(CN) – Italy and France are in a nasty diplomatic fight that threatens to become a protracted clash over a wide spectrum of disagreements – both new and old – touching on Libya, immigration, Africa policy, the future of the European Union and even Italian communist militants long shielded by France.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the extraordinary step of recalling his ambassador in Rome. The last time that happened was during World War II.
The French, fed up with accusations by Italy's new populist government, said it temporarily was pulling the ambassador to send a message.
The final straw, the French embassy said, was an unannounced meeting last week between Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and French protesters in Paris seeking to oust Macron from power. Di Maio supports the protesters, the so-called “yellow vests.”
“This is not about dramatizing the situation, it's about saying playtime is over,” said Nathalie Loiseau, France's minister for European affairs. French authorities said Di Maio was meddling in France's domestic affairs.
This diplomatic row is both easy to understand and a trip into a labyrinth of history and conflicting interests.
The easy part is this: It's a political clash between two very different governments fighting over the future of the European Union in the run-up to European Parliament elections in May.
For both Macron and Italy's populists, much is at stake in doing well in the elections. Macron, a political newcomer, needs a win to shore up his government weakened by weeks of violent protests; and Italy's populists, seen as a danger by Europe's establishment, are seeking validation too.
Ideologically, they are miles apart.
Macron talks about expanding the EU and increasing its powers. He sees a stronger Europe, and a larger role for France, as crucial for Europe's future in a world increasingly complicated by trans-national crises, such as climate change, global conflict over resources and immigration. But he also advocates a pro-business and neo-liberal agenda.
Contrast that with Italy's leaders, made up of the anti-establishment direct-democracy 5-Star Movement and the League, a far-right nationalist party. They see the EU as having seized too much power and influence over national affairs. They are leading voices for a movement of nationalists and anti-establishment forces demanding radical changes inside the EU.
This conflict was set into motion when Italy's populist government took office last June. Its outspoken leaders said they were fed up with Italy's weakened position inside a Europe dominated by France and Germany and they vowed to shake things up.
And they quickly lived up to those promises by lashing out at the EU's status quo, which they argue benefits Germany and France. But their fiercest fire was directed at Macron.
For the past eight months, Italy's leaders, sounding like an aggrieved party, have dragged out a plethora of complaints against France.
The conflict broke out as soon as the populists took office and centered on an issue defining Europe's present politics: What to do about refugees and immigrants from Africa and Asia.
In June, Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and leader of the League, refused to allow a humanitarian ship with 629 asylum-seekers aboard it from docking at an Italian port.
Macron then called Italy's government “irresponsible.” His spokesman was even more blunt, saying Italy's position made him “want to vomit.” Later, in widely published comments, Macron compared Italy's new populist government to a “leprosy” spreading across Europe.
In an atmosphere of intensifying and increasingly testy European politics, Italy's new leaders were quick to respond and accused France of hypocrisy.
Italy pointed out that France had been turning back asylum-seekers by the thousands at the Italian-French border in the Alps.