ROME (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron visits Rome this week to sign a new treaty with Italy, cementing ties between two founding EU members at a time the bloc is in flux.
He will ink the deal with Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday, before meeting Pope Francis on Friday, as the French Catholic Church is embroiled in a child abuse scandal.
The two Mediterranean powers bound by historical, cultural and linguistic ties have long been close, with the relationship buttressed in recent decades by their key roles in the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
Despite a brief falling-out under Italy’s populist government of 2018-19, they are now seeking to emphasise all they have in common.
The new treaty aims to reinforce cooperation on everything from foreign, defence and security policy, to migration, economics, research, culture and cross-border issues, according to Macron’s office.
An Italian government source said the document -- to be signed just weeks before France takes over the rotating EU presidency in January -- would have a "symbolic value" at a time of change on the continent.
Britain’s messy exit and rows between the EU’s liberal democracies and their eastern neighbours have roiled the bloc, while its de facto leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is finally bowing out following September elections.
"We need to structure the French-Italian relationship... we don’t know what kind of EU we will have in five, ten years," said Giuseppe Bettoni, a professor at the Tor Vergata University of Rome.
- Migrant tensions -
The treaty has been in the works since 2017 but was put on ice with the ascent to power in Italy in 2018 of the then anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration and eurosceptic League party, whose deputy prime ministers openly criticised Macron and supported France’s "yellow vest" protest movement.
There has also been long-simmering irritation in Italy over the feeling it has been left by its European allies to face tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa who arrive on its shores each year.
But ties improved after the M5S-League government collapsed and former European Central Bank chief Draghi became prime minister in February.
Mark Lazar, historian and professor at Sciences Po University in Paris, said Draghi has significant influence in Brussels and shares with Macron "many points of agreement on economic policies and the recovery plan" -- a multi-billion-euro programme to get the EU back on track after the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision by Macron to hand over former members of the far-left Red Brigades group that terrorised Italy in the 1970s and 1980s also removed a long-standing source of tension.
Both sides were keen to sign the treaty before Mattarella -- a strong supporter of the deal -- steps down in January, with speculation Draghi might fill his shoes.
Macron, meanwhile, is hoping for re-election when France goes to the polls in April.
- ‘Annexation’ -
There is some concern in Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy behind Germany and France, at being subsumed into the French orbit, with one economist, Carlo Pelanda, decrying an "industrial and strategic auto-annexation".
"Italy is happy that its partner remembers it, but France’s objective is to spice up a bit its alliance with Germany," Lazar told AFP.
Macron’s meeting with Pope Francis comes just weeks after a landmark French inquiry confirmed extensive sexual abuse of minors by priests dating from the 1950s.
It detailed abuse of 216,000 minors by clergy over the period -- and thousands of claims against lay members of the Church -- and its cover-up.