France's President Emmanuel Macron attends the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 1 2021. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN
France's President Emmanuel Macron attends the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 1 2021. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN

On the night before his 74th birthday, Mario Draghi spent almost four hours with Emmanuel Macron on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.

Over a dinner of sea bass in the port city of Marseille, the former European Central Bank (ECB) chief compared notes with the French president, who has become the most aggressive proponent of EU integration. As the clocks ticked past midnight on September 2, waiters emerged with a cake that Macron had ordered. The advisers waiting on the sidelines for them to wrap up cheered.

The tête-à-tête is a sign of the deep bond that has formed between the two leaders since Draghi became prime minister of Italy in February. With Angela Merkel preparing to step down as German chancellor after about 16 years in power, the two men have a chance to fill the gap she leaves and wield more influence over EU policy on everything from the economy to defence.

Mario Draghi speaks in Rome, Italy, February 3 2021. Picture: ROBERTO MONALDO/BLOOMBERG
Mario Draghi speaks in Rome, Italy, February 3 2021. Picture: ROBERTO MONALDO/BLOOMBERG

Draghi has spent almost 10 hours in bilateral meetings with Macron, longer than he has with any other Group of 20 leader, and they have informally agreed to speak before key summits to co-ordinate positions, according to people familiar with the matter. On Friday, they will discuss the future of Libya at a conference in Paris.   

“Draghi and Macron really see eye to eye on European integration, including fiscal union,” said Nathalie Tocci, visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of Rome’s Institute of International Affairs. “That’s their baseline, it feeds the convergence between them. On this they could be the new power-centre post-Merkel, and it could extend to other fields related to the economy like the green agenda and digital.”

Monetary policies

The two leaders agree that EU’s monetary policies should remain expansionary in coming years, and they are aiming to get Merkel’s successor, most likely the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, on board with this too, according to government officials who asked not to be named.

On the foreign policy front, Draghi shifted Italy back to a more traditional Euro-Atlanticist stance, and that in turn could lead to more Italo-French activism, according to Tocci who is also a former adviser to the EU’s former foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. 

The two leaders’ views on China and Russia also converge, and they are becoming more closely aligned on Libya. They concocted the idea of hosting a conference to discuss ways of stabilising the North African country during one of their first meetings, an Elysee official said. The gathering will be attended by US Vice-President Kamala Harris. 

As he prepares to take over the EU rotating presidency Macron is going to need all the help he can get because he has alienated other European leaders.

To be sure, Macron and Draghi will not have the EU stage to themselves, with Poland the main player in the bloc’s troublesome east and the Netherlands no fan of fiscal largesse. Germany under Scholz and his new coalition partners may not have Merkel’s gravitas, but they are sure to want to impose themselves at the European level.

If the two leaders want to transform their cordial relationship into concrete gains, there is no shortage of places to start.  

A tie-up with Fincantieri Spa and Chantiers de l’Atlantique to create a global shipping power agreed by the two governments in 2018 was scrapped earlier this year, at least partly because the companies could not agree on how to work together. Then there is Italy’s Avio Aero and French Safran, which are competing for the lucrative contract to make Eurodrone engines.

Differences over Sub-Saharan Africa are significant. One diplomat praised Italy’s significant engagement in the French-led Takuba force battling Islamist extremists but stressed that Rome’s reluctance to impose sanctions on the Malian junta makes pressure efforts more difficult. The official also said that Macron and Draghi have different views on Ethiopia and Somalia.

Relations were not always this smooth between Italy and France.

The coalition government that emerged from Italy’s 2018 elections swept out a mainstream administration allied with Macron’s vision of greater European integration. Clashes began almost instantly. 

Yellow Vests

Luigi Di Maio, then Italian deputy premier, blamed African emigration on French economic policies and met with members of the Yellow Vests protest movement, a thorn in Macron’s side. The other Italian vice-premier, interior minister Matteo Salvini, often sparred with Macron over migration, once dubbing him “a polite young boy who drinks too much champagne.” 

At one point, the rancour threatened to derail expensive art exhibitions planned to celebrate the 500th-year anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death — the Italian painter died in France and some of his most famous works, including the Mona Lisa are in Paris.

The French have historically had a tendency to slightly look down on the Italians and that changed with Draghi, one diplomat said. 

Macron’s admiration for Draghi was apparent already in 2019 when he delivered a farewell speech for him at the ECB. The French president praised Draghi’s vision, ethics, and intellectual authority, comparing him to Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, and Robert Schuman, who is regarded as one of the fathers of Europe. 

After the two met in person in Brussels this June, the bond began to form.  

“The fact that Draghi comes from that neck of the woods, the economy, meant it was easier to see in Macron a natural partner,” says Tocci. “The way Draghi sees the world is more economic than foreign policy-oriented. For Macron, here is someone who not only wants to rebuild the relationship but also has the credentials.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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