Franco-Italian spat and lessons for Sri Lanka

(Courtesy of The Island)

French President Emmanuel Macron has recalled his Ambassador to Italy for consultations. In diplomatic parlance, a nation recalls its Ambassador to any country for ‘consultations’ when it wishes to express extreme displeasure.

Let alone recalling an Ambassador, it is very unusual for two senior (and founding) members of the European Union to air their differences publicly. Disagreements in the past have been settled quietly and amicably.

In the March 2018 national elections in Italy, the center-right alliance, in which Matteo Salvini’s League emerged as the main political force, won a plurality of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, while the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio became the party with the highest number of votes. The center-left coalition, led by Matteo Renzi, came third. As a result, after protracted negotiations, a new coalition government was formed with law professor Giuseppe Conte being appointed as the prime minister with support from the League and the Five Star Movement, even though he did not contest for the Italian Parliament. Salvini and Di Maio were appointed vice premiers.

Since then, unable to find common ground on a series of issues, relations between France and Italy have deteriorated.

Italian Vice Premier Salvini has expressed willingness to ‘reset’ disturbed relations but insist, several issues need to be satisfactorily addressed before resetting relations.

Italy has demanded the return of left-wing Italian militants, currently in France evading arrest. The French will not hear of it.

The French insist on returning illegal migrants crossing to France from Italy based on EU regulations which require registration of unlawful migrants by the first country of entry and retain them till suitable arrangements are made. Italy, overwhelmed by the number of illegals arriving each summer is incensed by what they consider French insensitivity to its plight.

Di Mio last month accused France of fueling the migrant influx to Europe by continuing to ‘colonize’ Africa thus earning Paris’ ire.

The latest spat came about when Vice Premier Di Maio met prominent Yellow Vest protesters Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, who is heading a Yellow Vest list for European Parliament elections in May. He then invited them for a return meeting in Rome and posted photographs of the Paris meeting on Twitter stating, “The wind of change has crossed the Alps.”

Macron was outraged over Vice Premier Di Maio’s recent meeting with a group French protesting over social inequalities on one occasion somewhere close to Paris. The French Foreign Ministry called the meeting an “unacceptable provocation.” Di Maio was warned not to interfere in French politics.

The French President reacted by ordering his Ambassador in Rome to return to Paris for consultations.

The other vice premier, the far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, not to be outdone, claimed France was looking to extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies.

“In Libya, France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy,” Salvini told Italian TV. In a Facebook post the next day, he added: “I hope that the French will be able to free themselves from a terrible president.”

The French Foreign Ministry stated, “They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally.”

“To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another.”

The three-month-old ‘Yellow Vest’ movement is not a militant or terrorist group. They are campaigning against what they see as rising social inequality and a government mostly indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people. They are hostile to the French government, especially to Macron and hope to contest the forthcoming election for the European Parliament in May.

Battle lines are drawn between the Macron-led centrist pro-European block and Far Right parties gathering momentum in several EU member countries supported by Eurosceptics such as Di Maio and Salvini.

The Franco-Italian spat need be examined against the backdrop of the US, UK, EU, French, German, Norwegian and Indian involvement in affairs of Sri Lanka. It is not a secret, Britain’s involvement in the affairs of Sri Lanka is due to no small measure for ‘electoral aims’ and gains. Until May 2009, these nations interacted with LTTE terrorists in their respective countries and a few, even inside their embassies and high commissions in Colombo.

It was in 2009 when the French Foreign Minister, accompanied by his British counterpart came charging to Sri Lanka demanding the government halt its final assault against LTTE terrorists. A former British Prime Minister arrived in Sri Lanka to attend CHOGM 2013, displayed uncouth behaviour unbecoming of a state guest and made a media circus of being photographed with IDPs. The current Indian Prime Minister, during his two visits to Sri Lanka, held separate meetings with groups Tamils of Sri Lankan and Indian origin. He promised to intervene on their behalf with GoSL and lectured our parliamentarians on “cooperative Federalism” during his address in our parliament.

It is but paradoxical that when a vice premier of one western state meets with protestors of another western country protesting social inequalities and uploads a photograph in social media, it is condemned as ‘interference’ and warrants the recall of an ambassador.

On the other hand, politicians and bureaucrats of the very same western nations regularly visit developing countries like Sri Lanka. They, together with their respective ambassadors meet political groups and discuss changes and amendments to a sovereign nation’s Constitution and even regime change projects. One such team is currently in the country.

Such notions underpin the conduct of some of our politicians. This writer refers explicitly to those who opt to resolve national issues with the assistance of western ambassadors in Colombo rather than our own Supreme Court.

If Sri Lanka were to take a page from the French playbook, most of our ambassadors and high commissioner in the west would have to be recalled for ‘consultations.’

The low-key image maintained by India of late, especially during the October crisis is most welcome and must be appreciated.

This is but a classic example of the western doctrine, ‘do as we say, not as we do,’ accepted by some of our leaders in the most servile manner as geopolitical realities.

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

 

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