(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two weeks before a crucial meeting of EU leaders, member countries are at loggerheads again over immigration. A diplomatic spat between France and Italy’s new populist government shows how difficult it will be for the European Council to strike a meaningful deal at the end of June on topics such as relocating refugees or deepening the monetary union.
The problem is tone as much as substance. So long as politicians keep playing to their domestic galleries, the compromises Europe needs to thrive will remain elusive.
The transalpine rift started when Italy turned away a boat full of migrants, the Aquarius, after Malta had just done the same. Spain eventually said it would welcome the vessel (the boat has currently been re-routed toward the waters around Sardinia because of adverse sea conditions.) But the Italian decision prompted furious reactions across the EU. In particular, French president Emmanuel Macron said it was “cynical and irresponsible.” Rome responded angrily in turn. Its foreign ministry summoned a senior French diplomat for a dressing down. Giovanni Tria, Italy’s finance minister, cancelled a visit to Paris.
There’s little doubt that Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new home affairs minister and leader of the anti-immigration League, used the 629 migrants stranded at sea to score cheap political points. But the intervention by Paris was clumsy – and hypocritical. France has repeatedly turned back migrants who want to cross the Italian border, hiding behind an EU rule that says asylum seekers should be processed in the state where they first enter the bloc.
Italy has punched well above its weight in rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean, receiving precious little help from the rest of the EU. However irresponsible Salvini's behaviour – and troubling the signal about the populist government’s attitude toward migrants – Macron could have let this one pass.
His comments were diplomatically inept too. Rome’s new rulers thrive on attacks from abroad, which Salvini and his ilk depict as insults to Italy’s sovereignty. The best course of action, as shown in a recent interview with Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, is to steer clear of public criticism and simply recall that all countries have obligations to meet. The irony here is that neither Rome nor Paris ended up offering to rescue the migrants stranded at sea. It was Madrid. Macron missed a good opportunity to shut up.
None of this is to exonerate Italy. The continuous lashing out at other countries could take a toll diplomatically. Since the formation of the government, Rome has indulged in angry spats with Tunisia, Malta and France over refugees, and relentlessly criticized Germany about the economy. Tria has been a welcome exception. The attacks may play well at home, but might be counter-productive in the long run.
A lot depends, of course, on what the populists actually want to achieve during their time in power. Maybe the Five Star Movement and League would like to provoke their European partners to such an extent that Italy is pushed out of the EU and the euro zone – creating an “Ital-exit” by the back door. But if that’s not what they have in mind, they need allies rather than sparring partners.
It’s reasonable to want to change the so-called Dublin regulation to achieve a fairer distribution of asylum seekers, but this needs the backing of other countries. On the economy, Italy requires support to bring about more financial risk-sharing across the euro zone, including a joint guarantee on bank deposits and, eventually, a euro zone Treasury. With Germany very skeptical of these plans, Italy’s best hope is Macron and his dreams of closer monetary union.
Unfortunately, the transalpine rift confirms a sad truth about the EU. While countries need each other to find answers to the problems affecting their voters, with immigration among the thorniest trans-national issues, politicians will always pander to their domestic audience. That’s how they win and lose elections.
Yet Britain’s constant sniping at the EU has already helped push that country toward its vote to leave. Without some careful leadership on both sides, this could happen again.
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