Italy does not hide its anger towards France.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni criticized France at a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday, blasting her French counterparts for not bringing her to a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris on Wednesday night.
More notably, his disparaging comments were effectively off-the-cuff, coming in response to a question about a different issue: whether it was “inappropriate” for France and Germany to represent Europe during Washington’s recent visit to the US to discuss subsidies.
“Frankly, I felt that Zelensky’s invitation yesterday was more inappropriate,” he responded.
“I think our strength in this regard is community and unity, and I understand the internal political issues,” he added. “But there are times when privileged domestic public opinion comes at the cost of reason, and this seems to me to be one of those cases.”
The sharp rebuke shows how fragile relations between Italy and France have become since the right-wing Meloni took office last year. The two countries initially clashed when Italy redirected a rescue ship carrying 230 migrants to France, refusing to dock it.
At the time, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin warned of “extremely serious consequences” for relations between the two countries and said Paris would suspend plans to take asylum seekers from Italy.
That tension has clearly not subsided, which is becoming a problem for the EU, especially over immigration.
France is seen as a bridge between the EU’s southern countries, which want to divert more incoming migrants to the EU, and the bloc’s northern contingent, which is more focused on enforcing existing asylum rules, which require people to first apply for asylum when they arrive in Europe.
Diplomats in Brussels had hoped the row between Italy and France would be ironed out in time for key migration talks at this week’s summit of EU leaders.
But in a sign that relations are still frozen, no bilateral meeting between Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron is on the agenda, diplomats noted. Brussels-based Italian journalists were not even told in advance that the Italian prime minister would make a statement before the summit, let alone use that statement to chastise France.
But indeed, he did, at the risk of further deterioration of Franco-Italian relations.
After the two countries sparred in November, even some EU officials were prepared to admit that Paris had overreacted, but this time, Meloni could take the blame. Some diplomats insisted after Thursday’s comments that he was too eager for the attention, suggesting Paris was not seeking to deprive anyone of its Zelensky invitation.
Macron, speaking to reporters later, declined to answer Meloni directly. But he argued that France and Germany “have had a special role on this issue for eight years,” as the two countries helped broker a now-defunct peace deal after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
He added: “I think it’s up to President Zelensky to appreciate the formats he chooses.”
And even if Melonie was not attracted to the Franco-German visit to Washington, his ministers had no such qualms. Italian Treasury Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti was quoted in Italian and international media criticizing the effort on Thursday.
“This is a two-country initiative, not a European initiative,” he said. “We were not informed, and it does not bother us. It surprises us.”
If Italy had done the same, he added, “this government would have been accused of being sovereign and anti-European. … We will be on trial.
In an effort to defuse tensions on Thursday, an official from the French economy ministry said the two sides had agreed to a meeting in Rome in March to discuss economic issues and try to speed up joint work on the issue.
Giorgio Leali contributed reporting