France, Germany, and Italy key to EU integration: experts



France, Germany and Italy have roles to play in weaving a stronger and more tight-knit European Union (EU) in the wake of divisions over Brexit, the economic crisis, and migration, experts said here at a roundtable organized by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a Milan-based think tank.

The three countries were founding members of the EU in the aftermath of World War II, along with Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. While France and Germany differ in their self-perception and in their ways of wielding power, they are both exercising leadership within the EU, and Italy risks being marginalized if its coming government fails to engage in the dialogue, the experts said at the forum held in Milan on Monday.

ISPI Director Paolo Magri said that the worst of the divisive economic and migration crises is over, while paradoxically Brexit, U.S. President Donald Trump's protectionism, and other international pressures have brought the EU closer together.

"Thanks to Trump's threats we have seen a dynamic EU going around the world making trade agreements with the Mercosur (South American trade bloc), Canada, and Japan," Magri pointed out.

"This is the time for a jump forward -- for a return to a logic of cohesion after so many divisions," he said. "And it is a fact that very little happens in the EU in terms of progress if France and Germany aren't on board."

Beda Romano, the Brussels correspondent for Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, agreed that both Brexit and Trump have strengthened the EU.

"In one way or another, the UK has always been an obstacle to European integration, especially on defense and security," Romano said. "The Brexit could free up a greater desire for integration in the rest of the Union."

Also paradoxically, the advent of the "unpredictable, isolationist and protectionist" Trump presidency has been good for the EU, Romano said. "American policy is a source of concern in Brussels, and it is coagulating the EU-27 on trade and more," the journalist said. "American isolationism has reawakened Europe's desire to stick together."

However, the journalist was pessimistic on the prospects for further European integration because "the weakness of some countries is a serious problem."

He pointed to Germany's "politically weak" brand-new coalition government, to Spain's battle with its independence-minded Catalonia region, and to Italy, which still lacks a government and where the last election delivered relative victory to two eurosceptic parties.

Lucio Caracciolo, editor of influential Italian geopolitics journal Limes (meaning "border" in Latin), said that Germany and France are too different from one another for a cohesive vision of Europe to emerge from their partnership.

While Germany remains the central European power in terms of the size of its economy and its population, France is a world power, and more importantly, sees itself as such.

"France has a capacity to project strength and will to power that Germany and Italy don't have," said Caracciolo.

"French will probably become the second most-spoken language on the planet in the second half of the century thanks to rapidly growing francophone populations in Africa," Caracciolo added.

Also unlike Germany and Italy, France does not have a demographic problem because its population is relatively young and growing. Caracciolo said he doubts that French President Emmanuel Macron's outspoken vision of a sovereign and federalist Europe with an integrated fiscal system run by an EU finance minister will get past Germany, which has "let it be known" that it does not look favorably on altering current EU monetary and fiscal policies.

However, Michele Valensise, a former Italian ambassador to Germany and ex-Foreign Ministry undersecretary, saw grounds for a strong Franco-German entente capable of driving European integration to the next level. It is true, he said, that France and Germany see themselves very differently.

"(Germany had) a kind of self-limitation -- like a beautiful woman who doesn't go to the hairdresser, wears no makeup and unflattering clothes (as opposed to) France, a beautiful woman who gets her hair done, wears perfect makeup, and is incredibly elegant and fashionable," the former ambassador said. But in spite of this, the two are made for each other, according to Valensise.

"For France, Germany is and remains the privileged interlocutor to jump-start the process of European integration," he said.

Germany is looking to Italy with expectation, in the awareness that this "embryonic European table", like all tables, cannot stand on two legs alone, no matter how strong they are, Valensise continued. "And this third leg, from every point of view, is Italy," he said. However if Italy's next government takes an anti-EU stance, the country risks being left out while important decisions are being made.

Germany's new government is outspokenly pro-EU, as shown in a "contract" signed in March by the coalition members, Valensise added. "I was struck by the fact that this document opens with a strong chapter dedicated to Europe -- it is the very first item in the coalition contract" as opposed to hot-button issues such as the economy, security, or immigration, he continued.

"There is a real commitment (to the EU), and it is to be hoped that others will also honor and contribute to its realization," Valensise said.

It remains to be seen whether Italy will step up to the plate, and whether France and Germany can come together to lead Europe to become a better and stronger union.