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Aspen Forum Italy - France

French-Italian bilateral dialogue
Rome, 18/10/2018 - 19/10/2018, International Conference

Kicking off proceedings at this International Conference was an acknowledgement that while France and Italy naturally have national priorities that sometimes diverge, they also have shared responsibilities and interests both at the European and the transatlantic level, ranging from making necessary strides on key aspects of eurozone reform to enhancing industrial cooperation, including on matters regarding defense and security. In examining the relationship of the two countries, it was felt that the impact of prevailing global conditions must also be taken fully into account. Indeed, the world is currently experiencing a sort of geopolitical shock that is confronting Europe with new inchoate global balances (with attendant risks for the very cohesion of the EU), and, simultaneously, an ongoing technological revolution with impacts on both society and politics. It was accordingly deemed essential to think in systemic terms, with Italian-French cooperation held up as a pivotal element for doing so.

While acknowledging that a number of the rigidities of European economic rules have been overcome in recent years, it was felt that the associated technical parameters clearly need to be applied intelligently, through continuous and constructive dialogue. It was urged that the various divisive pressures existing in Europe today call for close Italian-French cooperation, with the involvement of Germany, to relaunch the reforms needed to make EU structures more effective as well as more sensitive to the pressing demands of citizens.

Attention was drawn to the paradox of France having recently adopted firmly pro-Europeanist (and less sovereigntist) stances, precisely at a time when Italy is taking openly sovereigntist positions (on the basis of opinion polls showing a marked increase in the "Eurosceptic minority"). While, in both cases, the rhetoric has not always been accompanied by matching behavior, this empirical fact remains nevertheless significant.

This dichotomy and the prevailing polarization seems to be between those that may be termed "classic" pro-Europeanists (today on the defensive) and sovereigntists (whose attitudes are at times almost Jacobin). Yet both sides conceal various internal inconsistencies, denying part of the reality in opposing ways, with the former underestimating the serious limitations of shared governance, and the latter not offering any real alternative. It was hence deemed even more important to cultivate a pragmatic talking ground, with a view – according to some participants – to encouraging a sort of "reasonable populism" and, at the same time, jolting pro-Europeanists out of positions that are too fixed and far removed from the demands for change coming from citizens from varying walks of life.

The political context was acknowledged as undeniably difficult owing to the economic crisis, which though on paper essentially overcome, has left a long trail of political and social resentment that has been exploited by various political movements and is still influencing prevailing perceptions among citizens with regards to shared institutions.

Looking at the global picture, while it was conceded that the trend towards increasing trade tariffs began before the Trump administration, it was stressed that once the world's largest economy so decisively embarks on this road, the prospects for multilateral governance are significantly altered. Washington's attitude towards multilateral organizations was viewed as representing a real gear change, especially as concerns the approach to managing the continuous growth of China’s influence.

According to the majority of the participants, Europe’s main interest lies in presenting a united front on the various new trade agreements being negotiated and retaining strong influence in the major international organizations to curb the Chinese push.

Looking more specifically at Italy-France relations, bilateral cooperation in the financial and industrial matters was seen as potentially generating economies of scale and an ability to compete at a European and global level. Indeed, it was observed that certain market players have been set up that should be seen as simply European, and that, in this regard, national identity is less decisive than the scale needed to operate in major markets, although overcoming a strictly national perspective inevitably requires patient efforts. It was felt that Italy and France could play a decisively catalytic role in promoting coordinated action at the European level in respect of trade tensions. Picking up on an idea put forward by President Macron, a sovereign Europe signifies a bloc with coherent positions that is capable of competing on a global level and contributing to new forms of governance for the great international challenges to be faced. However, it was emphasized that this is obviously predicated on firm understandings being in place between the major countries, both at a government and business level.

Italy and France were characterized as linked together by a high level of well-established integration, redolent of opportunities and changes in the business world, but which is nevertheless based on structural ties and interests that are largely shared.

It was highlighted that the same also applies to several core technological sectors, such as security and defense, within which there is a direct correlation between growth in business size and the ability to meet collective European needs, the objective being that of achieving a genuine common defense policy.