It has now been roughly a month since the inception of the new Italian government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The new government’s foreign debut took place within the framework of a dense top-level international schedule, which included the COP27 and G20 summits, allowing the Italian prime minister to capitalize on this by securing several bilateral meetings at the margins of these fora.
In Bali, Meloni met with United States President Joe Biden, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping in a format that only allowed for brief introductory remarks (Tg24.sky.it, November 15). Before that, in her first foreign visit, the Italian premier chose to travel to Brussels and met with members of the European Union’s top echelons. After that, she welcomed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to Rome, reiterating Italy’s ongoing commitment to the Alliance.
The chronology and agreeable tones underpinning this travel agenda were intended to contradict some speculation of a possible “Magyarization” (“Hungarization”) of Italy’s foreign policy, which had been concerning for Rome’s NATO and EU partners in the sense that the country might turn intransigent and isolated (Euractiv, September 16). But with Meloni’s public diplomacy efforts, the new government has already delivered decisions that signal Rome’s overall approach to foreign, defense and security policy—which is in substantial continuity with the former government’s approach and adds a number of new endeavors.
Following a troubled parliamentary and public debate on December 1, the Italian government approved a decree that allows the country to supply military aid—by way of exception—to Ukraine, without subjecting it to another parliamentary vote, until the end of 2023. This policy is an extension of the previous government’s February 25 decree—variously modified throughout the year—originally promulgated to respond quickly to Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, which, without the extension, would have concluded at the end of this year (RaiNews, December 2).
This extension has much more consequential political meaning than its apparent eminently technical content and has been regularly pushed by Meloni’s party and supported by the rest of the governing majority. However, the opposition, partly made up of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement and the tiny alliance of the Greens and a handful of far-left parties, strongly opposes the measure. In truth, Italy is still delivering portions of the fifth, and final, aid package, approved in the February 25 legislation. The content of this package, as for all other “Ukraine aid decrees,” and as a rarity among all other security partners, is being kept confidential over the need to restrict Russian access to this crucial information. A list of what Italy has delivered to Ukraine can, nevertheless, be deduced from open sources, while some parts have been revealed by the press (La Repubblica, October 29; Ukrinform, December 6).
Furthermore, also on December 1, Italy approved a decree to extend Italian military personnel’s participation in the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. In an interview to the Italian press, Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto also expressed this government’s will to pursue the 2 percent of GDP dedicated for military spending as required by NATO (Il Foglio, November 21).
Rome’s Russia problem is far from solved, but it should be analyzed from a perspective that focuses more on homeland security, rather than that of foreign policy or, for that matter, Italy’s role in NATO. As the recent vote on aid to Ukraine demonstrates, so far, the current balance of power in the Italian Parliament does not allow for Italian-Russian ties to directly impact government decision-making.
Nevertheless, the country does suffer from a significant penetration of Russian propaganda among the populace as well as the presence of a significant number of Russian operatives in the “grey zones” of society and trade. The managing of foreign threats within the country—which also menace NATO facilities—is entrusted operationally to the law enforcement branches that were originally created to primarily counter domestic threats. This arrangement, while certainly successful in repressing security breaches, may be less effective in repelling and anticipating foreign enemy activity, which is now particularly pressing (see EDM, April 14, 2021; Kyiv Post, September 1). To this end, according to several experts and practitioners, a reform of Italy’s intelligence services—substantially still untouched since the most recent reforms in 2007—would be advisable (Formiche, August 20, September 5).
Notably, and early on, a harsh standoff emerged between Paris and Rome over migrant policy (Ansa.it, November 25). The quarrel simmered down a bit, on November 26, with the interventions of Italian President Sergio Mattarella and French President Emmanuel Macron on the occasion of commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Quirinal Treaty, which was signed in 2021 to enhance cooperation between the two sides (La Repubblica, November 26; Governo.it, accessed December 4). Even so, some aspects of the two countries’ interests remain structurally at odds, and controversial issues, such as that of migration management, can be easily magnified to shake the respective consensus that seems to have emerged in European public opinion, with each country hoping to push the European partners to pick their side.
In late November 2022, in the wake of Serbia and Kosovo’s umpteenth failure to reach a deal over the enduring “license plate” dispute (see EDM, September 28, 2021)—and with NATO ready to intervene in the case of a major flare up—on November 23, Crosetto and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani visited both countries in hopes of mediating a constructive dialogue between the two sides. That same night, a deal was ultimately signed by Belgrade and Pristina (Euractiv, November 23). Given the history of Italy’s presence in the region, the Balkan countries have been waiting, so far in vain, for Rome to play a central role as a facilitator in the region’s relations with the EU—especially regarding the accession process—and as a mediator within their own disputes.
Indeed, a month is an extremely short amount of time to evaluate issues of governance. But some features of the new Italian government posture can be outlined here. To begin with, there has been substantial continuity with the former government, as well as historical Italian international positioning: Rome lies and will lie in the Atlantic camp, as well as maintain its roles in NATO and as a European Union founding member. Furthermore, Italy is demonstrating a renewed attention to some crucial, though so far, too neglected partners: the Balkans may serve as an example here. This stems from the will to increase Italian autonomy in conducting its foreign policy: in the same Balkan example, Italy succeeded in accomplishing what the EU as a whole could not. This happened because Italy was able and willing to leverage its own ties with the area, and capitalized on it to the benefit of the whole European community. Valuing autonomy, thus, should not be seen as a sign of disenfranchisement, rather it serves as an additional constructive instrument if played in such fashion.
Another trend that has emerged, and will probably grow increasingly noticeable, is the centrality of improving the defense and strategic aspects for cooperating with third countries. This lies in the willingness and ability of Rome to leverage its assets, among which military know-how and production capability are among the most significant, and can serve as a solid basis for expanding cooperation and acquiring new partnerships.
By the Jamestown Foundation
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