Giorgia Meloni balks at Italy’s ‘junior’ seat at the European table

When Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived with his French and German counterparts at the last minute for a late-night dinner at the Élysée Palace last week, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was beside himself with anger.

Just eight months earlier, Meloni’s predecessor Mario Draghi had shared a train to Kiev with Frenchman Emmanuel Macron and German Olaf Scholz, a trio demonstrating European solidarity with Ukraine.

But at last week’s Paris soirée, Italy’s new leader was absent and seemingly expendable. Meloni couldn’t hide her irritation.

Arriving at the EU Council meeting with Zelenskyy the next morning, she called the dinner “inappropriate”, a threat to EU unity in Ukraine and driven by Macron’s desire to distract from his own domestic problems.

The episode was more than a spit on diplomatic protocol. Meloni’s “non-invitation” reflects her difficulties in establishing a solid working relationship with France and keeping Italy at the forefront of EU policy-making, as it had been under Draghi’s brief tenure.

The problems affect the entire government. Italian Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said he was neither briefed nor invited to join his French and German counterparts on a recent trip to Washington to raise concerns about US environmental subsidies.

“To be the third pillar of the Franco-German engine for the EU, it is not enough to show that you play by the rules,” said Nicoletta Pirozzi, EU policy and governance expert at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “You also have to be a proactive member of the EU and show some political initiative. That has been lacking so far.”

Meloni, known for her fiery anti-Brussels rants during her years as a far-right rabble-rouser, has since taken power tried to reassure the EU establishment that she is not the disruptor many feared.

It has maintained its fiscal prudence, softened its EU-bashing and maintained its pledges to Ukraine despite coalition partners who still harbor pro-Russian sympathies. Italy and France jointly agreed this month to send Kiev a state-of-the-art SAMP-T air defense system in the spring.

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

But Meloni got off to a rocky start with neighboring France. During her years in opposition, Paris rivaled Brussels as her punching bag of choice. Despite this, Macron made a point of visiting Meloni on the weekend of her swearing-in ceremony to take time off from a planned trip to the Vatican.

Any timid goodwill generated by this encounter quickly evaporated. The two leaders exchanged barbs when Italy refused to allow a charity-run migrant rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, to dock, prompting it to ferry its 300 rescued migrants to France.

Almost three months later, the damaged relationship with Macron is still unresolved. Meloni has yet to pay an official visit to Paris.

“For me, the inability to reconcile with France after Ocean Viking was Meloni’s biggest sore point in her foreign policy,” Stefanini said. “Relationships with Italy and France are now chaotic.”

Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist Italian party Azione, said Meloni’s public expression of anger at Macron’s dinner party was not helping. “She’s a rookie and it was a rookie mistake,” he said. The two leaders, he added, would have to “start from scratch.”

But Fabrizio Tassinari, a political scientist at the European University Institute, said Meloni may not be motivated to fix fences. The “drainy dispute” with Paris can help appease their right-wing political base.

“This type of confrontational behavior fits very well with certain constituencies in Italy,” he said.

Such an approach carries risks. Disputes with France could backfire and tarnish Meloni’s image at home, where concern for Italy’s international standing is something of a national obsession.

“The ‘non-invitation’ is something that really creates fear in Italy,” said Stefanini. “It really gives all their domestic critics ammunition when they say, ‘You know, Italy was at the top internationally with Draghi and now we’ve got promoted to the junior league’.” Giorgia Meloni balks at Italy’s ‘junior’ seat at the European table

Adam Bradshaw

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