of the collection expresses virtually no reservations about European integration, as if unwavering, idealistic faith in the Union or incurious conformism prevailed in the country.

Of course, this is not entirely true. One example will do: the 2018 crisis when President Sergio Mattarella opposed the appointment of Paolo Savona, an economics professor who advocated for Italy’s exit from the Eurozone, as finance minister. This disagreement triggered the collapse of the first Conte government.

As a reason for not giving voice to any Italian doubts about the European project, one must point to the fusion of Italian technocracy with Brussels technocracy. The elite consensus does not tolerate any deviation here, and contrarian perspectives on European matters are excluded from the mainstream debate even more than in France.

For several decades, Italian politics has resembled a vicious circle: public disillusionment with the political class elevates populists to power, who in turn disappoint and pave the way for technocrats who are supposed to fix the country. They impose unpopular structural reforms and budget cuts that stir up discontent, causing them to lose support. The populists return, and the cycle repeats. We witnessed this most recently during the pandemic, when Conte’s second government was replaced by the technocratic government of Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi has clearly articulated his views in the past: economic policy must be independent of electoral results and should fly on autopilot. He was succeeded by Giorgia Meloni, a populist bogeyman.

The economic policy dogmas championed by Draghi have played a special role in recent Italian history. The euro provided a vincolo esterno, an external constraint that would transform the country. The reforms forced by integration were seen as an opportunity to overcome Italy’s “backwardness” and usher in a modernisation that society had resisted. As Guido Carli, Treasury Minister in the 1990s and also Draghi’s mentor, explained in his memoirs, “the European Union represented an alternative path for the solution of problems that we were not managing to handle through the normal channels of government and parliament.” In reality, as Tomas Fazi claims, this meant a mutilation of sovereignty in the name of the economic ideology espoused by Italian technocrats. They succeeded in entrenching their economic agenda beyond the reach of democracy while also accumulating considerable political capital. It’s worth noting, however, that during the Maastricht negotiations, the Italian side played a supporting role, while Berlin and Paris took the lead.

In this sense, Macron is more similar to Italian technocrats than to de Gaulle. In his famous Sorbonne speech, he argued that “Brussels means us,” and that the only viable sovereignty in Europe is that of the EU. The Italianisation of French politics is also evident in Macron’s belief that the French are a people resistant to reform — he called them “Gauls resistant to change” — and that transformation must be imposed upon them despite their will. 

Although the press likes to draw comparisons between Macron and de Gaulle, claiming that the general is a source of inspiration for the current president, his guiding star on the question of the nation and sovereignty is rather Jean Monnet. While the general vetoed a European army, Macron constantly advocates for integration on the basis of common defense. While the France libre leader pursued an “empty chair” policy which relied on the principle of unanimity voting at the Council of the EU, and defended France’s sovereign decisions, the current president supports the principle of majority voting. While de Gaulle saw the franc as the cornerstone of economic sovereignty, Macron proclaims his commitment to the “ambitions of the Eurozone”. De Gaulle was a proponent of European cooperation between nation-states, while Macron embraces Europe transcending this political form toward member states, which, as Christopher Bickerton argues, marks “a fundamental change in the structure of the state, with horizontal ties between national executives taking precedence over vertical ties between governments and their own societies.”

Macron’s European optimism seems akin to the views of Alcide de Gasperi, who, in a speech included in the book, regarded integration as an irreversible historical trend. While Brexit has challenged this teleology of integration, it has not diminished the enduring belief, expressed most vividly by Altiero Spinelli, that the EU serves as an inspiration for the political imagination of the world. Macron is equally firm in this conviction. He speaks of great European industrial projects, even though he himself cannot rebuild the nuclear sector at home; he preaches digital sovereignty, even though the AI Act may condemn European companies and consumers to lose out on this technology; in a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, he called the EU “the vanguard of ecological transformation,” but forgot to mention that it means total dependence on China’s clean tech value chains (which, in addition, rely on highly polluting industries). Now, leading up to the next European Parliamentary elections, Macron delivered his second speech at the Sorbonne under the slogan “Europe, a great power” (Europe puissance). But would Ukraine stand any chance in its confrontation with Russia without American support? The European power that the French president dreams of does not manifest itself in defense, economic power, or innovation.

The state of affairs is better described not as “strategic autonomy,” but rather by a different term: “providerism”: “the ability to ignore political-economic reality because everything is provided for you, and the underlying mechanics and costs are abstracted away”. Clean tech will be provided by the Chinese, security guarantees by the Americans, and AI by the Silicon Valley. So then, what is Europe if not an autonomous power? Michel Barnier, one of the former commissioners, was probably closest to the truth: Europe is nothing but a vast market, “the only reason why the American and Chinese leaders still respect us”.

It is telling that the most insightful article of the collection was written by a Gaullist who is over 90 years old

It is telling that the most insightful article of the collection was written by a Gaullist who is over 90 years old, former Prime Minister Édouard Balladur. His political stance toward the EU is the complete opposite of the Monnet line embodied by Macron. He considers the latter’s ideal of strategic autonomy incompatible with French independence in the military and diplomatic spheres, criticises Brussels for bureaucratic overreach and “authoritarian interventionism” and opposes the authority of judges, calling for the supremacy of the French constitution over European treaties and tribunals. According to Balladur, the EU has thus far been unable to formulate a credible response to contemporary challenges, and furthermore, it should not be relied upon to rescue France from its decline. That can only be achieved by France itself. 

What role does Giorgia Meloni play in all of this? Her party, Fratelli d’Italia, was the only one (while Salvini and Cinque Stelle were in favour) to oppose the appointment of the Draghi government. In hindsight, it is evident that this was nothing more than a tactical manoeuvre. What happened to Silvio Berlusconi has left an indelible mark on her. Keep in mind that Berlusconi’s government collapsed when Draghi, then the head of the European Central Bank, decided to halt the purchases of Italian bonds. This, as Fazi puts it, was a “monetary coup d’etat,” revealing the ECB as a full-fledged political player that will not hesitate to take action against those who deviate from its line.

This explains why Meloni was already trying to make it clear during the campaign that she would not stray from the course set by Draghi. Despite the mainstream media’s fears, Meloni has neither introduced draconian anti-immigration policies nor aligned the country with Russia. On the contrary, she has opened the door wide to legal immigration on a scale unknown in Italy for at least a decade, anticipating inviting more than 1.5 million immigrants. In the geopolitical arena, too, she is behaving like an exemplary Western liberal, not only supporting Ukraine, but also ending ambiguity toward Beijing — she pulled Italy out of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Her foreign policy stance, however, does not dilute into a vague notion of strategic autonomy. She has directed her ambitions toward Africa; this year, she announced the Mattei Plan, named after the head of the ENI energy company, which serves as an important link between Africa and Italy. Rome will finance 5 billion euros in loans and develop cooperation in the domains of migration, energy and economy. While Meloni is expanding her geopolitical aims in Africa, Macron is overseeing the decline of French influence on the continent.

However, Meloni’s greatest ambition — “the mother of all reforms,” as she put it – is to reshape Italy’s constitution and put an end to the country’s political instability (which has had 68 governments since World War II, lasting an average of one year each). The new political system would be based on a strong prime minister independent of parliamentary squabbles. Meloni’s project invites justified comparisons with de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, established as a remedy to hyperpartisanship.

Does Meloni, as some claim, represent a watershed moment, the beginning of post-populism? Or does she personify an Italian version of what others call technopopulism, new political synthesis drawing on both a technocratic grasp of issues and a populist style? Regardless of whether she proves to be a greater political innovator than Macron, both Paris and Rome need to rethink sovereignty and their relationship with the EU. The collection L’Europe et la Souveraineté makes a valuable contribution to addressing these issues, which can no longer be ignored.

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