Italy is not hiding its anger with France.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni lashed out at France on Thursday at an EU leaders summit in Brussels, blasting her French counterparts for not bringing her into a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Paris Wednesday night.
Even more notable, her disparaging remarks were effectively unprompted, coming in response to a question about a different subject: whether it was “inappropriate” to have France and Germany represent Europe during a recent U.S. visit to discuss Washington’s subsidy spree.
“Frankly, I felt that the invitation to Zelenskyy yesterday was more inappropriate,” she retorted.
“I think our strength in this matter is community and unity, and I understand domestic political issues,” she added. “But there are times when privileging domestic public opinion comes at the expense of the cause, and this seems to me to have been one of those cases.”
The sharp rebuke illustrated how fractious the relationship between Italy and France has become since the far-right Meloni came to office last year. The two countries initially quarreled when Italy redirected a rescue ship carrying 230 migrants to France, refusing to let it dock.
At the time, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin warned of “extremely severe consequences” for relations between the two countries and said Paris would suspend plans to take in asylum-seekers from Italy.
Those tensions have clearly not abated, which is becoming a problem for the EU, especially on migration.
France is seen as a bridge between the EU’s southern countries, which want to send more arriving migrants elsewhere in the EU, and the bloc’s northern contingent, which is more focused on enforcing existing asylum rules, which require people to apply for asylum where they first arrive in Europe.
Diplomats in Brussels had hoped to have the row between Italy and France stitched up in time for the major migration discussion during this week’s EU leaders’ summit.
But in a sign that relations are still frozen, there was no bilateral meeting between Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron on the agenda, diplomats pointed out. Brussels-based Italian journalists were also not told in advance that the Italian prime minister would make a statement ahead of the summit, let alone use that statement to chastise France.
But indeed, she did, risking a further deterioration of Franco-Italian relations.
After the two countries sparred in November, even some EU officials were ready to recognize that Paris overreacted, but this time, Meloni may take the blame. Some diplomats stressed after Thursday’s remarks that she appeared too eager for attention, suggesting Paris wasn’t seeking to snub anyone with its Zelenskyy invite.
Macron, speaking to journalists later, refused to reply directly to Meloni. But he did argue that France and Germany “have a special role since eight years on this issue,” given the two countries helped broker a now-futile peace deal following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
He added: “I think it is up to President Zelensky, as well, to appreciate the formats he chooses.”
And even if Meloni wouldn’t be drawn in on the Franco-German trip to Washington, her ministers had no such hesitation. Italian Treasury Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti on Thursday was quoted in Italian and international media criticizing the effort.
“It is an initiative of two countries, not a European initiative,” he was quoted as saying. “We have not been informed, and this does not offend 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 would be on trial.”
In an effort to defuse tensions on Thursday, an official at the French economy minister said the two sides had agreed to a meeting in Rome in March to discuss economic issues and try to accelerate joint work on the issue.
Giorgio Leali contributed reporting