La dolce Euro-vita

La dolce Euro-vita
Credit: Council

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La dolce Euro-vita

Italy has had a stellar 2021, landing victory after victory. From Eurovision triumph to footballing success, it has been a vintage year. Next week, the Italian government is set to cap it all off in style by cementing the country’s place at the top table of European politics.

Cast your minds back to this very day in 2017: EU ministers had to decide which city would host the bloc’s medicines agency after Brexit. London was no longer eligible, so Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Milan were vying to take over.

After a complex voting procedure that makes the Eurovision song contest look simple, Amsterdam and Milan ended up tied on points. The Dutch capital then triumphed in a coin toss, condemning Italy’s economic capital to an embarrassing defeat.

Fast forward a year: the national football team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in more than half a century and the government was a hodge-podge of populist and nationalist forces, led by a law professor nobody has ever heard of.

Disputes with Brussels were par for the course, infighting at home was rife and France even recalled its ambassador at one point. 

But look how things have changed in 2021.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


The list is too long to write out in full, but you can count the European football championships, the Eurovision song contest, track cycling golds, volleyball victory, the fastest man in the world and the heaviest pumpkin in Europe among Italy’s palmarès.

French gourmands are even eating more mozzarella than camembert for the very first time, in what might be the most incredulous success of the year so far.

Next week, Italy’s prime minister, former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, will ink a bilateral treaty with France, solidifying ties between the two countries. Details are still under wraps but even from a symbolic point of view, it is a significant turn of events.

France does not just throw around bilateral treaties willy-nilly, they are actually worth more than the paper they are written on and an agreement modelled on the infamous Élysée Treaty with Germany is nothing to be sniffed at.

That deal was hailed as a landmark of post-war relations, while the more recent Lancaster House treaties between France and the UK bolstered defence cooperation, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Italy has been in talks about signing its own accord with France for a number of years. When current EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni quit as prime minister in 2018, the effort went firmly on ice though.

Plenty of political talking heads have insisted over the years that the EU is a two-man show, that the Franco-German engine drives everything from policy to growth and that all the other member states are a rung below Paris and Berlin in the pecking order.

That is not entirely true of course, although any major decision needs the backing of either one (preferably both) of the ‘Big Two’ to stand a good chance of being adopted by the rest of the EU gang.

After the UK surrendered its claim to a place in a triumvirate with France and Germany thanks to the Brexit vote, keen Brussels-watchers have wondered which of Italy and Spain would be first to try and pick up the British mantle.

Italy appears to have won that race, thanks largely to the efforts of Mario Draghi, whose mere occupancy of the Chigi Palace in Rome has boosted his country’s standing immeasurably from the lows of Giuseppe Conte’s stewardship.

That is not to say that everything is now rosy. Some important reforms are still stalled and an ugly far-right attack on state institutions last month during protests against Covid measures shows Italy has plenty of problems left to address.

French friends

Emmanuel Macron probably is not particularly interested in those 'little details' though and is more thinking about the bigger geopolitical picture.

“Macron wants a stronger bond with Italy and Italy wants to insert itself in the traditional partnership between France and Germany," an Italian government source told Reuters this week.

Germany, after all, is still struggling to put together a coalition and it is still not clear how that alliance will work in practice or what its position on various important topics will be once given access to the levers of power.

When Dragi signs what has already been dubbed the ‘Quirinale Treaty’ - named after Italy’s presidential palace, located atop the eponymous hill in Rome - he will bind Italy into a relationship with one of Europe’s big hitters.

With Emmanuel Macron likely to serve another term as president and France holding the rotating presidency of the EU in the first six months of 2022, it is a good time to make friends in such a public way.

Draghi’s immediate future is less certain, as he is tipped to quit his current job for a run at succeeding President Sergio Mattarella early next year.

That is part of the reason why former cruise ship singer (and prime minister) Silvio Berlusconi is praising Draghi’s record as PM, as ‘il Cavaliere’ fancies a shot at Mattarella’s job himself. 

If Draghi’s mind is made up about wanting to be Italy’s next head of state, then the treaty signing might be his way of fixing the tiller of the ship in a certain direction before he surrenders the captaincy to another, as yet unknown captain.

Not that there is any guarantee that Super Mario would win the presidential election, such is the fickle nature of Italian politics in particular. One can only imagine the chaos if he were to resign the PM’s office, run and then lose to Silvio Berlusconi...

No nuclear option

The contents of the treaty are still unknown, as is its scope. Rumours abound that it will delve into topics like the economy, trade, culture and tourism. It may include references to more controversial topics too.

Macron is currently on somewhat of an atomic run, championing the benefits of nuclear power and lobbying heavily for the technology’s inclusion within the EU’s sustainable investment rulebook. His efforts appear to be paying off.

Italy is striking a neutral tone on nuclear potentially getting a green label, as it is in favour of gas getting the same treatment and does not want to polarise the debate too much. Germany, which firmly opposes nuclear but backs gas, has no such worries.

A return to atom-smashing is unlikely in the short term for Italy - a referendum in 2011 on building new reactors made it clear that Italians are not in favour of it - but neither is the government going to go out of its way to stop others from investing in it.

Whether the treaty includes any language on energy policy remains to be seen. It is more likely that it will champion collaboration on digital and defence issues, given the importance of those sectors to both countries.

Franco-Italian cooperation has already yielded the latest big success story of EU policymaking, the €800 billion Covid recovery fund, which was sparked by Paris and Rome agreeing on its initial architecture, even if Germany pushed it across the finish line.

Who knows what other mighty policies France and Italy might succeed in brokering in the coming years if relations stay on a positive trajectory?

The last question we need to ask is: if the Merkel-Macron tandem was referred to as ‘Merkron’, what will we call this new union? Dracron? Macghi?


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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