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Italy and the future of the EU

  • Published at 11:59 pm May 4th, 2019

Italy’s recent approach has its neighbours worried

Attempts by China and Italy towards a common engagement on the One Belt One Road initiative and infrastructure deals have raised eyebrows. To that has been added the recent misunderstanding that has emerged with France. 

Matters became a bit controversial with Di Maio suggesting that he was looking for ways to cooperate with the Gilets Jaunes in the upcoming EU elections. The subsequent tweet that “the wind of change has crossed the Alps” did not also help. This, quite understandably, was a source of irritation for French President Emmanuel Macron.

At this juncture, one needs to point out that the principal cause for misunderstandings is arising from tensions between the two parties in power in Italy -- the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League. This is resulting also in a lack of a broader and shared vision on foreign policy strategies.

As a result, formulation of foreign policy and its implementation is drawing criticism.

Some are alleging that the process is beginning to appear fragmented between institutional and competing individual initiatives.

At the institutional level, both Italy’s PM and its current president have defended Italy’s role in Europe and also guaranteed continuity in the country’s traditional alliances. The prime minister has also gone to Brussels to reassure European partners of Italy’s reliability. 

At the same time he has defended his government’s current agenda. Similarly, President Sergio Mattarella has controversially advised the Italian government to align itself with other EU member states in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the acting president of Venezuela.

The electronic media has reported that, at an individual level, Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is continuing to fuel the League’s “sovereigntist narrative” through his adoption of tough anti-immigration measures. 

He is doing so to create a sovereigntist front for the upcoming EU elections. It is being alleged that, in this regard, he is trying to strengthen ties with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

In the meantime, the Five Star Movement’s leader Di Maio, minister of economic development, labour, and social policies is trying to assume a populist narrative.

In this context, criticism is being made of France’s colonial past and its alleged continuing impact in socio-economic terms. 

Observers have remarked that such a challenging approach on the part of the Salvini-Di Maio camp is beginning to impact relations between Rome and Brussels.

This dynamic has gradually deepened as the current government on more than one occasion demonstrated their lack of faith in the EU and in some of their European allies.

It has been alleged that such a scenario has emerged because of Italy’s disappointment with its failure in obtaining a more helpful engagement from the EU and its member states on migration issues.

Accusations have however also been made by some other EU States that Italy’s approach towards migrants and its decision to close its harbors to NGO ships arose from the hope that such a response would force a reaction from the EU that would assist Italy and its southern provinces.

They have now started emphasizing that “sovereignty” denotes an “Italy First” narrative where bilateral approaches need to be preferred over broad international obligations that might not be consistent with Italy’s direct national interests.

The current government in Rome believes that engagement of Moscow and Beijing will be constructive for Italian interests regarding not only immigration burden-sharing but also budget flexibility. In exchange, Rome appears to be ready to insist on the removal of the sanctions towards Russia. 

Similarly, Italy’s recent positive approach towards China financing its infrastructure investments seems to have arisen due to prevailing EU budget constraints.

This strategic approach by Italy has consequently been explained by Italy as their effort being more of a business partnership without political risks.

It needs to be remembered that Italy has been able to maintain friendly relations and strong business ties with Russia within the framework of the alliance with the US and European integration for decades. EU states know this. 

They feel that the current Italian approach might result not only in a loss of opportunities for reform of the EU and Eurozone towards a more politicized and integrated model but also could weaken the EU foreign policy because of engaging with third countries on bilateral level.

One has to remember that the European parliamentary elections due in the fourth week of May will be a pivotal event for the EU.

This time, in all likelihood, divergence of interests between France and Italy might represent different paths forward for European voters, with their leaders clashing on such diverse issues as immigration, trade, energy and climate, defense and security, monetary policy, and institutional reforms.

Security analysts have commented that over the last decade, Italy has undergone a significant political transformation of its own.

Currently, it is the only EU founding member state governed by a ruling coalition featuring parties espousing both populist and sovereigntist stances. 

In 2018, around 11 million disenchanted Italian voters, primarily from the center-left but also from the center-right, voted M5S, which promised to address social inequalities stemming from unregulated globalization. 

The League has also transformed itself from a opinionated regional party to an Italian nationalist party and captured Italians’ frustrations over how Italy and Europe have handled the refugee crisis. Using narratives similar to Trump’s, Salvini has called for an Italians First policy.

Analysts are drawing attention to these factors in view of the approaching European Parliament elections in May.

The rest of the EU is watching the evolving scenario very carefully. They are doing so because Italy is Europe’s fourth-largest economy and a major political actor on the continent. 

Any controversy, observers feel, might negatively impact Italy-Brussels relations and weaken the EU external projection. The question of Brexit, it needs to be remembered, has also added sensitivity to the situation. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]