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The latest Italian elections, held in September 2022, represent a turning point for both the country and the international community. According to several analysts, the victory of the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni represents a tipping point and a significant political shift in the domestic and international scenario. The winning coalition defended Euro-sceptic and pro-Russia stances in the past, as well as extremely conservative positions on a variety of issues, such as immigration, security, and social rights. The position of the Bel Paese within the European regional context and the broader international landscape underscores the significance of its stance in relation to both domestic and global challenges, affecting global balance. Of note is Italy’s strategic geographical location, economic strength, cultural heritage, strategic culture, diplomatic influence, remarkable soft power abilities, strong management of migration crises, and political stability.
This “hot take” entry examines two of the most important foreign policy issues that the newly elected Italian government is facing: international alignment towards Moscow and security policies. Given the long-standing friendship between Italian right-wing circles and Putin, the newly elected PM Giorgia Meloni’s statements appear to advocate a re-orientation towards Brussels and NATO rather than Moscow.
The new Meloni government took office at a particularly delicate time for the fate of domestic, but especially international, equilibria. Indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as new migration pushes from the MENA region and the Balkan route, create a challenging security landscape for Eurozone partners and Italy itself. Since her appointment in late September 2022, the new Prime Minister has publicly confirmed Italy’s support for Ukraine in the context of inseparable cooperation between NATO allies and EU members. Giorgia Meloni emphasized the importance of a common line of action among Eurozone and North Atlantic bloc countries in promoting a global, not just regional, concept of security. During the most recent summit in Vilnius in July 2023, the Prime Minister emphasized Italy’s and Western partners’ commitment to supporting the Kyiv government. Indeed, in recent months, discussions about Ukraine’s membership in NATO have reignited public and political debate about the organization’s role, the conditions for integrating new members, and the strategic tactics to be used to defend Zelensky’s government from Moscow’s protracted invasion.
Most commentaries issued during the months leading up to the election, when there were already rumours of a possible Meloni victory, stressed that Italy ran the risk of becoming the weak spot in Europe, undermining NATO’s members’ unity and the “consensus” on Ukraine and Russia. To date, the evidence has disproved these apprehensions, particularly with regard to the nation’s foreign policy agenda. Against the backdrop of far-reaching consequences of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the escalation of energy costs, and the widespread inflationary pressures affecting the entirety of the European Union, the foreign policy perspective of Italy – the third-largest economy in the Union – will assume a particularly crucial role in the forthcoming months.
The preservation of European unity on sanctions and military support for Ukraine while simultaneously countering Russia’s aggression will depend heavily on Italy’s policies towards Moscow and its approach toward allies in Brussels and Washington. The question of Italy’s positioning vis-à-vis Moscow within the European regional framework is critical: while Prime Minister Meloni has already reiterated her support for Kyiv, continuing her predecessor Draghi’s choice of sending support material to Ukraine, the past of some members of the Italian governing coalition should be considered. Right-wing political elites in Italy have frequently been criticized by their European fellows for their ambiguous attitude toward President Putin. Representatives from some of the right-wing parties that now form the ruling coalition have had personal relationships with the Kremlin leader, casting Italy in a negative light, especially given the importance of the country’s regional positioning in relation to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. These dynamics, which bring attention back to Russia’s occupation of the Donbas in 2014, have been repeatedly addressed by Italian center-right circles, which have criticized the ineffectiveness and absurdity of sanctions imposed on Moscow by Western allies. Indeed, this is a particularly difficult issue for Italy, which has limited energy resources and has relied heavily on Russian material imports. Former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of the populist Movimento 5 Stelle party, has previously criticized EU sanctions against Moscow, but he has attempted to frame his criticism in terms of energy supply rather than actual political positioning. The recently deceased former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was widely recognized as a close ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been embroiled in a contentious situation following the election of the new government. Despite the stakes at the international level, he did not fail to emphasize his long-standing relationship with Putin, undermining Italy’s credibility with its allies. Likewise, the ex-Interior Minister and current Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini represents a contentious factor in terms of Italy’s stance. He is an open supporter of Putin: he stood up for him in 2014, calling the intervention in Crimea legitimate and Western sanctions harmful to the EU and Italy; he struck a deal between his party and that of the Russian president in 2018, which is still in force today; in 2019, an investigation revealed that Russia allegedly offered a member of the League €3 million to finance the party’s election campaign in the European Parliament. Unlike Berlusconi, however, Salvini appeared to retract on his previous explicit positions regarding Russia, perhaps for the sake of government stability and Italian credibility, and prompted by Meloni’s example.
After the election, Giorgia Meloni emphasized Italy’s constant and renewed commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the Western bloc in general at the new government’s inauguration. The PM met with the heads of the EU’s highest institutions on October 23rd as her first international visit. The main topics discussed were energy crisis management, with references to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Italy’s position, and PNRR fund management. Meloni stated that she is already working on practical solutions to assist families and businesses in dealing with the challenges of insufficient energy supplies and rising monthly utility costs. In terms of international alignment on the Ukrainian issue, Meloni reiterated her support for Kyiv, emphasizing the possibility of additional arms deployment in the event of a joint decision by NATO or EU members and expressing her desire to make Italy a regional and international stronghold. The new Italian Prime Minister has chosen to follow in the footsteps of the previous Draghi government in managing the post-pandemic recovery funds that Italy will receive from the EU. The appointment of Giancarlo Giorgetti as Minister of Economy is seen as a sign that Italy will keep its promises to Brussels. Giorgetti was, in fact, the Minister of Economic Development in the Draghi government, which was regarded as trustworthy by European institutions. Thus, one of the most important regional challenges for the Italian government will be to demonstrate its reliability as a partner for European institutions at a time when the rise of challenges in the continental framework threatens the Union’s stability and cohesion. On the other hand, in terms of public spending related to NATO alliance participation, it seems like Italy is having some issues with the organization’s budget (the notorious 2 percent of GDP to be spent on Defence, as a sign of burden-sharing within the organization).
Given its very high public debt, Rome faces numerous challenges in meeting the predetermined threshold of just over 1.5 percent in 2022 (down from 1.57 percent the previous year). Guido Corsetto, Defense Minister and co-founder of the Fratelli d’Italia Party, has repeatedly emphasized Italy’s commitment to meeting the NATO-agreed-upon threshold. The 2% threshold projections published by NATO’s diplomatic division show that Italy’s GDP share of the predetermined threshold will not be fully reached until 2028. According to the Pluriannual Defense Program Document for the three-year period 2022-2024, published by the Italian Ministry of Defense, the trend has seen a value of 1.54% for 2022, which will remain unchanged in 2023, while an increase to 1.65% is expected for 2024.
The Southern Gateway to Europe
The migration issue is a further compelling foreign policy priority for Italy’s new right-wing government. Italy is an arrival point for the notorious routes from the Middle East and North Africa via the Balkans or the Mediterranean itself due to its strategic location in southern Europe and in the center of the Mediterranean.
Meloni promptly reiterated the agreement with Libya reached under the former Democratic Party-led government and signed by former Prime Minister Gentiloni in 2017. The agreement calls for the Italian government to provide Libyan authorities (particularly the Coast Guard) with economic and technical assistance in order to reduce migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea. Libya agreed to improve conditions in its migrant reception centers in exchange. The narrative used by Italian governments, which is supported by European partners and Washington, is one of counter-terrorism. Libya, in fact, is a country racked by a civil war that has raged since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, exacerbated over time by the radicalization of the parties on the ground and backed by a variety of international actors. Indeed, such a scenario has set the stage for the growing proliferation of terrorist groups, not just from Libya – the point of arrival from Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the point of departure due to its sea outlet.
The Libyan Coast Guard’s violent and arbitrary tactics in rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and forcing them into indefinite detention in so-called detention centers have shocked international public opinion. The failure of Libya to comply with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, as well as the impact of this situation on migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, raises serious concerns. The Italian government, which is complicit in atrocities against migrants from other Sub-Saharan countries as well as Libyans, is under fire for continuing to support Libyan authorities despite international public opinion’s knowledge of the arbitrary conditions of detention in Libyan camps.
Overall, it appears that the new Meloni-led government has implemented some very clear foreign policy choices from its inception, particularly on two main vectors: on the one hand, renewed support for Brussels and NATO allies for the sake of international stability; on the other hand, renewed attention to the migration issue through agreements with the Tobruk government–officially recognized by NATO as the official post-Gaddafi Libyan government. Thus, despite pre-election speculation, it appears that the Italian government is pursuing a strategy of continuity with previous national administrations and that the convergence of political and military visions may actually materialize into concrete realpolitik.
Italy’s Strategic Foreign Policy: Navigating Security, Energy, and Global Alliances
In terms of security and energy supply, the Italian government’s focus on North Africa is another critical point in the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, the international crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed Rome to seek to strengthen other partnerships for several reasons: first, to create a highly securitized zone in the Mediterranean Sea, where Moscow has key support in the Syrian partner’s naval bases; second, to emancipate itself from Russian energy sources by requesting a greater supply of natural gas from Algiers. Furthermore, the Meloni government recently concluded rounds of meetings with the Tunisian government led by President Saied and some IMF representatives, seeking external assistance in light of the severe economic crisis and central power legitimacy. Tunisia, often cited as the only country in the MENA region to have faced and successfully overcome a period of democratic transition following the 2011 protests, is in a democratic backsliding phase due to its central power’s administration mismanagement: President Saied assumed full powers in 2021 after being elected in 2019, then revoked members of his government, and finally blocked activities in parliament, tightening his grip on power. The parliament was then permanently dissolved in summer 2022, with deputies accused by the president of trying to undermine the country’s internal security. In this situation, Saied began to work via presidential decrees. This outlined a form of pure presidentialism, giving the president the authority to appoint and dismiss premiers and ministers unilaterally.
Given their geographical proximity and the strategic nature of their relationship, ties between Italy and Tunisia are historic: the country, on the frontier between the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa, is a critical crossing point for migrants from central Africa seeking alternatives in southern Europe. Tunisia, like Libya, is thus an important player in the security discourse and policy choices of Rome and the entire European bloc. Nonetheless, European choices in security and economic support for the Tunisian Republic remain problematic, fleeting, and ineffective, especially if not accompanied by conditionality demands such as redistribution, training, and development. Some academics have also emphasized this specific point, owing to Tunisia’s key role in the Mediterranean framework and partnership with Brussels. The importance of the partnership with Tunisia for Italy is also based on the issue of energy: seeking alternative partners to Moscow, Italy has been on a path of emancipation from Russia for energy sustenance for the past year and a half. The renewed partnership with Algeria entails the transport of Algerian resources via an undersea pipeline that will cross 400 kilometres of the Tunisian coast before reaching Italy. Indeed, as Prime Minister Meloni herself stated, “[…] Also in this regard, Italy did important work to ensure funding was guaranteed. This is strategic infrastructure that further links the destiny of our two nations, allowing both Italy and Tunisia to become energy supply hubs for their surrounding regions: for Europe in Italy’s case, and for the supply needs of African countries, in particular North Africa.”
In general, the premier has reiterated in recent days that she is not “dissatisfied” with those who seek to defend their borders, national sovereignty, and identity, such as Poland and Hungary. Thus, it appears that the Meloni administration is displaying its nationalist and identity matrix, which is typical of alt-right choices and narratives. Issues relating to the agreements with Libya and Tunisia, as a result, reinforce the Italian government’s position as a bulwark of migration containment policies despite a lack of depth of analysis relating to the motivations behind migrants’ departures from their places of origin (often related to political, social, and climatic crises).
On a global scale, the Meloni leadership has pragmatically followed in the footsteps of the previous Draghi administration in dealing with China and its Belt and Road Initiative, in stark contrast to the prerogatives on which the agreement was based. The opening towards Beijing was inaugurated by the Memorandum of Understanding on the BRI, which was unveiled in 2019 by the then-Conte I government – despite the opposing views of Matteo Salvini’s League, with which Conte’s 5-Star Movement shared the ruling coalition. The agreement, according to Giorgia Meloni, was a big mistake, and the new PM slowed its eventual formal renewal – an issue whose trajectory will only be officially known at the end of 2023. This position is thus consistent with that of Mario Draghi, who has previously expressed reservations about the Memorandum, which he believed should be carefully reviewed. As a result, the issue remains open, and Premier Giorgia Meloni has stated that Italy’s possible withdrawal from the BRI Memorandum may not necessarily coincide with a deterioration in relations between Rome and Beijing, which remains an important global partner. When the Memorandum was signed, Italy had been heavily criticized, particularly by Washington, for being the only G7 country to have officially embarked on a path of détente and agreements with Beijing.
The issue of possible mergers and acquisitions of Italian companies by Chinese investors remains central to Italy-China relations. The renewed engagement of the new government with the Atlantic bloc and Western allies may lead to greater assertiveness of Italy towards Beijing in the future.
Overall, Italy’s international positioning does not appear to deviate much from that of previous governments, as the literature already showed, with the exception of relations with Beijing – from which the Meloni government is trying to move away. Despite fears due to ideological and political affinities between the new Italian government and the far-right Eurosceptic regional governments, it appears that PM Meloni’s leadership is destined to follow in the footsteps of the European great powers, at least in foreign policy issues. The renewed support for Ukraine in its dispute with Russia, the pro-NATO and pro-EU stance, the renewal of immigration containment and security policies, and, finally, the gradual and potential departure from the Rome-Beijing agreements all appear to highlight how Italy is attempting to maintain a prominent position in regional and international hierarchies, aided and abetted by Western allies.