Crossborder populism causing EU more grief than the UK

Emmanuel Macron, as we know, expects to be the unofficial leader of Europe once Angela Merkel retires as Chancellor of Germany.

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That may or may not happen – Germany will still be Europe’s paymaster, and whoever succeeds Mrs Merkel will presume he or she is still first among equals.

However, M Macron should be careful what he wishes for; because it is not Britain, due to leave the EU at the end of this month, that is most undermining the European project, but the country that is causing France more grief than any other: Italy.

Last month the French government expressed outrage that Luigi di Maio, one of Italy’s two deputy prime ministers, came unannounced to France and met representatives of the gilets jaunes. Signor di Maio attacked M Macron’s “ultra-liberal” policies for endangering French national security and reducing French purchasing power.

It is hard to see how he arrives at the second conclusion, but France unwittingly harbouring Islamic extremists is a matter of record, and something about which the Macron regime, like its predecessor, is touchy.

France has also attacked Italy for its hard line on ships bringing illegal economic migrants across the Mediterranean, to which the Italian government has responded by accusing France of hypocrisy – because France has shown little willingness to share Italy’s burden in that regard. Such was the level of upset that France temporarily recalled its ambassador, the first time such a thing had happened since the Second World War.

What presumably most worried the French president was how the meeting showed that populism – the nationalist aspect of which M Macron has tactfully equated to a form of leprosy – is easily becoming a cross-border ideology. And, indeed, by being cross border – the Five Star movement has links with populist movements in other European countries too – it makes a mockery of M Macron’s “nationalist” insult.

Ambitious as he is not just to stay in power in France, but to stay in power long enough to assert his influence over the whole of the EU, the co-operation between Italian and French will rattle him.

That the same issues on which the gilets jaunes have made their stand – not just the cost of living, but a distrust of predominantly technocratic and out-of-touch elites - have already managed to get a government elected in a neighbouring country is ringing alarm bells.

M Macron has had almost five months now of relentless hostility from extra-parliamentary forces that have put him on the defensive. The last thing he wants is for his enemies to learn lessons of organization and communication that could put them in power in Paris as well as in Rome.

That is no idle prospect. Danilo Toninelli, Italy’s transport minister, extended the hand of fraternal co-operation to the gilets jaunes, inviting them to use the Five Star movement’s internet portal as a means of building and consolidating their citizen’s movement. He also offered technical advice by way of what he called “in service of the French people”. The tactic of appealing direct to the public and marginalizing the existing political elite is central to the development of populism, and in effect defines it.

The Five Star movement, which has a half-share in the Italian government, come from roots similar to the gilets jaunes: the only difference is that the Italians had leadership and a programme to set out before the Italian electorate. Luckily for M Macron, the gilets jaunes have nothing of the sort. But the anger in Paris that Signor di Maio met the protestors shows how under his skin the Italians have got.

The fact is that, to a neighbour such as M Macron, the problems in the Italian economy are a far worse provocation even than the meeting between the Italian government and his domestic political opponents.

Italy is in recession, and with around €85bn of trade between it and France each year, the consequences for French business unless Italy turns an economic corner could be dire. But Italy turning an economic corner will be easier said than done. It has the largest government debt in the EU at nearly €2.2 trillion; which equates to the fourth-largest per capita debt in the world. At 132 per cent of annual GDP, only Greece has a higher debt ratio in the EU.

Leaving Brexit aside, Italy is doing more than any other EU country to disrupt the stability of the Union. It has refused to abide by the budgetary guidelines set down by Brussels, and invited the European Commission to do its worst.

Once Brexit is over, that particular stand-off will become the EU’s big-gest headache; and if M Macron wishes to demonstrate his leadership qualities, he will start now by attempting to reconcile his Italian neighbours with the people who make the rules in Brussels. That, however, is difficult to do if you are not on speaking terms.

Such terms were, to an extent, quickly renewed. Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, spoke to M Macron in a cordial telephone call a few days after the ambassador was recalled. However he (unlike the French president) is merely a figurehead: the politicians under him, who have the power, have not improved their view of M Macron, whom they view as inflicting a form of destructive decadence on France that impinges on Italy. The tensions have far to run – even if the gilets jaunes give the impression of running out of steam.

M Macron is touchy, too, because the European elections are now just a couple of months away.

He and LREM may be spared humiliation in France because the gilets jaunes have no serious organisation. But if the elections show advances for other populist parties, M Macron knows it is only a matter of time before they lick his own troublemakers into shape, and give the French president something even more serious to worry about.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs