Remember, before the Brexit referendum there was Viktor Orban. In 2014, two years before Britain voted narrowly to leave the European Union, the Hungarian leader was pledging to turn his country into an “illiberal” democracy. In effect, Mr Orban was exiting the EU in spirit, by fiat and without a referendum.
Now, there is Mr Orban, Brexit and an extraordinary row between France and Italy.
Tensions within Europe are growing deeper and the rifts are spreading further. On Thursday, February 7, France recalled its ambassador to Italy. It marks a startling deterioration of relations between two countries whose leaders pioneered ways to build European amity. French foreign minister Robert Schuman and Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi often join Germany Konrad Adenauer as pioneers of European unification.
And now, it’s come to this. The centrist government of French President Emmanuel Macron and the ruling populist coalition in Rome are at loggerheads. Italy’s two deputy prime ministers – Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini – have been fairly undiplomatic in their criticism of Mr Macron and their support for France’s anti-government “yellow vest” protesters. Both Italian politicians have repeatedly said the French government has not done enough to take in migrants who cross the Mediterranean from Africa. Both bristle at Mr Macron’s speeches on European values. And (without an inward glance) they blame centrist European politicians for fiscal policies that have locked Italy into cycles of debt.
Criticism is one thing. Action is quite another. Mr Di Maio has now actually met “yellow vest” leading figures, leaving French officials aghast at the departure from protocol.
The French foreign ministry hit out at Italy, saying it “has been, for several months, the object of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations that everyone knows and can recognize.” It added, in what can only be seen as a significant lament: “This is unprecedented since the end of the war.”
What’s becoming increasingly clear is that supposedly populist political strains (which are really only xenophobic and exclusivist tools of control) are pushing an unusual form of anti-diplomacy to the limits.
As former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni recently said, “one of the consequences of national populism, is to try to find enemies…You need to find enemies inside and outside your country to keep the consensus united.” He added, however, “you can’t identify an enemy in a neighbour and friendly country.”
That the Italians have done so – and stoked French anger – takes us into uncharted territory. It may yet get to the point where post-war western Europe’s normally congenial politics is barely possible.
If the sniping carries on, how long before one or more members of the EU refuse to pay their dues into the kitty? How long before barriers are erected within Europe to the entry of certain EU nationalities? And so on?
If European disunion persists and intensifies, it may not even be necessary for Britain to exit.
For, there would be nothing to leave.