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Italy and France one year after the Quirinal Treaty. The challenges of sovereignty and of geopolitics

  • Rome
  • 2 February 2023
  • 3 February 2023

        Opportunities for increased collaboration between Italy and France, reinforced by the Quirinal Treaty and the protocols signed in Parliament, will have to be developed in the settings of the EU and the two nations’ common neighborhood policies vis à vis the southeast.

        The European economic governance system needs changing with a view to making Europe a, to use the French term, “puissance”, i.e. an aggregate player capable of making global scale industrial and commercial choices.

        The reaction to the pandemic offered an example of the soundness of the cooperative approach that produced the Next Generation EU (NGEU) solidarity fund, thanks not least to French-Italian cooperation. That approach has been reproposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although it has only been partially adopted in the management of the gas market.

        It is precisely the energy sector that, along with budgetary policy, will be a crucial test of efforts to avoid EU choices becoming the result of increasing and not waning differences between member countries. In any case, European economic governance is in need of reform in order to allow states to sustain their respective industries.

        The current challenge is a reminder of what led to the birth of the EEC: the need to restore geopolitical importance to Europe in response to the conditioning and dangers that the Russian Federation poses today. Re-evoking the European Defense Community, another 1950s project   rejected at the time by France, Italy and France could contribute to the development of an improved European security system, not least in the form of a joint military industry.

        The European Union’s added value lies in its being able to offer greater support to industry and commerce than could be provided by individual countries. Yet, the world economy has set new rules that no longer tend toward liberalization as a goal in and of itself, and Europe must participate as a protagonist rather than a subordinate. For example, Europe cannot tolerate the unfair competition of third countries’ de-taxed and government subsidized industrial products; if others apply tariffs, Europe must in turn support its own industrial system.

        The EU offers a great deal of room for infrastructure investments, for instance in efforts to shift away from fossil fuels and toward supply diversification. Paramount are new cross-border intra-European energy linkage infrastructures that would more efficiently distribute the energy produced in Europe. Equally decisive will be efforts to transfer the entire research and production chain back to European soil so as not to have to depend on China or other problematic players.

        Thus, strategic sectors that deserve the public support of the European political community need to be identified. Many experts maintain that, precisely as a result of their importance, these sectors should be subsidized above and beyond the rules of debt containment; indeed, the NGEU model is one that pinpoints certain areas toward which to channel investments.

        In the absence of a common budgetary policy it is going to be impossible to intervene in a way similar to the American Inflation Reduction Act since the task would fall to individual states with very different spending capacities – with the most indebted states effectively under the watchful and restrictive eye of the Commission. Nevertheless, the Commission’s constraints can also be virtuous, as in the case of the NGEU, but more has to be done; a possible example would be a mechanism aimed at helping European companies invest in the rest of the world.

        Given that sovereignty is better exercised at European rather than national level, that the euro has ensured stability on the continent over recent years and that the ECB guarantees the interests of all EU members in a balanced way, some participants pointed out that governments themselves are holding off on essential economic policy instruments. The state must instead remain a stakeholder in strategic enterprises (energy, transport, technology) in order to guide specific industrial growth plans.

        A correct articulation of the concept of sovereignty must also incorporate the notions of legitimacy and law. The exercise of power is not enough; it is necessary to resolve the problem of the institutional form and the democratic coherence of the European Union that combines transparency and responsibility; this not least in order to respond to citizens’ growing mistrust of the political sphere. If protest movements rail against the non-governability of the global world, it is necessary then to reexamine the global, European and local equilibrium from the standpoint of a better idea of “protection” and a new consideration of human needs.

        There is a delicate relationship between European sovereignty/autonomy and classic national sovereignty. A possible answer could be to leave room for the latter as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the general interests of European sovereignty. It is in this sense that bilateral agreements should be viewed, including closer Italy-France collaboration.

        The intersection of general and national interests is clear in the energy sector, where a large, highly attractive market such as Europe has still not been able to get better prices from suppliers and, in any case, has an energy mix that fails to truly unite industrial policies with projects. These contradictions damage not only businesses’ energy security and competitiveness but environmental sustainability as well – which furthermore calls for expanding an investment program that is still not ready for the technological leap that will make carbon neutrality possible. As long as national policies prevail, the energy sector will remain less efficient than it could be. Moreover, according to some participants, energy independence (probably unrealistic in any case) is not obligatory; what is important is to have effective and efficient energy companies.

        In more general terms, Europe has got to get used to having “enemies at the border” rather than merely more or less potential partners, which in turn renders a common geopolitical vision and strong unified action all the more urgent. In addition to EU integration, the European Political Community project is important: it can help rally the European neighborhood around shared values and objectives, and even mend relations with Russia in the future.

        From an Italo-French perspective, this effort must naturally begin with the Mediterranean region, certainly not to the exclusion of a global vision but in response to a direct overlapping of priority interests. That applies to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean (including the strained relationship with Turkey), as well as to matters of migration.