Not just Europe: the Quirinal Treaty read by Paris

(To Federico Castiglioni)
30/11/21

In May 2017 Emmanuel Macron was the man of the moment. Newly elected to the Elysée, the former French banker was seen by many euro enthusiasts as the lifeline of a still shaky European Union, upset by the outcome of the previous year's Brexit vote and still uncertain about the political reliability of that group of member states not very ceremoniously defined as PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain).

The difficult geo-cultural balance between the four cornerstones of European integration (north / south and east / west) built at the cost of great sacrifices in the Maastricht years and with the eastward enlargement in the new millennium was failing. Macron's rise to power, closing the fragile doors of Paris to Euroscepticism, was supposed, at least in the initial intentions, to relaunch a season of Europeanism in the old continent.

To understand the depth of these expectations, and therefore also the recent Treaty of the Quirinale, we must think about the first step of this path, namely Macron's speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017. At that time, the French president tried to relaunch the European project starting from some assumptions: 1) a rediscovered economic and political axis (equal ) with Germany; 2) the beginning of a European path in matters of security and defense; 3) taxation on multinationals or in any case against forms of tax competition harmful to Paris; 4) an ideal manifesto based on sustainable growth; 5) the enlargement of the Franco-German axis to all those countries willing to recognize themselves in the previous points.

A few days after delivering his famous speech, Macron met the Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni in Lyon for a bilateral summit, together with the respective defense and foreign ministers. It was at that moment that the idea of ​​a new bilateral treaty between the two states was born, under the auspices of the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella.

The Quirinal Treaty was therefore already born with a strong European and security connotation, which today is seen to be realized. The idea of ​​signing a political agreement, based on defense and foreign policy, between two states in historical geo-strategic competition with each other in North Africa and the Mediterranean represented a considerable ambition.

Italy and France have always been rivals, above all for the constant Italian attempt to project its own limited influence in Libya and Tunisia, which has always been hindered by the government of Paris which instead aims to create a north-western African mouth specular to the Anglo-Saxon one that keeps in balance the political and diplomatic relations gravitating around the Suez Canal. And even if the central Mediterranean is only the periphery of what is (was) defined Francafrique, for Italy, on the contrary, it represents a pied à terre natural for strategic markets. After all, just when the European Affairs departments of the Foreign Ministries were discussing the contents of the possible Italian-French agreement, in other rooms of the Farnesina and at the Quay d'Orsay, worried people were witnessing the long-distance challenge in Libya between the pro-French ( among other things) general Khalifa Haftar and pro-Italian premier (among other things) Al Sarraji.

The Quirinale agreement that saw the light today takes note of this historical difference of national interest and tries to explicitly propose an exchange, expressly naming three extra-European areas of cooperation: North Africa, Sahel e Horn of Africa.

The Sahel is at the center of French concerns at the moment, especially due to the recent loss of credibility caused by the withdrawal of the operation Barkhane. In addition to representing the limits of Paris' foreign policy, the debacle in Mali also represents a diplomatic failure by Macron, given his constant and unsuccessful attempts to "Europeanise" the crisis in the Sahel.

The Horn of Africa, on the other side of the continent, is another scenario in which France is in trouble, pursued by the Chinese takeover bid that extends to Ethiopia and Somalia. Moreover, the small contingent in Djibuti can do little to maintain a European presence in the region, especially now that the contrasts between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, combined with the internal domestic instability of these countries, have opened the doors for a game of chess between great powers.

Finally, North Africa, to which the Treaty explicitly refers, is not only that of Libya divided and under elections, but also that of Tunisia where President Kais Saied was accused of having organized a coup last month, or of Algeria which recently banned France from its airspace.

Italian support, in other words, is essential for Paris, and the reasons are far more practical than the continuous pro-European appeal of the Treaty would lead us to believe.

The other big theme that emerges from the Treaty of the Quirinale it is that of Defense and Space. As far as defense is concerned, cooperation is operational only in the alternative to the strategic objectives mentioned above, while it remains mostly industrial in its main guidelines. Italy and France aim to strengthen their joint cooperation in Pesco, especially as regards the naval sector (shipbuilding and R&D). It is significant that the largest joint project between the two countries to date is that for the development of a new European corvette (EPC), which could receive substantial funding from the European Defense Fund.

Space remains totally different and of absolute interest. Although few have emphasized it, together with the Treaty of the Quirinale on 26 November last, an ad hoc agreement on French (and European) launchers in French Guiana was signed by Vittorio Colao, Minister of Technology, Innovation and Digital Transition, and by the French Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire. The new generation Vega C and Ariane 6 launchers are not only built with the support of the European Space Agency, but also "institutional" space assets for the European Union.

The Treaty explicitly mentions space cooperation as a fundamental point of the synergy between the two countries and the agreement on launchers on the sidelines makes it clear that it is important for both actors. Also in this case, Italian support from a European perspective remains fundamental for Paris. The position of French Guiana as an “institutional” platform for space Europe risks in fact to remain a dead letter if the centrifugal forces observed so far continue in space matters. For years now, for example, Poland has cooperated more with the United States than with Europe to put its satellites into orbit, and the latest example is the Polish satellites of SatRevolution departed from the Californian Mojave desert last June. History not very different for Romania, where ArcaSpace has been trying for years to transfer part of its (if only administrative) facilities to the United States, showing interest in developing autonomous launch platforms in the Black Sea.

The developments in Germany are even more worrying, where pressure from the German Confindustria BDI on the federal government is increasing to build a launch platform made in Germany in the North Sea. In short, even in this sector Emmanuel Macron cannot sleep peacefully and the Italian support can only appear reassuring, also in light of the close and historic cooperation in space between the two countries.

THEQuirinal agreement it therefore has a European value for the Elysée but also a very strong bilateral significance. Born within a broader strategy to strengthen the European Union as declined at the Sorbonne, the Treaty is made up of an ideal hat and some pragmatic contents. The latter are represented by the contingent needs of Paris and determined by a weak condition which certainly facilitated the closing of the negotiations after the inauguration of Mario Draghi.

Italy will be able to achieve a lot from the agreement if it is able to find a balance (commercial, political, industrial) between its national and French interests.

Photo: Quirinale / web / Opération Barkhane / ESA