Giorgio Cacciaguerra, Italy and EU politics expert, tells us why Italy holds the keys to Europe’s future
Italy has for some time now struggled with its own place in the greater European chessboard. Used to relying on its historical role as founding member of the EU, it has not invested enormous amounts of effort in building new bridges with neighbouring states or leveraging its geo-strategic position.
As time progressed, the value of the Spread BTP index increased, followed by the addition of an ‘I’ to the PIIGS acronym, Italy no longer felt itself as central as it used to be. Moreover, increasing allusions to a Franco-German engine in the European project have been quietly treated as a wound to the nation’s sense of self-worth, something akin to being on the losing side of a love triangle. More gravely, Italy has not managed to develop a long-standing binary relation with other large Member States that could partially off-set the sense of isolation induced by the Franco-German couple.
While everything was silent on the western front, the increasing sense of economic and geopolitical estrangement has not passed unremarked by some quarters in the political spectrum. In its bid to forestall its relative isolation, Italy has for the first time undertaken steps to build new alliances, this time with Central European powers and further afield. While signs of this had been brewing for a while, a change in government has been necessary to illustrate this more precisely.
As current dynamics seem to suggest, Italy is slowly moving towards the tender embrace of the Visegrad sisters and its politicians are showing an increased appreciation towards an imaginary ‘Visegrad model’. This tilt towards Central Europe can be partly seen as a reaction to a perceived slight on behalf of the Franco-German couple, with Italy exhibiting the tell-tale signs of a cinderella complex. Alongside, the Visegrads, new possibilities might yet emerge in Austro-Bavaria, or the within the right-wing of the current EPP family, whereby the ideologically close popular forces there might see in the new Italian position a possible ally to bolster their opposition to the Merkel doctrine in terms of migration.
The repercussions of an ideological and political realignment for Europe could be dangerous, in as much as they could shape the ideological debates that will underpin next year’s European election and the years to come. Moreover, it constitutes an ideological struggle between the governments of the different partner states and different developing narratives for Europe. However, the recent national conservative push in many EU States might yield an opportunity to the current Italian government to force the hand of both France and Germany at next Council meetings.
Indeed, the Bavarian CSU’s pressures on Merkel’s government might lead Merkel to compromise on a more robust EU migration plan, to be further consolidated through Austria’s upcoming presidency. Indeed, both Austria’s Kurz and CSU minister for the interior Seehofer have made calls for tougher restrictions on migration and warm overtures to either Russia, Italy’s new government and Viktor Orban, raising the spectre of the rise from the ashes of an alliance of Central Powers, autonomous from Western Europe and pivoting slightly to Russia.
As things stand, Italy holds the keys to Europe’s future, whether it swings East or West in the long-term. This model is not new, Italy had disdained Western European alliances in the past and history can always repeat itself. Wherever the Italian pendulum will strike, there will lie the future for Europe’s people. However, Italy must avoid repeating its past and not veer too uncritically unto a predetermined path.
Whereas it might aim to force the hand of either France or Germany by forming an axis with Central European Member States and national conservative forces, and many of them will be willing to help it for now, it must not forget that these countries had until now been very shy to help Italy and other frontier states with the absorption of refugees and migrants. Moreover, by formalising an alliance with these states, Italy might yet lose one of the few cards it can play to comprehensively reform Europe’s migration and asylum policy and gain little from its new erstwhile allies.
Consequently, however rocky its recent relationships might have been with France’s new president, Italy should not be too quick in embracing the increasingly right-wing governments of Central Europe and instead attempt to actively engage and involve France’s leadership in the reform of Europe’s external border system. Although possessing competing interest in some instances, both nations have a high stake in managing migration as Mediterranean nations. Moreover, the path to managing migration goes through its source, and that is North Africa and beyond, which passes inevitably through Paris and the political capital it possesses to engage with the governments of many countries of origin and build necessary infrastructure.
Therefore, Italy must not veer away to abruptly from the Merkel-Macron consensus or try to make or break alliances too quickly, but rather seek to maintain the current Franco-German equilibrium whilst still engaging with it more critically. This inevitably will be a balancing act, but one that will be beneficial to the people of Europe.