The last few weeks have seen controversy generated in the European Union over certain actions taken by the present Italian government. Some have even suggested that Italy’s compass pertaining to its foreign policy has gone astray.
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. This has been caused because of a recent meeting between Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and a senior figure of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), the anti-government protest movement which has roiled French politics for the past three months. 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 the French President Emmanuel Macron.
It may be mentioned here that recent polls have shown that the Italian League will most likely be the second-largest delegation after the next EU polls (the German Christian Democratic Union being the first) to the European Parliament. Five Star will almost surely be another important party in the next Euro-chamber. Both these parties will, in all likelihood, have a more significant representation compared to the previous composition of the Parliament. This might translate into more confrontation and a fueling of divisions on EU foreign policy projection against the backdrop of Italian national interests.
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 not only over domestic but also international issues. This is resulting also in a lack of a broader and shared vision on foreign policy strategies.
This evolving paradigm is apparently persuading Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to try and balance different political backgrounds of strong party leaders along with more technical figures like himself and Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi. This effort is probably casting its own shadow. 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 Prime Minister 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. Di Maio is also generating debate with the EU regarding budget restraints, and certain nuances pertaining to China and Chinese investments.
These are all important issues and have connotations for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However the Minister of Foreign Affairs Moavero Milanesi appears to have been relegated to the background. The nuances are also confusing Italy’s international partners.
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 dynamics has gradually deepened as the current government on more than one occasion demonstrated their lack of faith in the European Union 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.
Within the economic parameter, Rome in the recent past has started complaining about Brussels’ inflexibility on Eurozone budget constraints. It has also initiated complex and tough negotiations with the EU Commission on the Italian budget law. 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.
Analysts have also pointed out that Italy has so far refused to join the July 2018 European Intervention Initiative, led by France that aims to move the EU in the direction of strategic autonomy from the United States. Instead, Rome is being defined as seeking cooperation with Washington for the stabilization of Libya at a time when the U.S. Administration is questioning both the trans-Atlantic partnership and U.S. operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Such a measure has already had its own impact. This was apparent when Italy convened a summit for Libya in Palermo last November. Difference of opinion with others was evident through very little high-level participation from the United States or EU member states in this meeting.
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 United States and European integration for decades. EU States know this. They are however currently also pointing out that Italy has not been exhibiting any interest in improving relations with Poland or Hungary. Italy’s confrontational narrative and actions are nevertheless creating tensions with countries like France or Spain. 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 European Union. Since 1999, these elections have regularly featured less than 50 percent turnout, and the contests themselves have focused on parochial national concerns. This time it, 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. This spectrum will mean that the process might end up offering the choice between pro-European centrism and sovereigntist populism.
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, captured Italians’ frustrations—and almost 6 million votes—over how Italy and Europe have handled the refugee crisis. Using narratives similar to Trump’s, Salvini has called for an Italians First policy, promising defiant stances on EU spending caps and refugee laws, while also chastising France for turning back migrants leaving Italy at its own border.
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