A lack of coordinated strategies, commonly defined goals, and mutually beneficial agendas have been major flaws preventing the European Union (EU) members states from building long-term effectiveness for their external power projection. However, even though areas of friction have largely outnumbered fields of potential cooperation during the last few years, the fast-pacing transformations that are significantly reshaping the geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics of the world order have increased EU states’ willingness to reconfigure their national priorities and look for more integrated strategies. Moreover, the recently revamped commitment to embrace collective action showed by Paris and Rome, emblematically celebrated by the signature of their recent “Quirinal Treaty”, signals that there is still the political will to strengthen bilateral relations to better cope with traditional and emerging challenges affecting an international arena during the post-covid19 phase. The strengthened Franco-Italian alliance also has significant implications for the Mediterranean and Africa given the interests that both countries have in these regions.
Re-setting the clock in diplomatic dialogues between Paris and Rome
On November 26, 2021, French President Emanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister (PM) Mario Draghi convened in Rome in the presence of Sergio Mattarella, the President of the Italian Republic, to sign a historic agreement that is expected to inaugurate a new era in cooperation between the two countries.  The bilateral treaty, – better known as the Quirinal Treaty after the name of the institutional residence of the Italian Republic’s President – represents the latest of a long series of steps aimed at boosting ties between Rome and Paris. The “lent divorce”  (slow divorce), as Jérôme Gautheret dubbed it, which seemed to drive the Franco-Italian dialogue into a dead end a few years ago, has evidently been reversed.
The improvement in transalpine relations gained traction when the new Italian government under the leadership of PM Giuseppe Conte between the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement (M5S) was formed in Autumn 2019.  By distancing itself from the aggressive rhetoric towards Paris that characterized the former government collation, Contes second premiership quickly sought to publicly mend fences with France through the Naples Bilateral Summit, held in February 2020, that resumed work on the drafting of a bilateral treaty between France and Italy.  Since then, diplomatic reconciliation has continued to flourish and ultimately blossomed thanks to Draghi taking the Italian premiership in February 2021.
The Treaty, which has been gestating for almost five years, represents the fulfilment of a process dating back to Autumn 2017 when the first seeds of the Franco-Italian bilateral agreement were planted. This effort between the two Mediterranean Republics evolved into an institutional and official commitment in January 2018 when President Macron and the then-Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni entrusted a six-member ad hoc commission, dubbed “il gruppo dei saggi”  (group of the wise), to start the drafting process.
However, despite this diplomatic convergence, signs of friction between the two capitals remained in the early months of the Macron Presidency. The source of contention was the newly elected French President’s decision to halt the bid by Fincantieri, the Italian cruise and navy industry leader, to acquire the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, a leading naval French company based in Saint-Nazaire. By stressing the importance of defending a national strategic sector from foreign interferences, Macron’s veto of the Fincantieri bid provoked criticism from Rome and a wave of anti-French sentiment from Italian public opinion. 
In an environment dominated by growing skepticism towards national as well intergovernmental institutions and frustration for the country’s poor economic performance, it was no surprise that the political forces gaining more votes at the 2018 Italian general election were those parties, such as the M5S and the League, which rode the wave of popular discontent by providing their electoral supporters with anti-systemic, sovereigntist, and populist policies.  As a result, an atypical parliament majority that did not respect the traditional left-right division emerged between the M5S and the League formed the basis of Conte’s first government. Since its early days in office and eagerness to dissociate itself from the former executives, the so-called “Governo del Cambiamento”  (government of change) adopted a less-institutional approach and encouraged open rifts with France to fuel its populist narrative.
Aside from a war of words, the two countries rattled sabers over extremely divisive issues such as the management of migration and EU austerity policies.  However, the confrontation reached a tipping point when Luigi Di Maio, at that time holding the title of Council of Ministers’ Vice President and Minister of Economic Development, publicly met with Christophe Chalençon, a leader of the gilets jaunes (Yellow vests) movement.  By supporting the claims voiced by the anti-Macron mass protests flooding the main French cities since mid-November 2018, Di Maio seriously widened the fracture between France and Italy.  Following the contested meeting, tensions in the transalpine relation threatened a complete breakdown, with the Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry, ordering Rome’ Ambassadors, Christian Masset, to leave the country in protest at the Italian executive’s meddling in French domestic affairs.  This drastic measure was last seen in 1940 when Italy invaded the southern part of France during World War II.
In the wake of the worst crisis in the Franco-Italian relations since the war, the advent of more conciliatory parliamentary majorities and cooperation-oriented governments have allowed the Franco-Italian relations to be rebuilt. As a result, a positive dialogue has resumed between the two neighbors. In this context, the Quirinal Treaty turned the page on the most recent rifts, with President Macron and PM Draghi signaling that they are eager to build on the momentum to scale up the Paris-Rome axis.
The Quirinal Treaty, which is organized on ten thematic areas including foreign and European affairs, defense and security, cooperation in the digital, industrial, and economic sectors, and space, among others, has its roots in the “profound friendship”  bonding the two countries and the acknowledgement that they are one “community of destinies.” 14] As the burden of global challenges increases, France and Italy recognize that “urgent action”  within a multilateral framework is the only way forward.
For this reason, the Treaty calls for a deeper level of cooperation between Paris and Rome at the domestic, regional, and international dimensions so that the two countries can “define a common position and act together on all the decisions that deal with common interests.”  In this regard, regularly scheduled meetings at Ministerial and local levels, exchanges between public functionaries and officials, and joint training projects are intended to improve synergy between the two states. Therefore, by mutually acquiring a deeper understanding of the rationale, structures, and processes of the decision-making apparatus of each state, misunderstanding and conflicts are minimized while opportunities for mutual convergence are maximized.
Despite its bilateral format, the Treaty has an inherent European vocation as proved by the recurrent references to the need to enhance the European strategic autonomy, especially in sectors of critical relevance such as digital and energy transition, defense, and new technologies. Therefore, the initiatives developed by the Franco-Italian axis are specifically tailored to function as a springboard for future enhanced cooperation within the EU framework. The fil rouge (red string) shaping and connecting France and Italy’s joint effort is the desire to achieve a “sovereign, untied, and democratic Europe”  capable of standing up to the global challenges.
It is possible to say that, in the longer term, the Treaty’s ultimate goal is to enable the two countries to consolidate their relations on the social, institutional and civil society levels. Consequently, by delinking the Treaty’s implementation from the political will of a specific political personality, its success becomes less subject to changes made by volatile governments and its spirit can permeate society and achieve long-lasting results.
Different models but converging goals: French and Italian foreign policies in comparison
France and Italy share a common cultural background. They were founding members of both the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, the two intergovernmental institutions that predated the formation of the EU, and they are also both part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, despite the significant degree of institutional cooperation showed by the two Republics in matters of high politics in the post-World War II era, it is crucial to stress that differences continue to loom large between Paris and Rome, especially when it comes to foreign policy goals and strategies.
The disastrous experience of World War II and the impact of the Fascist regime represented the lowest point of Italian history and left an indelible scar in its political culture. Considered by its neighbors as partly responsible for the conflict that tore apart the European continent, Rome devoted most of its diplomatic energies to erasing this burdensome legacy and rehabilitating its international reputation. Ultimately the Italian ambition proved successful because, as Nathalie Tocci explained, the country tightly linked its foreign policy to three new pillars: “Europe, the Mediterranean and the transatlantic partnership”  respectively. Moreover, even though Italy was perceived as a second-tier power with its policymakers burdened by an inferiority-complex mentality for decades, foreign policy continued to shape national security priorities. In this regard, it is crucial to note that the “Italian foreign policy, far from being a negligible nuisance in the work of the Italian political system, was a key element to its survival.”  Therefore, as some prominent Italian scholars pointed out, Italy’s foreign policy “can be viewed as a never-ending effort to find a role in the international arena while overcoming structural weaknesses.” 
Italian PM Draghi’s foreign policy compass is based on three poles: multilateralism, Europeanism, and Atlanticism. In his vision, Italy is historically anchored in the Atlanticist and European political tradition and must act accordingly. Therefore, it is no surprise that since he took office, Draghi’s policies have been aimed at solidly repositioning Italy’s status within the Western block.  While the Conte governments gave the green light to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative’s connection to Italy – the only country among the G7 to make that commitment –  while also making political overtures to Russia and China, especially when medical aid from Moscow and Beijing was flown to Rome during the critical period of the covid-19 pandemic,  the Draghi government leaves no room for any sort of tilt towards the East.
Draghi believes that the only way to consolidate Italy’s international role, is by positioning Italy’s geopolitical and geo-economic stance closer to those of its transatlantic and European allies. As a result, a specifically tailored foreign policy seeks to intertwine Italian national interest with the protection of Europe’s strategic sovereignty.  Draghi has put all its eggs in the EU basket because, as Mathilde Ciulla said, “he appears to recognize that a strategically autonomous EU could be a useful security partner of the United States and NATO.” 
Reflecting this shift, Huawei’s controversial 5G infrastructure – while not entirely banned from the Italian digital market – has been put under severe scrutiny and allowed to cooperate with Vodafone Italia only if a high-security threshold is met.  Besides, more than any other government before, the Draghi-led executive resorted three times to the so-called “golden powers” law –special legislation enabling Rome to prevent the acquisition by foreign firms of strategically important Italian industries – in order to block Chinese bids for domestic companies specialized in the critical sector of semiconductors. .
France, despite having gained a seat at the post-World War Two winners’ table, was not immune from the significant transformations that reshaped the global balance of power in favor of the US and the Soviet Union. However, despite its material power disparity vis-à-vis the Great Powers, Paris never accepted being categorized as a middle-size power or having its political identity defined by membership of a sole ideological camp. As perfectly described by Pascal Boniface: “France cannot be reduced solely to a Western country, […] France is allied but not necessarily aligned.”  This understanding of the world consistently informed French foreign policymaking and represented a top priority in the agenda of its Presidents, especially those of Charles De Gaulle and François Mitterrand. Despite their divergencies on the political level, the two Presidents belonged to the same school of thought concerning the orientation of French external projection; they considered that the country’s national interest was better served if France was able to safeguard its independence from any ideological block and adopt room for maneuver within the global arena.  These informal tenets ultimately condensed to form a fully-fledged foreign policy doctrine that has been called Gaullo-Mitterrandisme, which “was based on three irreducible values: sovereignty, independence, and strategic autonomy.” 
This vision was representative of a national role conception (NCR) that determines the country’s role in the international order based on French historical grandeur and the right to a seat of honor at the Great Powers table. Having a solid NRC is of critical importance for the French establishment because, as Dominique Moisi affirmed, “the less confident France is, the more difficult it is to deal with.” 
Undoubtedly, when Macron entered the Presidential office at the Elysée in 2017, he had “little experience or record in foreign policy.”  However, the lack of cursus honorum within the French public offices did not prevent France’s youngest President from developing an assertive approach to foreign policy through the so-called “Macron Doctrine” . According to Michel Duclos, a stronger Europe, effective multilateralism, France as a balancing power, France’s Africa policy, and the Indo-Pacific strategy are the elements that factored the most within Macron’s foreign policy agenda.  By resorting to a composite portfolio of narratives mixing elements of the Gaullo-Mitterrandisme tradition with more innovative features, President Macron has shaped a new position for France in the international system. On the one hand, he “believes, like de Gaulle, that France must play a leading role, this time in fending off the forces of populism and illiberalism” , while, on the other hand, he perceives “French sovereign autonomy as compatible and, indeed, reliant upon cooperation with others.”  The Macron Doctrine seeks to avoid France being reduced to a mere “symbolic power on the world stage”  by “taking European strategic autonomy seriously.”  Therefore, by acknowledging that the French national interest is better preserved if tightly bound in with those of its Western allies, the Macron Doctrine enshrined the principle that “independence is somewhat paradoxically achieved through interdependence and international cooperation.”  In a few words, the answer is multilateralism.
However, “Macronism is not without ambiguity,”  as Joseph de Weck affirmed: “Macron may be the most pro-European president France ever had, but he nonetheless succumbs to the Gaullist impulse of going it alone at times.”  From the French perspective, the country’s ambiguity and occasionally unilateral approach are necessary to stop the global balance of power from tilting in favor of the champions of the illiberal world. Indeed, as Claudia Major pointed out, “Paris feels that the current international challenges make timely action critically important, yet other Europeans are slow to respond.”  However, it is crucial to emphasize that, best intentions aside, this French modus operandi has often backfired by increasing anti-French feelings and perceptions of marginalization from its allies.
Ultimately, what has emerged is that French and Italian ambitions share a great degree of political convergence. Indeed, not only do PM Draghi and President Macron look at the present and future threats to the liberal world in a very similar fashion, but also agree on the approach their countries have to adopt to better cope with an international climate dominated by increasing challenges, especially those originating from China. Moreover, due to the magnitude of the transition the global economic system is likely to undergo, isolationism is not seen as a viable option for the French and Italian leaders. On the contrary, France and Italy need to work through a cooperation-based institutional framework to preserve their national interests and uphold their sovereign autonomy while pursuing a mutual gains-oriented foreign policy. Consequently, in terms of defining a strategy capable of ensuring long-lasting sovereign independence, the French and Italian answer points to increasing the degree of interdependence among allies.
For example, in this spirit of mutual support and joint responsibility, the Franco-Italian alliance drove an initiative to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19 on EU member through the creation of a common debt at the EU level in the form of Eurobonds. Against the expectations of some, Paris and Rome secured the agreement of both Germany and the so-called ‘frugal states’ in northern Europe to launch the Next Generation European Union, a €750 billion fund to boost EU economic recovery. 
A marriage worth fighting for: exploring strengths and weaknesses of the Paris-Rome axis
Historically, France and Italy share a positive and successful track record of military interoperability, primarily when missions have been implemented under the banner of multilateral initiatives, as seen in the UN-sponsored operations in Kosovo and Lebanon.
However, during the last decade, both France and Italy have gradually reshaped their strategic thinking, especially concerning their southern neighborhoods, due to migration and counter-terrorism concerns. These relevance of these two phenomena to European stability stems from a number of structural problems such as a lack of human security, societal fracturing, and issues that undermine sustainable development. Nevertheless, the migratory waves and the series of terrorist attacks that have affected the EU during recent years signal that the geographical distance separating Europe from these areas of crisis is no guarantee that they will not become more urgent. 
In this respect, the Sahel region is an area where these issues are intertwined and have recently become the focus of Franco-Italian cooperation. Extending from the Guinea Gulf to the Horn of Africa, the Sahelian belt is a pivotal territory because it represents the transmission chain connecting the Mediterranean to Central Africa.
During its eight-year-long Operation Barkane, France has acted as the regional policeman by coordinating with the G5 Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The French military presence has been primarily focused on tailored missions directed at targets linked to terrorist cells and organized crime groups while, at the same time, developing training programs for local security forces.  However, the growing “popular fatigue” in France,  along with political frictions with some of its partners, especially Mali, has persuaded Paris to gradually recalibrate its military projection by ending Operation Barkane.  Despite this, the Sahelian belt remains an area of strategic importance for the EU, which cannot allow a security vacuum in the area to be filled by terrorist groups and armed militias. For this reason, the Takuba Task Force, a European military task force, was established in March 2020 to coordinate with the G5 Sahel countries in carrying out ground missions. It is telling that France and Italy contribute with the lion’s share of this mission in terms of military units and vehicles deployed. 
Besides, significant bilateral agreements between France and Italy have also been reached in the energy sector. Historically, rivalry and competition have been the main factors informing the relationship between the Italian and French energy giants, Eni and Total. However, recent discoveries of fossil fuel reservoirs in the Eastern Mediterranean have reshaped the energy balance of power in the region and paved the way for enhanced cooperation in Franco-Italian energy relations. Indeed, as pressure exerted by the Turkish gunboat diplomacy in the region increased, Eni and Total decided to work together on Cyprus offshore natural gas and defend their common interests.  As a result, with the two national energy companies turning from competition to partnership, Rome and Paris showed that a convergence of interests was within reach even on sensitive issues such as energy security.
The bolstered Franco-Italian agenda and the on-the-ground cooperation on critical issues such as the Sahelian belt and the Eastern Mediterranean have the potential to create a ripple effect that may positively impact in theatres where French and Italian interests have historically conflicted. Indeed, as Camillo Casola and Edoardo Baldaro point out, “through their cooperation in the Sahel, Italy and France are building increased mutual trust paving the way to develop coordinated and integrated action.” 
In this regard, post-Qaddafi Libya is a case in point as the Libyan issue has generated friction between Italy and France during the last decade. Indeed, while Rome openly sided with the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) ran by Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, Paris held on to ambiguous positions swinging between the official recognition of the GNA and links with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk.  However, both Paris and Rome appear to have found greater common ground on the Libyan file as signaled during the International Conference on Libya held in Paris last November 12. The political convergence between the Italian and French positions that emerged during the summit “is emblematic of a sense of shared responsibility” , according to Emanuele Rossi.
Since late February 2021, when the Government of National Unity was inaugurated under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the ceasefire agreed between Tripoli and Tobruk has held, no major armed confrontations have taken place, and the country is experiencing a path of gradual de-escalation of conflict. The Dbeibeh-led government has been assigned with the challenging task of steering Libya towards a Presidential election that is scheduled to be held over two rounds in late 2021 and early 2022.  However, even though the recent positive developments signal that a stable and secure Libya is within reach, the path toward a pacified and unified country is still long. The high level of unpredictability looming over the results of the Libyan elections and the fragility of the transition process remain the most concerning variables in the country’s stability equation.  The escalation of tensions in post-election Libya is still a possible outcome and a major stress test for the newfound convergence between France and Italy. For this reason, to not be caught unprepared, the Paris-Rome axis should prepare for such a risk by defining common strategies and mechanisms to manage and resolve conflicts that could reignite.
Aside from the inherent unpredictability of unstable issues such as Libya and their potential disruptive impact, endogenous elements connected to the dynamics of French and Italian domestic politics have to be considered as they may impede the success of the Quirinal treaty. From its side, Italy’s own political system poses significant uncertainty. Indeed, the mechanism of proportional representation in the electoral system often produces fragile parliamentary majorities that may ultimately prevent stable and solid governments being formed and lead to government shake-ups during parliamentary terms becoming the rule rather than the exception. This means that with a new government due to take the premier’s office, the so-called “Draghi effect” may wane as well along with political outreach to France. Moreover, with the French Presidential election scheduled to be held in April 2022, President Macron is also entering the most delicate phase of his mandate. On the one hand, he has to seek victory by showing to the electorate that his leadership has been a success. On the other hand, if re-elected, it remains to be seen whether President Macron can refrain from the “Gaullist impulse of going it alone at times” and to develop genuine relations of greater parity with Rome. Indeed, it is only by overcoming the idea of Italy as a second-order power that an effective and successful “Franco-Italian condominium”  will be able to deliver its promises.
Historically, France and Italy have been competitors in the Mediterranean, and their strategic interests were often on a collision course. However, the severe impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the EU economy and health care systems and the accelerating transformations of the global balance of power have been a reality test for France and Italy. The two countries have realized that the recipe for surviving in an ever-changing environment relies on mutually beneficial solutions defined within a multilateral framework. The Quirinal Treaty has created a unique opportunity for Paris and Rome to increase their interdependence. Whether France and Italy will be able to ensure long-term continuity to this momentum is still to be seen. However, for the moment, the Franco-Italian axis signals that the two countries have the political will to work on win-win solutions.
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