The Dukes of Savoy would be aghast. For four centuries their domain straddled the great natural frontier of the Alps, blending the cultures of what are now France and Italy. Suddenly an unblending is under way. The mountains feel like a frontier again.
France has recalled its ambassador to Rome. President Macron has likened Italian nationalism to leprosy. Its standard-bearer, deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, has told Macron to watch out for a “springtime of the peoples”, starting with the EU elections in May.
Behind the acrimony is a simple but fundamental rift over what the EU is for, and it could prove deeper than any divergence between the union’s new eastern wing and its old west.
Macron represents the North, the Franco-German economic engine and the idea of deeper union for its own sake. Salvini represents the South, the continent’s vulnerable underbelly (vulnerable to economic shocks and mass migration), and the idea of the union ripe for takeover as a vehicle of pan-European populism.
That idea is a direct threat to Macron and Macronisme. Populists in yellow bibs, the gilets jaunes, have been taking over France’s city centres every Saturday since mid-November. Their aim is to prise Macron from power and reverse his efforts to liberalise the French economy. So it was no surprise that the Elysée reacted badly when Luigi Di Maio, Salvini’s coalition partner, huddled with representatives of the gilets jaunes outside Paris last month and announced that a wind of change had crossed the Alps. “A new Europe”, he said, “is being born of the yellow vests.”
If this was merely needling, it might fade quickly. But something broader is afoot. The populist South is finding its voice not just in Italy but in Greece too, where last month nationalists walked out of the government led by Alexis Tsipras over his readiness to sign a renaming deal with Macedonia and generally to live by EU economic rules.
Populism is coming to a boil in Spain as well. In the snap election forced by Catalonia’s efforts to secede, hard-right anti-immigrants who so far have won representation only in Andalucia could win their first seats in the national parliament and even in a ruling coalition.
At home, Salvini is outplaying Di Maio in an unofficial battle for supremacy that inevitably weakens their coalition. Ahead in opinion polls, he is making alliances with fellow anti-immigrant hardliners, including Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, rather than simply picking fights with France.
His springtime of the peoples may yet fizzle at the European elections; there are signs, albeit faint ones, that a revival of enthusiasm for the EU among its remaining 27 members post-Brexit could puncture dreams of a populist takeover of the European parliament. But Europe’s north-south split is likely to remain as prominent as the Alps. The union will survive without Britain, at least for the time being, but the fight for its soul is just getting started.