Giorgia Meloni bristles over Italy’s ‘junior’ seat at European table


When Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy dropped into the Élysée Palace for a last-minute, late-night supper with his French and German counterparts last week, Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni was fuming.

Just eight months earlier, Meloni’s predecessor Mario Draghi had shared a train compartment to Kyiv with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, a trio showcasing European solidarity with Ukraine.

But at the Paris soirée last week, Italy’s new leader was absent, and seemingly dispensable. Meloni could not conceal her irritation.

Arriving at the EU council meeting with Zelenskyy the next morning, she called the dinner “inappropriate”, a threat to EU unity on Ukraine, and driven by Macron’s desire to deflect from his own domestic political woes.

The episode was more than a spat over diplomatic protocol. Meloni’s “non-invitation” reflects her difficulties in building a solid working relationship with France, and keeping Italy at the forefront of EU policymaking, as it had been under Draghi’s brief leadership.

The problems are affecting the whole government. Italian finance minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said he was not informed about or invited to join his French and German counterparts on a recent trip to Washington to raise concerns about US green subsidies.

“To be the third leg of the Franco-German engine for the EU, it is not enough to show that you will abide by the rules,” said Nicoletta Pirozzi, an EU politics and governance expert at Rome’s Institute of International Affairs. “You also need to be a proactive member of the EU and show some political initiative. So far, this has been lacking.”

Known for her fiery anti-Brussels rants during her years as a hard-right rabble rouser, Meloni has since taking power sought to reassure the EU establishment she is not the disrupter who many feared.

She has maintained fiscal prudence, toned down her EU bashing, and upheld commitments to Ukraine, despite coalition partners who still nurse pro-Russia sympathies. Italy and France jointly agreed this month to send Kyiv a state of the art SAMP-T air defence system in the spring.

“In the relationship with the EU, she has done pretty well,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to Nato. “She has made it clear that she is not going to play the anti-EU card, and though she will be tough on certain issues, she has convinced Brussels that she will not rock the boat.”

But Meloni has got off to a rocky start with neighbouring France. During her years in opposition, Paris rivalled Brussels as her favoured punch bag. Despite that, Macron made a point of visiting Meloni on the weekend of her swearing-in, taking time from a planned trip to the Vatican.

Any tentative good will generated by that encounter quickly evaporated. The two leaders exchanged barbs when Italy refused docking permission to a charity-operated migrant rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, prompting it to take its 300 rescued migrants to France.

Nearly three months on, the damaged relationship with Macron is still not repaired. Meloni has yet to make an official visit to Paris.

“To me, the incapacity of patching up with France after the Ocean Viking has been Meloni’s major sore point in her foreign policy,” said Stefanini. “The relationship with Italy and France is now messy.”

Carlo Calenda, leader of Italy’s centrist Azione party, said Meloni’s public expression of ire at Macron’s dinner party would not help. “She is a beginner and it was a beginner’s mistake,” he said. The two leaders, he added, needed to “to start from scratch”.

Yet Fabrizio Tassinari, a political scientist at the European University Institute, said Meloni may not be motivated to mend fences. The “low- tension quarrelling” with Paris can help placate her rightwing political base.

“This kind of confrontation behaviour plays very well with certain constituencies in Italy,” he said.

There are risks to such an approach. Squabbling with France could backfire, weakening Meloni’s image at home, where concerns about Italy’s international standing are something of a national obsession.

“The ‘non-invitation’ is something that really creates angst in Italy,” Stefanini said. “It really gives ammunition to all her domestic critics to say, ‘you see, Italy was internationally on top with Draghi and now we’ve gone to the junior league’.”


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