Emmanuel Macron's victory in the presidential election in France was welcomed in Italy as an opportunity to find a strong ally to reform the eurozone according to the interests of Mediterranean Europe. A strong Franco-Italian axis, the government in Rome hoped, would be a formidable force to pressure Germany and its northern European partners to soften the European Union's position on debt and deficit, increase public spending on the Continent, and introduce risk-sharing measures for the financial sector. But though the two countries certainly share a number of common interests, for Italy, Macron's first weeks in office have been a disappointment.
The first sign of trouble was the French government's decision to largely ignore Italy's request for help with dealing with migrants reaching Italy through the Mediterranean, most of who depart from Libya. A few weeks ago, Paris — along with Madrid — rejected Rome's suggestion that a portion of migrants' ships reaching Italian shores could be redirected to France or Spain.
Then France organized a meeting between the two factions that compete for control of Libya, prompting accusations from the Italian government, which considers the war-torn country to be within its sphere of influence, that Paris had gone behind Rome's back. Italy responded by announcing its own plans to send ships to Libyan territorial waters to help the Libyan coast guard fight illegal migration.
Most recently, Paris decided to nationalize a French shipyard that was about to be taken over by an Italian state-owned company, prompting the latest in a series of rows.
The central concern of the Italians is that the new French administration will prioritize its relationship with Germany over its ties with Italy. Such anxieties are particularly acute when it comes to EU reform, with Italy worrying that France may cut deals with Germany that will privilege the protection of the Franco-German relationship over the interests of Southern Europe. Italy's fears are compounded by concerns that its current weaknesses will further reduce its influence in discussions about the future of the bloc, scheduled to begin after German general elections in September.
But after weeks of diplomatic friction, France is now trying to de-escalate tensions. On Aug. 1, during a visit to Rome, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire offered the Italian government a compromise deal on the shipyard. Le Maire also said, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, that France regarded Italy as an important partner in the process of reforming the eurozone. Macron then invited Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to a summit in France in late September to discuss the countries' bilateral agenda and plans for the future of the common currency.
Such olive branches may go some way to reassuring Rome, but are unlikely to comfort a country whose political and economic future is in part tied to the direction that France chooses to face. As for France, its situation is complicated. As both a Mediterranean and a Northern European country, it often has to find a balance between its northern and southern links.
Paris and Rome are still on the same page on various issues, especially when it comes to eurozone reform. But the Italian government's early experiences with the Macron administration suggest that champions of the would-be southern axis may have opened the Champagne too early.