international analysis and commentary

Foreign policy after Italy’s elections: a major test for the winners

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 Down with the liberal world order, thus down with Germany. Long live Trump’s America, and Putin’s OK too. Italy is better off siding with distant great powers than with its neighboring European ones: It will have fewer constraints and greater freedom of action. Putting it very succinctly, that is the kind of international vision proposed by the League and, to some extent, also by the Five Star Movement – I say to some extent, because the two parties’ positions certainly do not coincide, even in the foreign policy sphere. That means that a substantive slice of Italy’s new parliament and a hypothetical future government will view the defense of the country’s national interests in a somewhat different light from the traditional combination of classic pro-Europeanism and pro-Atlanticism (or what is left of it).

It isn’t a mortal sin, by any means. Unlike what people tend to think, assessing national interests is never an objective exercise; it is political and subjective, thus it can change over time. In fact, it needs to change in view of the splintering global situation. The real problem lies elsewhere: We need to figure out the extent to which the sovereignist-cum-populist foreign policy vision is credible and can guarantee effective results for Italy.

Does Italy have the room and the ability to play an “anti-establishment” card on the international scene? Is it really in our national interest to mark our distance from the “heart” of Europe?

The answer is: No, it isn’t – and this, on pragmatic more than on ideological grounds. First of all, it is not in our national interest to slide outside the euro area in political terms while remaining within the euro area’s structures (at least in the short and medium term). That would be the perfect formula for condemning Italy to irrelevance at the very moment when a seriously divided Europe is debating important choices for the next few years, ranging from the structure of the budget to the completion of the banking union. European constraints would remain intact, as would our fragility as a country with an extremely high public debt; yet at the same time, we would lose political clout – especially with France and Germany, where the temptation to envision a Carolingian “hard core” that might exclude Italy (but probably not Spain), regularly resurfaces.

The League and the M5S appear at this juncture to have realized that quitting the euro would come at an unsustainable cost to our economy, but that realization needs to trigger consistent political choices and alliances. Flirting with the Visegrad Group does not resolve a single one of our problems (starting with immigration). If we are to avoid a “Greece-plus” scenario, national economic responsibility and negotiating power with Brussels continue to be crucial. There are no realistic alternatives, particularly at a time when the European Central Bank’s supportive policy is fated to gradually end. If Italy’s future stability is one of the chief unknown quantities for the euro area as a whole, that does not mean that our bills are going to be footed by others; what it does mean is that we will end up under surveillance. Or under the market whiplash. So much for sovereignism.

The second reason is that putting our money on Trump’s America against “Groko” Germany is a gamble rather than a choice, chiefly because US policy is dominated today by uncertainty (as a strategic trump card).  The “America First” White House almost seems to be attracted by a “worse is better” rationale whereby the more the old multilateral setup is damaged, the better it is for the United States in its role as the relatively stronger player.  Italy, a medium power at best, has little to gain and quite a lot to lose. For example, the squeeze on international trade damages the interests of a country such as ours that relies heavily on exports, that has a considerable trade surplus with the United States, and that is strongly interdependent with Germany. On a different level, the M5S’s reluctance to countenance an increase in military spending is not going to make relations with Washington or with NATO any easier. And the League and the M5S will tend to split over this and over other issues of importance in our relationship with the United States.

The third reason is that our ability to lump together in the same foreign policy basket an alliance with Trump and admiration for Putin – whether as a strong man (the League) or as the opponent of the old liberal world order (M5S) – is barely credible. The barometer of relations between Washington and Moscow is not pointing toward fair weather. For both domestic reasons (Russiagate) and international reasons (the Skripal affair, opposing stances on Iran and on the ongoing Syria crisis), Trump’s attempt at dialogue – the US President has proposed a meeting with Putin in the White House – is unlikely to get very far.  In a situation as tense as it is today, an openly pro-Russian Italy would enter on a collision course both with the EU and with Washington – not to mention with Britain, the driving force behind a Brexit on which the League looks favorably.

So it is obvious that  relations with the two major non-European powers cannot make up for our weakness in Brussels, where the crucial economic game for Italy is being played out, first and foremost, in our relations with Germany and with France. There can be no doubt that our traditional pro-Europeanism needs to be brought up to date. Given that Europe is not only a cooperative environment but also a seriously competitive one, Italy needs to considerably bolster its ability to defend its national interests, including through European policy.

As well as entailing countless risks, the crumbling of the old post-Cold War world order is opening up new room for action and thus it forces our country, too, to adopt a more dynamic foreign policy, primarily in the Mediterranean. However, to move in that direction, Italy needs to base its move on a consolidated position in Europe. That continues to be the necessary – even crucial – condition for being a credible player.